Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gaps in the canon

Sometimes gaps appear in the history of literature. The most notorious is in English drama. Shakespeare and his contemporaries produced an amazing, varied body of work, comedy, tragedy, all sorts of hybrids. The dramatic tradition was strong enough to survive a 20 year closing of the theaters, partly by borrowing new energy from the French and Spanish theater. But for some reason, the great plays begin to disappear. The bizarre, intense "Venice Preserved" by Thomas Otway is considered the last great tragedy (until the 20th century), from 1682. Comedy took longer to expire. "The Beggar's Opera", Goldsmith, Sheridan - the 18th century had some great comedies. But then that was it, for 100 years, until Gilbert and Sullivan.

What makes this puzzling is that the English theater itself was active and healthy. Plenty of good actors, too. And plenty of plays, thousands of plays. But none of them are performed anymore, and only a few read for their poetry (Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, for example, all wrote plays - Coleridge even had a hit). The same goes for the American theater, which didn't produce a decent play until the 20th century, and not for lack of trying.

I've just come across a new puzzling gap. Where are the great 19th century English short stories? They are not, for example, in anthologies of English literature. The list of great American short story writers, all much anthologized, includes Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Bierce, Crane, Jewett, Chesnutt, Twain, Wharton - a fair share of the best American writers, and a list that spans the century.

But in England? By the 1890s, Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle are writing short stories, soon to be followed by Maugham, Joyce, Lawrence - big names. Before that? The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, in entries for Trollope, Eliot, and Dickens, vaguely mentions the existence of short stories, often at the very end of a long entry. "The Christmas Carol" is a famous exception, maybe Dickens' other Christmas stories, as well.

The puzzle is twofold. First, the number of American short story writers seems connected to the explosion of magazine publishing in the early 19th century. But England was experiencing the exact same phenomenon. The early essayists like Hazlitt and Lamb were all magazine writers. Dickens, too.

Second, anthologists need short stories. You can't fit many novels into your Anthology of American Literature, but you can still represent every writer you want with a short story. Anthologies of English literature typically completely omit Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, Hardy, the whole crew.

Are the short stories of Dickens (Eliot, etc.) really not worth reading? I find that hard to believe. So I'm adding a note to my "To Read" list - I'll find out for myself.


  1. Well, I have always had a place in my heart for Thackeray's "The Notch on the Ax" or whatever it's called. It's been years, but I recall this as being kind of Lovecraft-y, but Lovecraft kind of gone all wrong. There's this one spot where he describes the guillotine (yeah, I know, whatever) in this excruciating detail. I know that there's a person here at KU who is all about resurrecting the reputation of Hubert Crackanthorpe...about whose name, hee. I think his given name was Cookson, but he mysteriously changed it to Crackanthorpe. Or at least, mysteriously to me. I think he ended up either killing himself or getting killed, and had to at some point get fished out of the Seine. At any rate, Crackanthrope was, according to my source, a crackerjack (okay, competent) short-story writer in the vein of Guy de Maupassant. So you might want to give him a shot. Let me know how it goes. :-)

  2. The wikipedia entry for Crackanthorpe is hilarious. "However, the marriage ended on very bad terms in 1896, owing to the fact that the Crackanthorpes were ill-suited for the institution of marriage." Snort. I actually have one his essays, in a "Yellow Book" anthology. Acquired taste.

    The Thackeray story has been added to my list.