- The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story
Levy’s tracing of literary professionalism in conjunction with the history of the American short story makes for an unusually fascinating monograph despite its dissertation prose style (perhaps unavoidable) and its capriciously selective handling of available material. However, what makes Levy’s footnote-intensive text so easy to return to, if not necessarily hard to put down, is that the American short story as a concept opens up endless possibilities for reader and writer alike. Levy’s affirmation of belief “in the resilience of the short story and its place within American literature” as well as “in the resilience of the larger themes” is the starting point of a retrospective odyssey for him and a frequently absorbing adventure for the reader.
Levy emphasizes the writings of three practitioners of the short story: Edgar Allan Poe, Edith Wharton, and Bobbie Ann Mason. The reason he gives for those choices is that their individual visions of the potential of the short story form were especially important for their contemporaries and later generations of short story writers. Emphasis is also placed on “the institutional developments and critical movements” defining the short story’s purpose, that is, what it is intended to say and do. To deal with the latter, Levy draws on his personal experience in “the workshop system,” meaning an enclosed, complete “alternate economy . . . a network of graduate programs, conferences, and literary magazines” producing short story writers and readers, publication sites, plus “an economic and philosophical rationale” to justify the network’s existence.
Much is made of his attendance at the Johns Hopkins workshop for a year, sometime in the 1980s, to join “the short story cottage industry.” This meant giving up his job on Wall Street, his critical aspirations, and his novel, but while his expectations regarding the workshop were met “in pleasantly diluted doses,” the fun in writing was gone, and he left (with relief) to study literature. For the four years prior to the completion of this book, Levy has been simultaneously working for the literary magazine Boulevard (reading something like 1000 short stories), and studying for a Ph.D. in American literature. Somewhat more important, [End Page 347] perhaps, than his writers’ workshop experience is Levy’s discussion of his three representative authors, in light of his application of historicism to his understanding of the American short story, and his handling of writers’ guides and assorted handbooks over the past century and a half or so.
Historicism as applied here involves a complex series of relationships centered around the short story genre and a particular exemplar of the genre-such as a Poe or Wharton story, or Mason’s often-reprinted “Shiloh”—within a temporal and socio-cultural context. Historicism would consider such matters as: what is a short story and what milieu did it arise from, what effect did the particular story have on its initial audience, and what about its effect on later audiences, including the present-day audience? Levy points out that in this genre “the institutional structures have [always] been especially visible—the magazine editors, textbooks, workshops, et al.”
Quite properly, much attention is given to Poe, as insolvent magazine editor with his eye on sales, using ratiocination to work out literary formulas for success: “the first creative writing teacher of the modern era.” Taking us back to Poe’s writer’s guides, his Review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1842) and his “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), Levy makes clear how pervasive Poe’s basics have been in our literary history. He writes, for example, of “the legacy of Poe’s emphasis on ‘effect,’ ‘unity,’ and ‘impression,’” and traces that legacy down to editorial commentary in recent lit. class anthologies by Mary Rohrberger (Story to Anti-Story, 1979) and Ann Charters (The Story and Its Writer, 1987). But the diametric opposite of Poe’s “legacy,” the tradition of the “going nowhere” story, seems to have been overlooked by Levy. To...