An Annotated History
of the short story
Information borrowed greedily from the essay “A Brief History of the Short Story” from The Story and Its Writer by Ann Charters.
2700 B.C. to 2500 B.C.: The Epic of Gilgamesh is chiseled onto twelve cuneiform clay tablets.
The epic chronicles the adventures of the God-King and his friend Enkidu. A buddy story. If it’s true that most stories can be separated into either someone comes to town or someone goes on a journey, this is history’s first version of the latter.
1000 B.C.: Phoenician Alphabet used widely in the Mediterranean, Greek poet Homer thinks to use it to tell a really good story, and then another one, keeping Classics majors busy for the rest of eternity. The Iliad begins with the line “Sing in me, muse, and through me tell your story.”
Beast fables spring up in Greek literature. Animals are given human characteristics to teach lessons. Aesop (620 to 560 B.C.) used this form mercilessly to make people feel bad about themselves, or feel deeply distrustful of foxes. Centuries later, David Sedaris writes a story about a squirrel giving a cat a haircut. Parallel?
Somewhere between 11th Century B.C. and A.D. 140: Old Testament and New Testament are written. (People argue over what each means for the rest of time.)
The religious parable, like Aesop’s fables, also sought to explore reason in life and teach lessons, sans cute, talking animals. No one can argue that the story of creation, the story of Jesus’ birth, the story of the beggars in the Temple are, at the very least, pretty compelling.
1350- 1353: It takes Giovanni Boccaccio three years to complete the Decameron, a series of 100 tales told by several different narrators.
In today’s publishing market, the Decameron would be called “Decameron: a Novel in Stories” to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience.
Why Chaucer bothered writing all of them is arguable, since the only one anyone remembers is the Wife of Bath.
Late 1700s, early 1800s: German writers eschew morality tales to experiment with stories that entertain more than teach. The Brothers Grimm write “Childhood and Household tales” and no one learns a damn thing.1819 – 1820: Washington Irving writes “Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” two of the earliest American short stories.
In his work, he placed a beating heart under a floorboard and invented a croaking, repetitive raven. He also advanced the form of short story in a time when most people wanted to read novels. Since the origins of short stories were imaginative accounts based on folklore and macabre, it could be argued that those members of today’s literati who look down on genre writers are disrespecting those who have a historically longer claim on the story.
In 1842 he writes the short story “The Overcoat,” influencing countless other writers and beginning the Russian mastery of the form, rivaled only by their skill on ice skates.
1815: North American Review debuts, the country’s oldest literary magazine.1821: The Saturday Evening Post debuts.
It shortly becomes the place to publish stories for everyday Americans. The short story begins to enjoy its heyday. Gets drunk on two glasses of champagne at parties, wears lampshade on head.
1827: Sir Walter Scott publishes “The Two Drovers.”1837: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales collection of short stories is published.Sometime toward the end of the Nineteenth Century: Anton Chekov says to the short story: “You are my bitch.” (Russian translation unavailable). Writes 8 million short stories when not writing genre-changing plays.
Years later, Chekov receives Ernest Hemingway’s highest compliment of “amateur.” Writing at the same time is Frenchman Guy de Maupassant, considered by some to share with Chekov the title of father of the modern short story. A protégé of Flaubert, Guy writes cleverly plotted stories.
Early 1900s: William S. Porter decides he hates his name, changes it to O. Henry, writes highly anthologized stories that popularize the form in America.1912: Katharine Mansfield publishes “The Woman at the Shore,” a tale of mental illness and intrigue, and begins a brief but influential career of short story writing.1915: Kafka publishes “The Metamorphosis,” about a cockroach that desperately wants to get to work. Also in 1915, Houghton Mifflin begins to publish Best American Short Stories, collecting the best efforts from each year until present day.1916: The Dubliners is published by a thirty-four-year-old Irish man named James Joyce.
The final story in the collection “The Dead” goes on to be one of the most lauded stories of all time. “The Dead” follows insecure Gabriel Conroy through a holiday party during which he realizes how little he knows his wife. Joyce liked plotting moments of epiphany in his stories, fitting for a man from a country that invented the word “aisling,” or, eternity in one moment.
1919: First O. Henry award given to Margaret Prescott Montague for her story “England to America.”
The first edition of the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories is published. According to their website, the volumes are meant to strengthen the art of the short story.
It is good, and Hemingway knows it. It is an account of a couple having a conversation as they wait for a train in Barcelona, and is filled with Hemingway’s signature moves: evocative, vague dialogue, machoism, ennui, and drinking. Hemingway celebrates by shooting a rhino.
1953: Flannery O’Connor publishes “The Life you save might be your own,” showcasing the first of 31 genre-defining stories she will write in her lifetime.
The collection gives Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Alice Munro and Edward P. Jones, writers who also use their stories to shed light on local flavor, a spirited high-five through time.
1960: The story “The Furious Seasons” appears, the first published work by Oregon-born writer Raymond Carver.
He preferred brevity in stories so they could be read in one sitting, but when titling them was a “Maximalist.” Carver’s titles were briefly suspected to be covert messages to an unnamed drinking pal who loved Alaska, never knew what they were talking about when they talked about love, and refused to be quiet or dance.
Raymond Carver is considered to be a master of the short story, much like his professed hero Chekov. One of the secret ingredients in a Carver story is a fogginess engendered in the reader: an awareness that something wonderful has happened, but an ability to put your finger on it. The first reading of a Carver story is merely something that you have to do to get to an almost always necessary second reading.
1968: Alice Munro, touted “The Candian Chekov” publishes her first collection of short stories “Dance of the Happy Shades,” a world of readers is introduced to the characters of Huron County,
Short story stays in bed for days, goes on antibiotics, calls for second opinions.
April 2002: One Story publishes its first issue, springing out of the need to rejuvenate a form that American writers have worked for centuries to perfect.Spring 2005: The Atlantic Monthly stops regularly publishing fiction. Instead, they quarantine the short story to a once a year Summer Fiction edition.
Short story begins to die.
August 7, 2005: In an article titled “Truth is Stronger than Fiction” for The New York Times, Rachel Donadio chronicles how The Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, GQ, and Esquire have all decided to publish more non-fiction and fewer short stories.
Short story looks up from its deathbed, thinks maybe I can stick around a little while longer.
This timeline was originally written by Marie Bertino. It is by no means complete. We invite your additions to this timeline. Comments will be considered for addition by the Save the Short Story editors.
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