Washington Irving "On Style and Purpose in the Short Story"

    • WASHINGTON IRVING:

ON STYLE AND PURPOSE IN THE SHORT STORY

(From a letter to Henry Brevoort,December 1824*) Ifancy much of what I value myself upon in writing, escapes the observation of the great mass of my readers, whoare intent more upon the story than the way in which it is told. For my part, I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch mymaterials [emphasis mine].It is the play of thought, and sentiment, and language; the weaving in of characters, lightly, yet expressivelydelineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half-concealed vein of humorthat is often playing through the whole,-these are among what I aim at, and upon which I felicitate myself in proportionas I think I succeed. I have preferred adopting the mode of sketches and short tales rather than long works, becauseI choose to take a line of writing peculiar to myself, rather than fall into the manner or school of any otherwriter; and there is a constant activity of thought and a nicety of execution required in writings of the kind,more than the world appears to imagine. It is comparatively easy to swell a story to any size when you have oncethe scheme and the characters in your mind; the mere interest of the story, too, carries the reader on throughpages and pages of careless writing, and the author may often be dull for half a volume at a time, if he has somestriking scene at the end of it; but in these shorter writings, every page must have its merit. The author mustbe continually piquant; woe to him if he makes an awkward sentence or writes a stupid page; the critics are sureto pounce upon it. Yet if he succeed, the very variety and piquancy of his writings-nay, their very brevity, makethem frequently recurred to, and when the mere interest of the story is exhausted, he begins to get credit forhis touches of pathos or humor; his points of wit or turns of language. I give these as some of the reasons thathave induced me to keep on thus far in the way I had opened for myself….

*Reprinted here from The Life and Letters of Washington Irving,condensed editions,ed. Pierre M. Irving (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1869), Vol. 11.

(From Irving’s preface to Talesof a Traveller, 1824*)… As I know thisto be a story-telling and a story-reading age, and that the world is fond of being taught by apologue, I have digestedthe instruction I would convey into a number of tales. They may not possess the power of amusement, which the talestold by many of my contemporaries possess; but then I value myself on the sound moral which each of them contains.This may not be apparent at first, but the reader will be sure to find it out in the end. I am for curing the worldby gentle alternatives, not by violent doses; indeed, the patient’should never be conscious that he is taking adose. I have learnt this much from experience under the hands of the worthy Hippocrates of Mentz.

I am not, therefore, for those barefacedtales which carry their moral on the surface, staring one in the face; they are enough to deter the squeamish reader.On the contrary, I have often hid my moral from sight, and disguised it as much as possible by sweets and spices,so that while the simple reader is listening with open mouth to a ghost or a love story, he may have a bolus ofsound morality popped down his throat, and be never the wiser for the fraud….

*Reprinted here from The Works of Washington Irving, new edition, revised (New York: G. P. Putnam’sSons, 1860), Vol. VIL