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American Short Fiction

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English Literature

If you’re not feeling up to tackling a whole novel, a short story could be just what you’re looking for! Most great writers in American literature have at least dabbled in short fiction, and some are more well known for their short stories than for their novels. Short stories can be a great way to try out a new author, hone your close reading skills, or simply delve more deeply into the world of American literature.

What Is Short Fiction?

Short fiction is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a work of fiction that is shorter than a novel. But, within the world of short fiction, there is a lot of variety. Short fiction can encompass anything from a short novel, known as a novella, to micro-fiction, sometimes also called flash fiction, that can consist of only a couple of words. However, most short fiction consists of short stories that range from just a few pages to a couple of dozen pages.

 American Short Fiction An author begins a piece of short fiction. StudySmarterFairytales are an example of short fiction, Pixabay.

Because of the shorter format, the plot of a short fiction story is usually simpler, and there are generally fewer characters than you might find in a novel. This makes short fiction perfect for practicing in-depth analysis, as it is easier to read a short story multiple times and consider the importance of every detail.

American Fiction: Short Stories

Short stories have always played an important role in American fiction. Almost all great American writers have produced some short stories, and some are known exclusively for their short fiction. In fact, American writers have been so influential in the field of short fiction that some critics argue that the modern-day short story is an American invention.1 In any case, some of the most important works of American literature are works of short fiction, so it is essential to acquaint yourself with the genre.

As advances in printing made magazines and other publications more affordable, short stories became popular in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. These publications often featured short stories, as they were accessible and enjoyable for a wide variety of readers.

Today, the novel has overtaken the short story in popularity among readers; however, American writers continue to write and publish excellent works of short fiction.

Nineteenth Century

Considered by many to be the first great American writer, Washington Irving (1783–1859) is also credited with writing some of the first American short stories. His tales such as “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) were based on German folktales, a long-standing form of short fiction.

However, an early American author who was the short story’s biggest champion was Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). Poe’s unsettling gothic short stories, including “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), influenced writers worldwide and remain classic examples of American short fiction.

the American author Edgar Allan Poe. American Short Fiction StudySmarterEdgar Allen Poe was very important for the development of the modern American short story, Pixabay.

Poe was also well known for his literary criticism and theory of short fiction. In an essay reviewing the collected stories of his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), Poe argued that the short story might have an advantage over the novel because the author doesn’t risk losing the reader’s attention:

In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fulness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences – resulting from weariness or interruption.2

While Poe worked to elevate the short story and turn it into an art form, many American writers found it necessary to sell short stories to various publications in order to make a living as a writer. It was also a way for writers to gain a wider readership and more popular appeal. Mark Twain’s (1835–1910) “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865) was first published in The New York Saturday Press and helped to jumpstart his literary career.

Jack London (1876–1916), on the other hand, was one of the first American authors to achieve monetary success by writing and selling stories such as “How to Build a Fire” (1902) to various publications across the United States.

Twentieth Century

Actually, as writers put it when they do not know how to begin a sentence, there is very little to say about writing short stories unless you are a professional explainer. If you can do it, you dont have to explain it. If you can not do it, no explanation will ever help.

(Ernest Hemingway, 1959)3

By the early to mid-twentieth century, during the literary movements of Modernism, Experimentalism, and Postmodernism, short stories became more and more experimental. Short fiction often functioned as a medium for writers to play with style, structure, and various literary theories.

The stories of Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), including “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927) and collections such as In Our Time, first published in the United States in 1925, exemplified the authors “iceberg theory” of minimalist fiction. Other key writers of the era, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) and William Faulkner (1897-1962), also published important short stories, including Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1930) and Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (1922).

Ernest Hemingway was well known for his minimalist fiction, including his “iceberg theory.” The iceberg theory refers to the fact that most of an iceberg is generally out of sight as it lies below the surface of the water. Hemingway applied this idea to his novels and short stories, opting for a less-is-more style of omission. Very little is explicitly stated in Hemingways work, and there is much more to the story than what is happening on the surface.

American Short Fiction The American author Ernest Hemingway StudySmarterErnest Hemingway is well known for his short fiction, Pixabay.

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s also expanded the reach of short fiction by African American writers, including Langston Hughes (1901–1967) and Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960).

Towards the middle of the century, short stories by female writers became more widely read in the United States. These included Flannery O’Connor’s (1925–1964) Southern Gothic classic “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953), Joyce Carol Oates’ (1938–present) “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966), and Alice Walker’s (1944–present) “Everyday Use” (1973).

African American Fiction: Short Stories

Largely forgotten in the history of American literature, Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858–1932) and Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) were two of the first African American writers to embrace short fiction. However, it wasn’t until the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s that short stories by African American authors gained a wider readership.

Key figures of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes, Rudolph Fisher (1897–1934), and Zora Neale Hurston, published short stories that remain vital works of American literature. These include Hughes’ “The Blues I’m Playing” (1934), Fisher’s “Miss Cynthie” (1933), and Hurston’s “Sweat” (1926).

Close on the heels of the Harlem Renaissance was the work of Richard Wright (1908–1960). His 1938 collection of four short stories, Uncle Tom’s Children, earned the writer a Guggenheim Fellowship, which permitted him to complete the novel Native Son (1940).

Other important African American figures in American literature are also well known for their short fiction. These include Ralph Ellison’s (1914–1994) “Battle Royal” (1947) and James Baldwin’s (1924–1987) “Sonny’s Blues” and “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” from the collection Going to Meet the Man (1965).

Native American Fiction: Short Stories

Some people point to fables and folktales as the origin of short fiction. These stories were often told orally and, therefore, had to be short enough for the teller to remember the whole tale.

With strong folklore and oral storytelling traditions, short stories have long been a part of Native American literature. These include stories with high cultural value, such as myths and folktales.

There are also many contemporary Native American authors who write short stories, including Louise Erdrich (1954–present), who wrote the O. Henry Award-winning “Fleur” (1986), and Sherman Alexie (1966–present), who wrote the 2003 collection Ten Little Indians.

American Detective and American Crime Fiction: Short Stories

In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe published what is widely regarded as the first modern detective story: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Poe’s protagonist, C. Auguste Dupin, is generally considered the first fictional detective, and he would become the model for many future detective characters.

In honor of his contribution to the mystery genre, the Mystery Writers of America developed the Edgar Allan Poe Awards in the 1940s, an award that celebrates excellence in mystery writing, film, television, and theatre. The category for short fiction has been awarded to authors such as the master of horror Shirley Jackson (1916–1965) and the renowned crime writer Lawrence Block (1938–present).

As the short story has generally been regarded as a form of popular fiction that is accessible to many readers, its no surprise that mystery and crime fiction, some of the most popular literary genres, make substantial use of the short story. Best-selling modern-day crime authors, such as James Patterson (1947present) and Micheal Connelly (1956present), also write compelling short stories, and there are numerous literary magazines and anthologies dedicated to short crime fiction.

Contemporary American Short Fiction

While short fiction has largely fallen out of popularity among readers, many contemporary American writers still work in the genre. Like American literature, contemporary American short fiction represents a vast array of styles, subjects, and viewpoints.

Many writers, such as ZZ Packer (1973present) and Jhumpa Lahiri (1967present), are experiencing successful literary careers generated by debut short stories. Lahiri’s debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Other writers who are well recognized for their novel-length work continue to write short fiction that is published in literary magazines and the authors’ own collections. Some notable examples include James McBride’s (1957present) Five-Carat Soul (2017), Helena María Viramontes’ (1954present)The Moths and Other Stories (1985), and Junot Díaz’s (1968present) Drown (1996).

American Short Fiction - Key takeaways

  • Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe produced some of the first written American short stories.
  • American authors often wrote short stories and sold them to various literary publications to help pay the bills.
  • Almost all the significant American authors have at least dabbled in short fiction, including Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • The short stories of African American writers became popular during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s.
  • In contemporary American literature, short fiction is still widely written, but it is less popular among readers.

1 Alfred Bendixen. A Companion to the American Short Story. 2010.

2 Edgar Allan Poe. “A Review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales.” 1842.

3 Ernest Hemingway. “The Art of the Short Story.” 1959.

Frequently Asked Questions about American Short Fiction

A work of short fiction can have several different names depending on the length of the work. A novella is the longest form of short fiction and is just shorter than a novel. A short story is the most common length of short fiction. These stories are usually anywhere from a few pages to a couple dozen pages. The shortest kind of short fiction is called flash fiction or micro-fiction. These stories can be as short as just a few words!

The shortest type of fiction is called flash fiction or micro-fiction. This refers to fiction that usually consists of just a few sentences or even sometimes just a few words. Any fiction work under 1000 words is considered flash fiction, and any under 300 words is considered micro-fiction.

The modern American short story would not exist today without the influence of Edger Allan Poe. Besides Poe, there are numerous examples of famous American short story writers. They include Washington Irving, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Short stories became popular in the United States as advances in printing made magazines and other publications more affordable. These publications often featured short stories as they were accessible and enjoyable for a wide variety of readers.

The work of Washington Irving, such as “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), is sometimes referred to as the first American short story. However, prior to colonization, Native American people also had a vibrant oral storytelling tradition consisting of myths and folktales that are also examples of short fiction.

Final American Short Fiction Quiz

Question

Where was Edgar Allan Poe born?

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Boston, Massachusetts

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What year was Edgar Allan Poe born?

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1809

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Which genre is Edgar Allan Poe credited with creating?

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Detective fiction

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Where did Edgar Allan Poe publish his first collection of poems?

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Fort Independence

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At which publication did Edgar Allan Poe begin his editorial career?

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Southern Literary Messenger

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Which of Poe's works made him a household name?

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'The Raven'

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What event in Poe's life inspired him to write 'The Raven'?

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His wife's tuberculosis 

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What year did Edgar Allan Poe die?

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1849

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Of which type of literary prose was Edgar Allan Poe a pioneer?

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The short story

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Where did Edgar Allan Poe die?

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Baltimore, Maryland

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Which publication did Poe go on to own?

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The Broadway Journal

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Which of these themes were most prevalent in Poe's work?

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Loss and insanity

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When did Poe publish his second collection of poems?

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While staying with his aunt Maria

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To which genres did Poe make considerable contributions?

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Horror and science fiction

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Where did Poe attend college?

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University of Virginia

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Which of Jhumpa Lahiri's works received a Pulitzer Prize?

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Interpreter of Maladies

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Where was Jhumpa Lahiri born?

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London, England

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In which non-English language does Jhumpa Lahiri write?

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Italian

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What is the name of Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel?

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The Namesake

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What is a continuing theme in Jhumpa Lahiri's writing?

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Cultural identity

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According to Jhumpa Lahiri, what is the best way to become a good writer?

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Being an avid reader

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What is one element of Jhumpa Lahiri's writing style?

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Simple and direct language

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Where does Jhumpa Lahiri derive her stories?

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Her own experiences as a child of Indian immigrants

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When was Jhumpa Lahiri born?

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July 11, 1967

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Where did Jhumpa Lahiri move to when she was three?

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South Kingstown, Rhode Island

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Which country did Jhumpa Lahiri often visit as a child?

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India

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Where does Jhumpa Lahiri currently live?

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Rome, Italy

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Where did Jhumpa Lahiri receive her master's and doctorate?

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Boston University

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What is the name of Jhumpa Lahiri's first collection of short stories?

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Interpreter of Maladies

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What type of character does Jhumpa Lahiri most frequently write about?

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Indian immigrants and their children

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Where was Jhumpa Lahiri born?

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London, England

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Where did Jhumpa Lahiri move to when she was three?

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South Kingstown, Rhode Island

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What is a defining element of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing style?

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Simple, direct language

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What type of characters does Jhumpa Lahiri most often feature in her work?

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Indian immigrants and their children

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What is a common theme in Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories?

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Cultural identity

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Which of Jhumpa Lahiri’s works received a Pulitzer Prize?


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Interpreter of Maladies

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Where are Jhumpa Lahiri’s parents from?

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Kolkata, India

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In which non-English language does Jhumpa Lahiri currently write?

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Italian

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Where does Jhumpa Lahiri currently live?

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Rome, Italy

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According to Jhumpa Lahiri, what is the most important element of becoming a good writer?

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Being an avid reader

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Where did Jhumpa Lahiri earn her bachelor’s degree?

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Barnard College

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Where did Jhumpa Lahiri earn her master’s and doctorate?

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Boston University

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What is the major historical backdrop in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Lowland?

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The Naxalite-Maoist insurgency

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What is the significance of Nikhil’s dislike of his pet name “Gogol” in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake?

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It signifies his initial lack of understanding of his immigrant parent’s sacrifices

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Which of Jhumpa Lahiri’s works was the first to reach the New York Times bestseller list?

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Unaccustomed Earth

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How did Flannery O'Connor die?

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Lupus

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What is O'Connor's best-known story?

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'A Good Man is Hard to Find'

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Which writer's retreat did O'Connor attend?

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Yaddo

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Which town was O'Connor born in?

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Savannah

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Which with literary movement is O'Connor associated?

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Southern Gothic

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