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3 - Impressionism and the Short Story

from Part I - Historicising the Short Story

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 December 2019

Paul March-Russell
Affiliation:
teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Kent
Paul Delaney
Affiliation:
Trinity College Dublin
Adrian Hunter
Affiliation:
University of Stirling
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Summary

SPEAKING IN 2006, the Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy observed:

If you have a generally correct appreciation … of the point of view of the characters, then you have everything. You have the world, the colour of description, you have the density of description – you have this sense of genuinely being within someone else's skin or this genuine understanding of someone else. The short story is the form where you most need to have a grip of point of view or it just doesn't work.

Kennedy's observation indicates not only the extent to which one of the key organisational principles of literary Impressionism – the focus and selectivity of perspective – has become ingrained in contemporary practice but also how far it is associated with the short story form. Indeed, Edgar Allan Poe had long ago argued, with reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842), that ‘in almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance’. Although Poe's emphases upon concision, precision and foreshadowing prefigure key tenets of literary Impressionism, his usage echoes David Hume's association of the impression with the realm of the body, the senses and the passions. As Jesse Matz has argued, Hume's distinction forms part of a more complex negotiation between what is most memorable and most ephemeral about the impression, between profundity and banality, which destabilises the alleged philosophic roots to literary Impressionism. In charting the recent historiography of the concept, its origins, rise and fall, and subsequent dissemination into modernist techniques such as the epiphany and stream of consciousness, this chapter will argue that not only are critical attempts to define the short story in terms of Impressionism sundered by its very instability but also its range of potential meaning is complemented by the diversity of the short story form.

As several critics have emphasised, the high watermark for both Impressionist literature and its criticism was in the period from the end of the nineteenth century to the start of the 1920s. First eclipsed by the more combative and non-representational avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism, literary Impressionism was subsequently overshadowed by the consolidation of the modernist canon during the 1940s and 50s by academics such as F. R. Leavis and the New Critics, working on either side of the Atlantic.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2018

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