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Michael J. Collins, The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800-1865 (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2016), viii + 270 pp.:

Michael J. Collins, The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800-1865 (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2016), viii + 270 pp.

The origins of the short story have been extensively discussed in the context of other narrative or expository genres, such as the novel, the novella, the sketch, and the essay. And Edgar Allan Poe famously addresses the brevity of the short story in relation to poetry. Michael J. Collins draws attention to the fact that these attempts at comparative classification conspicuously leave out the relevance of theater. According to his study The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800-1865, the tragedy of the genre consists in critics’ obliviousness to its performative qualities. The introductory chapter of Collins’s study methodologically sets the stage, as it were, for discussions of major American short story writers of the first half of the nineteenth century. Collins criticizes the nearly pervasive neglect of performance as a powerful influence in American culture of the period. By contrast, he considers the development of the short story embedded in a complex framework of conditional factors, in which performativity plays a central role: “I argue that without the influence of performance culture of various diverse kinds (religious ritual, stage melodramas, folk culture, oratory) the short story may not have come into meaningful existence or would have emerged with a distinctly different character” (3).

Collins claims that the performative aspects built into Irving’s short stories and those of his successors Edgar Allan Poe, George Lippard, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott, to each of whom a chapter is devoted, turn the genre into a stage for acting out the political debates of the day without the necessity to make final decisions about taking sides. What results is a climate of ambivalence which Collins, inspired by anthropologist Victor Turner’s theories, aptly discusses as forms of liminality. The early American short story’s liminality, Collins argues, is primarily the result of the theatrical qualities of political debate. He suggests that Irving developed the short story as a platform for the liminal negotiation of partisan positions, irreconcilable elsewhere in political writing or the equally partisan theater. Collins is not primarily interested in dramatizations of short stories or in references to plays in them, but rather in the more complex ways the short story is energized by the performance culture in which it thrived. This novel approach counteracts the traditional “antiperformative faith in textual authority” (21) and pays tribute to the fact, emphasized by speech act- but neglected by short story-theory, that text is also performance.

The following chapters of The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800-1865 elaborate on these insights, scrutinizing American as well as transatlantic interrelations of performance culture. Commencing at the beginning of the American short story, one of Collins’s epigraphs to the chapter of The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800-1865 devoted to Washington Irving’s Sketch-Book cites the passage from “Rip Van Winkle” in which, in the manner of a theatergoer, Rip watches Henry Hudson’s men play at ninepins in a sleepy hollow of the Catskill mountains resembling an amphitheater. In the following, Collins tries to demonstrate that Irving developed the short story “as a form invested in the power of gesture and performance as the preferred media for the transmission of history as a lived experience” (34). Irving’s short fiction functions as an expression of a political positioning that embeds American developments in a “‘circum-Atlantic interculture’” (55). In this perspective, Rip’s willingness to assist his neighbors more than his wife makes him a Federalist cosmopolitan interested in a wider circle of interaction, while Dame Van Winkle would rather want him to concentrate on his narrow family duties like Jeffersonian yeoman farmer Baltus Van Tassel in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (61-62). While Irving’s texts may sometimes be semantically overburdened by the tensions between the historical, political and anthropological frameworks Collins embeds them in, these wider perspectives certainly yield fresh and innovative insights into the drama and, even more insistently, the politics of the early American short story—a feat not easily performed with overinterpreted classics of the genre.

In the following chapters of his study, Collins analyzes Edgar Allan Poe’s, George Lippard’s and Herman Melville’s short fiction under the premise that these antebellum writers continue Irving’s emphasis on “performance, gesture, and ritual, rather than romantic imagination, internality, and speculation” (75). The chapter on Poe and Lippard emphasizes the importance of “Rites of Pure Brotherhood,” as it is titled, the influence of fraternities and lodges and their rituals on the development of short fiction. Based on adaptations of European Freemasonry, the initiation and participation rituals of American brotherhoods and fraternities “constituted a form of republican theatre” (79) in Collins’s view. He sees a conflict at work between, on the one hand, the tamer middle class fraternities and their publications and, on the other, the brotherhoods of the laboring classes. He analyzes the devious ways in which this conflict manifests itself in Poe’s short stories, especially “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” as well as in Lippard’s short prose. In Collins’s reading of “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor, excluded from the middle class fraternalism in which Fortunato effortlessly takes part, exposes his former friend to the inversion and parody of a ritual of mock-initiation which leads to his death. Collins unravels the associations of this process to the theatrical traditions of pantomime, commedia dell’arte, melodrama, and the Venetian carnival, which underlie the dramatic structure of what he considers a tale of social rebellion. In “The Pit and the Pendulum” the rescue of the narrator from the fangs of the Inquisition at the end of the story is interpreted as a sensational scene in the style prominent in nineteenth-century melodrama. It is seen as a rescue from tyranny, considered both Catholic and capitalist at the same time. It is also relatable to fraternity rituals, as the torture by the pendulum echoes menacing Masonic initiation rituals.

Collins considers Lippard’s Brotherhood of the Union a bridge between competing views of American identity, fueled by class conflict as well as sectarian religious convictions. He also sees the Brotherhood as a liminal medium that reconciles diverse qualities of printed text and theatrical performance. Lippard’s prose texts in the White Banner, the magazine of the Brotherhood of the Union, especially “The Gospel of the Manacle” from Adonai: The Pilgrim of Eternity, are considered “textual analogues of the ritual performances the author wrote for the Brotherhood of the Union” (111-112). Both the theologized national allegory that unfolds in Lippard’s text and the initiation ritual he suggests for the Brotherhood share the participatory as well as visionary power of his Christian socialist notion of the American union.

In his two chapters on Melville’s short fiction, Collins combines the interpretation of well-known texts, such as “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener” with the analysis of lesser-known dyptichs and stories, such as “The Two Temples” and “The Fiddler.” “The Two Temples,” a dyptich that juxtaposes a New York City church and a London theater, produces an associative transatlantic interaction and liminally probes into differing American and European value systems. Collins expertly positions this conflict against its historical background, the 1849 Astor Place Riots, which acted out the struggle for American political identity as a feud around the acting styles of British actor William Charles Macready and his American rival Edwin Forrest, two famous thespians of the period. The political implications of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu; or, The Conspiracy, which the narrator watches in the second part of the diptych as an American visitor in London, adds to the political message of the story. From a more class-oriented angle, both “Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs” and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” continue Melville’s balancing of European and American qualities, reminiscent of Washington Irving.

Against the background of a long history of criticism and ambitious philosophical readings by Gilles Deleuze and Giorgio Agamben among others, Collins develops a new performative perspective for the interpretation of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by discussing this story of Wall Street in the context of Melville’s lesser-known “The Fiddler.” Like the second of “The Two Temples,” “The Fiddler” is particularly close to the world of the theater, as it references Master Betty, a child actor who became extremely popular both in England and the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. English Master Betty is the model for the American violinist Hautboy, the protagonist of “The Fiddler,” who is middle-aged but also retains the innocently sincere charm and enthusiasm of childhood, which manifest themselves in his unreserved admiration for a clown during a circus performance. Observing Hautboy, Helmstone, the narrator and would-be poet, learns a lesson of his own former vainglory and the reconcilability of “individuality and a sense of the power of collective class-based solidarity” (169). The aura of solidarity associated with Hautboy, which liminally balances divergent desires and claims in a communal environment of theatrical performance, is in Collins’s view a model for the reading experience generated by magazine short fiction in general.

Collins discusses Bartleby as another child prodigy like Hautboy. Bartleby’s childlike character is chiefly based on his status as “the child of the office family” (179) and on the foetal position of his dying scene. In his statuesque immovability Bartleby is considered relatable to the actor Master Betty, regarded as the epitome of Romantic childhood. While the interpretation of the lawyer’s relationship to his employees as paternal and familial is plausible, the literalization of Bartleby’s childlike state, underlying the claim that “the desire of the narrator for his clerk results in a form of social death, which in Bartleby’s case becomes the ne plus ultra of Gothic transgression (pederasty, necrophilia, and incest all at once)” (181) is not. In view of the host of philosophical interpretations of Bartleby’s acts of resistance Collins’s caveat not to overlook their performativity is timely and valuable. But their ultimate theatricality does not appear as obvious as the theatrical dimensions of “The Fiddler” and “The Two Temples.”

In his chapter on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short fiction, Collins extensively discusses “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” which dramatizes the seventeenth-century conflict between the hedonist settlers on Mount Wollaston and their Puritan neighbors, who, under the leadership of John Endicott, ended the intercultural revels of Thomas Morton and his followers and re-established what Morton derisively called their New English Canaan. Collins takes seriously Hawthorne’s contention that his story about different worldviews concerns “the future complexion of New England.”1 In Collins’s interpretation the conflict between the anti-theatrical and individualistically reflective Puritans and the Merry Mounters, devoted to festive spring dances and ritualistic celebration, mirrors the conflict in the nineteenth century between, on the one hand, the upper-middle class literary elite around the Boston Brahmins and New England Transcendentalists, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and his transparent eyeball, who are given to individual introspection not unlike their Puritan forefathers, and, on the other, “a lower-class print culture,” replete with “sensationalism, playfulness with identity, and performances of all kinds” (199), which resembles the equally disorderly goings-on among the Merry Mounters. In historical guise, “The Maypole of Merry Mount” stages the “characters’ negotiations between elite literary romanticism (Boston Calvinism) and the market fair (Merry Mount)” (207) and thus dramatizes the emergence of nineteenth-century print culture as a theatricalized and democratizing counterforce to solipsist and romantic navel-gazing, only affordable to social elites. Yet, if Edith and Edgar, the protagonists of “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” represent “the complex, embodied negotiations of nation, religion, and class that typified the nineteenth-century American short story” (208), they do so very discreetly, indeed. Collins’s subsequent analysis of Hawthorne’s aesthetic of inversion in “The Procession of Life,” “The Christmas Banquet,” and “Main Street” teases out his further attempts “to reconcile competing forces of influence in his short fiction” (219). Especially the panorama or puppet show of “Main Street” demonstrates the growing inseparability of ritual and drama from the short story form but, with the advent of realism, also the potential obsolescence of their “collectivity, emotionality, and transparent social relations” (225), which Collins’s study foregrounds as integral to the development of the short story in the antebellum era.

The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800-1865 closes with an epilogue on Louisa May Alcott’s theatrical realism, as it manifests itself in “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” “Behind a Mask,” and “The King of Clubs and the Queen of Hearts.” By the role-playing of central characters and their closeness to tableaux vivants, these stories foreshadow the persistence of an emphasis on performativity in later work by feminist writers such as Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800-1865 adds an important communality-oriented perspective to the both romantic and modernist emphasis on the genre’s concern with subjectivity. The short story does not only depict highly individual crises but embeds them in dramatic and ritual practices too long neglected and overlooked. The political consequences of Collins’s emphasis on the performativity of the short story are more debatable. If we accept that the antebellum short story privileges action over speculation, do we also have to accept that it is essentially adverse to “American individualism inclined towards a socially irresponsible libertarianism” and favors “an aesthetic practice designed to precipitate forms of democratic participation” (243)? Whether short fiction as a genre really has such an agenda, future studies, inspired by The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800-1865, will either confirm or dispute.

The indisputable value of Collins’s study lies in opening up a truly novel perspective by his equally erudite and energetic argument for the dramatic qualities of antebellum short fiction. His interpretations demonstrate that the early American short story can only be fully understood if its dramatic and ritualistic dimensions are taken into account. Collins’s stupendous knowledge of circumatlantic political, socio-economic, and cultural interrelations allows him to situate these texts within the tensions of the antebellum period and thereby to bring to life the complexities that inform them. His study makes clear that overlooking the drama of the short story means overlooking the short story. Short fiction studies will not be quite the same after this book.

Jochen Achilles (Würzburg)


[1] Nathaniel Hawthorne. Tales and Sketches, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce (New York: The Library of America, 1982) 366.

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