A Short Story Must Have a Single Mood and Every Sentence Must Build Towards It

Edgar Allan Poe? Apocryphal?

eapoe03Dear Quote Investigator: On a popular website I saw an intriguing list of “Indispensable Writing Tips from Famous Authors”. The following words were attributed to Edgar Allan Poe, the master of mystery and the macabre:

A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.

I was unable to determine where this statement originally appeared. Did Poe really say this?

Quote Investigator: QI hypothesizes that this sentence is a rough synopsis of comments written by Poe in a book review published in 1842. Poe used the phrase “single effect” and not the phrase “single mood” when describing the importance of concision and unified purpose in short stories. This important essay was published in Graham’s Magazine, and Poe was reviewing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s collection titled Twice-Told Tales. Here is an excerpt with boldface added: 1

A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step.

In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.

In 1846 Poe published an essay in Graham’s Magazine titled The Philosophy of Composition in which he expatiated on his vision of literary creation: 2

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Poe’s remarks were memorable and influential to fellow readers and writers. An essay in The Bookman in 1910 packaged Poe’s comments from 1842 into a theory of the short story: 3

It was Poe who first conceived of the strict unity of the short story, and formulated his theory. To him, the short tale differed from the novel in aiming at a single unique effect; “there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not toward the one preestablished design. . . . The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel.”

In 1995 the novelist and professor John D. Casey published an essay titled “Dogma” in a collection of material from National Book Award winners. Casey presented his interpretation of the Edgar Allan Poe’s viewpoint: 4

“A short story must have a single mood…” Poe went on to say that every sentence must contribute to it. He wrote this in a review of Hawthorne’s stories, saying that Hawthorne brilliantly fulfilled this requirement of unity and coherence. So do a lot of Poe stories. The dictum is a terrific idea, one I’d guess he came to from his reading and writing lyric poetry.

Casey also included a summary sentence encapsulating Poe’s position. This expression was placed between quotation marks, but QI has located no substantive evidence that Poe directly wrote it or said it:

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it”—Edgar Allen Poe.

In 2013 the concise quotation attributed to Poe was used in an article on the PEN Center USA website. PEN Center USA is a prominent organization of writers that includes poets, playwrights, essayists, novelists, screenwriters, and others: 5

I thought I’d gotten the definition of a short story straight. Almost every conversation on the topic starts with Edgar Allan Poe’s famous quote: “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.” But an overwhelming number of opinions and definitions flow from there.

In conclusion, QI believes that the quotation under investigation reflects an attempt to summarize the position of Edgar Allan Poe. It is likely that this compact expression was crafted by John Casey and published by 1995. Poe’s original commentary appeared in 1842, and a link in the bibliography leads to the full text in the Google Books database.

(Great thanks to Bill Mullins who pointed to an article on the Buzzfeed website which gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Also, special thanks to literary agent Roseanne Wells who sent an earlier inquiry about Edgar Allan Poe’s viewpoint on short story construction. This post is dedicated to Kelly who spoke of her appreciation of Poe’s tales and poems.)

Notes:

  1. 1842 May, Graham’s Magazine, Volume 20, Number 5, Review of New Books, [Review by Edgar Allan Poe of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s collection Twice-Told Tales, Volume 2], Start Page 298, Quote Page 298 and 299, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (The spelling of “skilful” was used in the original document) (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1846 April, Graham’s Magazine, Volume 28, Number 4, “The Philosophy of Composition” by Edgar Allan Poe, Start Page 163, Quote Page 153, George R. Graham & Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link link
  3. 1910 September, The Bookman: A Magazine of Literature and Life, Volume 32, Number 1, “The Paradise of the Loose End and Some Recent Novels” by Frederic Taber Cooper, Start Page 83, Quote Page 84, Column 1, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1995, The Writing Life: A Collection of Essays and Interviews, By National Book Award Winners, Including: Neil Baldwin, Diane Osen, John Updike, and others, “Dogma” by John Casey, Start Page 61, Quote Page 63 and 69, New York, Random House. (The original book text used the spelling “Edgar Allen Poe”) (Verified on paper)
  5. Website: Pen Center USA, Article title: What’s a Short Story Anyway, Article author: Natali Petricic, Date on website: February 1, 2013, Website self-description: [PEN Center USA, one of two centers in the United States and the third largest in the world, was founded in 1943 and incorporated as a nonprofit association in 1981. PEN Center USA, P.O. Box 6037, Beverly Hills, CA 90212] (Accessed penusa.org on August 15, 2013) link