Evolution of Critical Opinion
American literary Realism is often described as a movement shaped in part by its reaction against earlier and mostly sentimental fiction; American literary history generally may be seen as a series of cultural rebellions. These assumptions are valid enough, so far as they go. There was a good deal of give-and-take in the contest, however, and the student of this period will find abundant research opportunities in exploring certain features of an ongoing and changing literary debate.
In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his “The American Scholar” address at Harvard, in which he observed, “The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life are the topics of the time.” These were the materials of an American literature, and Emerson was only one of many calling for an authentic and native literature that reflected the qualities of a then relatively young democratic nation. Part of that call was for American artists and readers to free themselves from a worship of European conventions and models. Bold as his pronouncements were, Emerson’s celebration of the common and familiar did not so much threaten prevailing literary taste, which for the most part was genteel, as refocus it, for he also insisted that what is near at hand symbolizes a spiritual and ultimately transcendental meaning. The origins of local-color writing date from around the same time as Emerson’s speech, but those authors’ purposes were more casual and not so lofty. Particularly among the frontier humorists there were no overt literary aims other than to faithfully record the speech and flavor of a specific region at a particular time, and they tended to think of their productions as “sketches” or anecdotes rather than as short stories. Though many of these sketches were later collected and published as books, such as Augustus B. Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes (1843) and J. J. Hooper’s Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845), they were often first published in newspapers.
Since these early efforts at local-color writing were generally considered a low form of journalism, the first critical judgment passed upon the movement was simply neglect—skepticism, depreciation, even disdain would come later. Actually, the eventual consequences of this critical neglect were rather salutary. For one thing, writers such as Longstreet and Hooper tended to think of themselves as merely transcribing what they saw and heard; they were attentive to accuracy of detail but were not so much “objective” observers of life as they were indifferent to the opinion of the literary establishment, and this gave them a freedom from constraints they might otherwise have felt. Another consequence was that this sort of writing had a certain underground popularity among male readers, generally, who enjoyed the coarse and racy stories coming out of the South but frequently published in the New York sporting weekly, The Spirit of the Times. Local-color writers and, later, Realists tended to make their appeal directly to the everyday reader, whose literary judgment was based upon common experience instead of the instructed vision taught in schools or handed down from on high. Still a third consequence of critical neglect was that these early local colorists were all unknowingly contributing to what William Dean Howells eventually called the “literary decentralization” of our culture (Criticism and Fiction, 1891)—a democratic emphasis upon diversity and variety instead of upon a unified and homogenous literary taste created by an educated elite. Even though Howells himself was editor of the prestigious Bostonbased Atlantic Monthly, he no doubt would have approved of the editorial remark published in Scribner’s Monthly (September 1881): “New England is no longer king....The South and West are hereafter to be reckoned with.” Boston and, later, New York remained the literary centers of the nation, nonetheless.
To the extent that local color prefigured the purposes of American Realism, it offered later writers the example of a set of practices and themes that, if they were not openly hostile, were at least antagonistic to dominant critical opinion. The resistance to literary Realism was, according to Warner Berthoff, grounded in fear—fear that the moral fiber of the country was breaking down before one’s eyes and that the new writers were contributing to that dissolution. Broadly speaking, there were two schools of literary thought that stood in opposition to the Realist movement. The first we may call idealistic or sentimental criticism. It was devoted to the idea that literature ought to be elevating and ennobling; literature should express what ought to be, not what is. In the prose and poetry of this stripe, virtue should be rewarded and vice punished; likewise, literature ought to recommend heroic self-sacrifice, unswerving loyalty, high religious and moral feelings, expansive sympathy and the like. As T. S. Perry once remarked, genuine literature must be true “to those higher laws and passions that alone are real, that exist above all the petty, accidental caprice of time and place” (“American Novels,” North American Review, October 1872).
The second school ultimately opposed the logic of Realism for different but related reasons. One might call it the nationalist school, and it tended to revolve around questions of genre. Realists preferred the novel over popular sentimental romance and believed that form might accurately describe the whole of American life and gain a wide readership. Additionally, there was the question of whether there is or even ought to be something that might be called the “Great American Novel.” John William De Forest introduced the topic in 1868 in an essay by that name. Something of a Realist himself, De Forest promoted the notion that, ideally, such a work would dramatize a truly national (as opposed to a sectional) character and help foster ideas of unity and consolidated American themes and interests. The great American novel would help to heal the rift between North and South and establish an artistic version of the political “union” that Lincoln had sought to preserve.
Any effort to write such a work assumed that there is a distinctive “American” character that somehow represents the whole of the country, and behind that assumption lay others—including, for many, the premise that the American character was fundamentally Anglo-Saxon in its bearing and outlook. Here, ironically, was the very sort of sentimental stereotype of a figure that never really existed that Realists sought to dispute. Nevertheless, important and sophisticated Realists were tempted to try their hand at that sort of depiction—Henry James did in The American (1877), and, in different fashion, so did Mark Twain, Howells, and Edith Wharton.
By the 1890s, a proliferation of Regionalist stories gave evidence that many writers and critics believed the future of a truly national literature lay in a heterogeneous compound of individuated tales and novels rooted in place. In 1892 Edward Eggleston, in his preface to The Hoosier Schoolmaster, declared, “The ‘great American novel,’ for which prophetic critics yearned so fondly twenty years ago, is appearing in sections.” And Howells himself, in 1891, insisted on the “universal rule against universalizing” and that a full representation of American literature would, quiltlike, consist of a hundred “patches” of American life. So it becomes clear that, even within the ranks of the Realists, there was a considerable difference of opinion. Nevertheless, much of American literary history can be framed by these two oppositions—the contest between highbrow and lowbrow literary expression and the problem of the one and the many. The problem was further complicated by the lack of a clear definition of what Realism was. As Hamlin Garland observed, “The meaning of the word ‘Realism’ varies with the outlook of every person who uses it” (“Productive Conditions of American Literature,” Forum, August 1894). Perhaps due to its very vagueness, Realism was capacious enough for a great many gifted writers to identify themselves as Realists, and as a literary movement it appeared hospitable not only to women writers, but immigrants from both Europe and Asia, as well as African American and Native American writers.
Nevertheless, when Howells pleaded, “let literature cease to lie about life,” he was challenging the art and usefulness of genteel and largely sentimental fiction (Criticism and Fiction). When Howells also, echoing Edmund Burke, announced that the “true standard of the arts” lay within every man’s and woman’s power, he meant to appeal to and empower the ordinary reader whose own experience with the way day-to-day life actually works was the sufficient criterion for aesthetic judgment; at the same time he meant to encourage a genuinely democratic literature. And when he declared the appeals of sentimental literature morally “poisonous” to the individual and the social fabric, he was advocating a largely pragmatic, or at least utilitarian, ethical view as its replacement. This was a genuine revolutionary creed for the day, and the aesthetic satisfaction Realist fiction afforded was a “recognition,” in the readers, that, yes, this was a very picture of life as they knew it to be. As Garland, himself a Realist though he preferred the term “veritism,” sadly knew, however, the ordinary man and woman, whose hands were callused and whose backs were aching, were more often apt to turn to fiction as a means of escape or entertainment.
By virtue of being editor of the Atlantic Monthly and later supplying a monthly “Editor’s Study” column for Harper’s Monthly, Howells became the chief spokesman for the Realist movement. For a man who was by temperament so open and cordial a critic, it is a bit surprising how controversial a figure he came to be. He was attacked from both sides. Aristocratic critics objected to the advocate of a literature that invited us to become acquainted with the sorts of common characters one would, in real life, take some pains to avoid, and William Roscoe Thayer called him the “champion of crude causes” (“The New Story-Tellers and the Doom of Fiction,” Forum, December 1894). From the other side, the Naturalist Frank Norris thought Howells as too fastidious, “proper as a deacon.”
The French novelist Emile Zola had set forth the essential tenets of Naturalism in his pamphlet Le Roman experimental (1880; translated as “The Experimenal Novel,” 1893), arguing the new novelist should follow the example of the scientist and show in man and society “the mechanism of the phenomena which science has mastered.” American Naturalist writers such as Norris came to believe that Realism dealt too exclusively with the surfaces of life and did not probe the disturbing complexities that motivate men and women—sexual urges, instinctive violence, economic desperation, a Darwinian struggle for existence. In The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903) and elsewhere Norris called for a reinvigorated Romanticism, full of melodrama and extreme situations, for the responsible novel must tell the truth, even though it might be unwelcome. Naturalists defied the critics and shocked their readers. They depicted individuals under extreme circumstances (freezing to death on the Alaskan tundra or dying of dehydration in Death Valley); they chronicled suicides, perversities, gross social injustice, greed that drifted into madness. They were pessimistic and deterministic in their outlook, and yet they, too, took the high moral ground. If society were ever to advance, it must awaken from its complacency and confront honestly the meanness of life and the vanity of human striving.
Because Naturalist writers often sought to dramatize human life as governed by forces quite beyond the control or understanding of their created characters, they implicitly challenged the general assumption of traditional Realists that if one looked on life directly, one might also make sound, individual moral choices that accrued to the benefit of society. In other words, human beings might make the necessary mental corrections of perceived realities and thereby achieve some sort of informed perspective of experience. For Garland, literary Realism is the “truthful statement of an individual impression corrected by reference to the fact” (The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris). Clearly, Naturalism occupied different ground. As Theodore Dreiser put it in Sister Carrie (1900), man’s instincts are “dulled by too near an approach to free-will, his free-will not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts”; thus, he is a mere “wisp in the wind.”
Naturalism was perhaps the most vigorous challenge to the Realist agenda, though many Naturalists thought of themselves as continuing that project by appropriating a certain kind of subject matter that disclosed the stresses and fractures of life sadly in need of social, as opposed to moral, reform. Norris at least thought Naturalism split the difference between Romanticism (primarily concerned with truth) and Realism (devoted to accuracy). But there were other extensions of or departures from Realism. Three literary movements (each with their critical adherents or detractors) are worth mentioning here: literary Impressionism, aestheticism, and Imagism.
Aestheticism is associated with the fin de siecle literary movement and may be loosely considered to include such offshoots as bohemianism, vagabondia, and decadence. The central premise of aestheticism is that art is its own excuse for being, that it is essentially free from all social and moral obligations. Despite the fact that many critics thought this largely imported literary movement was un-American in its alternate gestures of escape and revolt, a large segment of the population was fascinated by such figures as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Certainly a portion of Ambrose Bierce’s and Stephen Crane’s canons may be described as bohemian, but out-and-out American aesthetes (Edgar Saltus or Lafcadio Hearne, for example) are no longer of much interest. Nevertheless, aestheticism challenged the positions of both the genteel tradition and literary Realism; on the one hand it was more highbrow than the Boston Brahmins, and on the other it was countercultural in its manner and its selection of subject matter.
Imagism and Impressionism share an interest in representing the immediacy of experience. That is to say, unlike Realism, which allows for the mental correction of perceptions and therefore of making informed moral judgments, these movements emphasized the primacy of sensation. And unlike Naturalism, which tended to diagnose social and political realities with an eye to reform, they were chiefly concerned with rendering the unpremeditated and immediate sensation. In this country, Imagism was a short-lived poetic movement that importantly influenced modern American poetry. Among its practitioners were the early Ezra Pound, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Amy Lowell. Pound defined the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant in time” and thereby gives a “sense of freedom from time limits and space limits.”
Impressionism may be thought of as a literary manner which, in the words of Richard Chase (“Introduction” to The Red Badge of Courage, 1960), attempts to deliver the “shimmering flow of experience.” However, to some degree literary Impressionism opposed traditional Realism because it meant to show the distinction between a perceived actuality and an objective one. Garland wrote several painterly sketches in this manner, and there are many passages in James’s fiction that are deliberately impressionistic. Crane is probably the most thoroughgoing American literary impressionist of the era. In some of his better fiction (The Red Badge of Courage or “The Blue Hotel,” for example) he manages to dramatize a picture of life, full of color and urgency and irony, that makes Impressionism more than a literary technique; instead, it describes an existential condition under a given set of circumstances and at the same time delivers astute and sometimes whimsical social analysis and incisive psychological portraits of those in the grip of confusion or fear or other immediate emotional conditions.
Literary movements do not end quickly or decisively. This is true of Realism and Naturalism, as well. Even among American Realists themselves there was a temptation to go beyond the doctrinal prescriptions of William Dean Howells. The psychological Realism of Henry James, as it was manifested in The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), caused James’s sympathetic brother William to complain that he had gone too far; and the late work of Mark Twain, such as “The Great Dark” or No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, was fantastic to a degree that seems to have cut any ties to conventional Realism. Naturalists were particularly critical of Howells, claiming he was too timid and too limiting in his fiction and his criticism, avoiding aspects of the ordinary life, particularly sex, that were fundamental. Norris and Dreiser made such criticisms, and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1930, Sinclair Lewis appeared to have delivered the postmortem: Howells “had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage. He abhorred not only profanity and obscenity but all of what H. G. Wells has called ‘the jolly coarseness of life.’” The examples of modern writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway served to cement the point. High modernists such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce certainly did not take it as an article of faith that the true standard of the arts lay within every man or woman’s power; to the contrary, their work displayed a disregard for the so-called common reader. As for literary Naturalism, tied as it was to nineteenth-century scientific and economic theories, it too began to seem dated, even irrelevant. The scientific discoveries of Marie Curie, the relativism of Albert Einstein, and the theory of “creative evolution” advanced by Henri Bergson all called the determinism of a nineteenth-century scientific materialism into deep question. Freudian psychoanalysis also posed a challenge to the Naturalist position, though Bert Bender has argued in Evolution and “The Sex Problem” (2004) that Freud actually extended and enlarged evolutionary contexts for understanding Naturalist writing. At any rate, Naturalism survived into the twentieth century in such writers as Richard Wright and Tillie Olsen, just as Realist fiction survived in Eudora Welty, Tom Wolfe, and John Updike.
Beginning in the 1970s, critical theorists and academic critics posed a different sort of challenge to Realism and Naturalism. Jacques Derrida’s dictum will serve in a shorthand way to express the problem: “There is nothing outside the text.” Formulated in a variety of ways, poststructuralists held that reality itself is a verbal construct, and therefore attempts to represent the outside world, to render life as it is lived is vain, even absurd. Considered in this way, writing is more about writing than anything else. The novelist William H. Gass declared the task of the writer to be to hold his readers “kindly imprisoned in language,” for there is nothing beyond this language. This sort of fiction is subjective in the extreme, even solipsistic. Novelist Tom Wolfe took a different view: “With very few exceptions, the towering achievements [in the novel] have taken the form of a detailed Realism.... And why? Because a perfectly sound and natural instinct told them that it is impossible to portray characters vividly, powerfully, convincingly, except as part of the society in which they find themselves.” The student should inspect the annotated bibliography to see the variety of ways that theory has affected academic criticism of nineteenth-century literary Realism and Naturalism. Amy Kaplan, for example, in her The Social Construction of American Realism (1988) argues that the work of Howells, Wharton, and Dreiser actually reflects a sense of “unreality,” which they counter with social constructions of reality. Walter Benn Michaels in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987) gives a new historicist reading of Norris, Wharton, and Dreiser, contending that economic circumstances enter into virtually every aspect of life in these texts, though they may seem far removed from economic themes or issues. There remain articulate advocates of the ambitions of early Naturalists and Realists, however. The historian David E. Shi observes that, “By rendering the ordinary significant and the hidden visible, by refusing to offer easy consolations or to rest content with cheap ironies, they demonstrated the power of representation to sustain, assure, and enlarge us.” More recently, the critic James Wood has spoken elegantly on behalf of Realism in How Fiction Works (2008), insisting that readers still want to connect to a world out there and to read of a life that is familiar and therefore comprehensible. It seems clear that, no matter how transformed or ingeniously analyzed, a genuine interest in Realism and Naturalism will continue for some time to come.
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