Downwardly Mobile: The Changing Fortunes of American Realism

Downwardly Mobile: The Changing Fortunes of American Realism

Downwardly Mobile: The Changing Fortunes of American Realism

Downwardly Mobile: The Changing Fortunes of American Realism

Synopsis

In the unstable economy of the nineteenth-century, few Americans could feel secure. Paper money made values less tangible, while a series of financial manias, panics, and depressions clouded everyday life with uncertainty and risk. In this groundbreaking study, Andrew Lawson traces the origins of American realism to a new structure of feeling: the desire of embattled and aspiring middle class for a more solid and durable reality.
The story begins with New England authors Susan Warner and Rose Terry Cooke, whose gentry-class families became insolvent in the wake of the 1837 Panic, and moves to the western frontier, where the early careers of Rebecca Harding Davis and William Dean Howells were shaped by a constant struggle for social position and financial security. We see how the pull of downward social mobility affected even the outwardly successful, bourgeois family of Henry James in New York, while the drought-stricken wheat fields of Iowa and South Dakota produced the most militant American realist, Hamlin Garland. For these writers, realism offered to stabilize an uncertain world by capturing it with a new sharpness and accuracy. It also revealed a new cast of social actors-factory workers, slaves, farm laborers, the disabled, and the homeless, all victims of an unregulated market.
Combining economic history and literary analysis to powerful effect,Downwardly Mobileshows how the fluctuating fortunes of the American middle class forced the emergence of a new kind of literature, while posing difficult political choices about how the middle class might remedy its precarious condition.

Excerpt

In 1852 Anna Bartlett Warner published a novel with the defiantly unsentimental title of Dollars and Cents. the novel’s narrator, Grace Howard, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family, begins her story by describing in some detail the material comforts of her home. These include Turkish carpets, damask curtains and sofas, “chandeliers, carved furniture, pictures, shells, and statues.” Grace is regularly taken on drives to Levy’s, a fancy dry goods store on Chestnut Street, where “a scratch of [her] father’s pen” sees her newly clothed in muslins and silks (2). All in the Howard household is cultivated leisure, refinement, and ease until an abrupt, unspecified “change” in the Howard family’s “outward circumstances” occurs (2). This change is revealed to Grace when she notices that her new set of handkerchiefs “aren’t near so fine” as her last, a shocking revelation that marks the beginning of a period in which her family’s feet begin to “lose ground.” Afraid to let themselves go, like children “slipping down hill” and “catching at every bush,” the Howards become disoriented, turned around in social space (2).

As a result of the sudden and mysterious decline in the family’s fortunes, the Philadelphia house is stripped of its adornments and put up for sale. Mr. Howard moves his family to the sanctuary of Glen Luna, his country estate. Once installed there, Howard launches into what his wife calls “a wild system of improvements” (32). He conceives a scheme to build “mills and mill-dams, roads and plantations,” drawing up detailed plans with scribbled figures that look, to Grace, like “a long string of units and tens and hieroglyphics” (21). But the first mill is promptly burnt down by a rival landowner. Burdened by this, and by the countless lawsuits brought by his creditors, Howard sinks into a depression. When Grace asks what right his rival had to interfere with her father’s business, he replies wearily that “my own rights are growing so misty and undefined that I know but little about those of other people” (85). Legal processes and financial instruments appear in the guise of catastrophic, inexplicable forces which constantly endanger the family’s hold on the material supports of life. As the narrative progresses, the misty and the undefined begin to consume all that is tangible and real.

When the sheriff confiscates the family’s treasured possessions, Grace is alarmed by how “strange” her room looks with its closed windows and empty spaces (232). “Were we ourselves,” she wonders, “or were we somebody else?” (232). Inspecting the “dismantled” drawing-room, she finds only “a blank strip of plaster” in place of the “soft shadow” of the family’s statue of Hebe (250, 242): “Shadowy enough . . .

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