Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market

Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market

Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market

Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market

Excerpt

Ever since its emergence in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s literary realism, the subject of this study, has attracted critical scrutiny. The first attempts at explication and analysis came from the realists themselves. Forced by detractors to justify their practice, realists, many of whom were practicing critics, outlined the basic principles that constituted their chosen genre. In the process they laid out in considerable detail the formal properties of the novel that they valued and gave sophisticated readings of their key texts. When the academy embraced realism in the middle of the twentieth century and enshrined a number of its works in the canon, the number of critical studies of realism proliferated. In subsequent years each generation of commentators has put forth some interpretation of the literary explosion of the last third of the nineteenth century.

The centrality of realism to literary studies might well prompt a reader to inquire why another book on the subject is needed. To justify itself another work must do more than either ratify previous findings or invert earlier work while addressing the same questions and staying within the same boundaries that have been marked out for the last one hundred years of criticism. We know much of what realism was (and is), but we know less about why realism was. It is this last problem that this book takes as its fundamental point of departure. This study is not a literary taxonomy in which common elements are discovered and texts are assigned places within or outside realism, or a reinterpretation of major works, or grand historical speculation in which some facile correspondence between the spirit of the age of industrialism and the nature of the texts is postulated and then proven. Rather it poses a deceptively simple question: why did a significant number of serious novelists choose to write realist texts in the late nineteenth century? Put another way, why was the . . .

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