How American Novelists after Civil War Tackled the Matter of Manners

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

How American Novelists after Civil War Tackled the Matter of Manners


Byline: Merle Rubin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

One of the chief activities of literary historians down through the ages has been the making of categories. How else would we be able to compare "traditionalism" with "modernism," tell "satire" from "burlesque," the "baroque" from the "rococo," or weigh the competing claims of "realism" and "romanticism"? But categories can be misleading, blinding us to the rich and complex qualities of any artistic enterprise.

The term, "a novel of manners," is a case in point. We may invoke it to indicate the difference between "The Portrait of a Lady" and "Moby Dick." Or "Vanity Fair" and "The Call of the Wild." Or even "Pride and Prejudice" and "Jane Eyre." And yet, and yet. Although less focused on social nuances than Jane Austen, the outspoken Charlotte Bronte - and even her still more unconventional sister Emily - are also concerned with social codes and the ways in which their characters obey, misread, challenge, or ignore them. Thus, in some sense, it could be said that most novels are novels of manners.

This broader, more inclusive definition of manners and the novel of manners is the working premise of Susan Goodman's interesting new book, "Civil Wars: American Novelists and Manners, 1880-1940." A professor of English at the University of Delaware, she begins her study of six American novelists by reminding us that one of them, Edith Wharton, refused even to "recognize a substantive distinction between novels and novelists of manners."

Ms. Goodman wants to take issue with the prevalent belief, promulgated by "Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century and Lionel Trilling in the twentieth, that the United States has neither the rich past nor the stratification of classes required to produce a novelist of manners."

On the contrary, Ms. Goodman aims to show the many ways in which American novelists have scrutinized the norms of everyday life for clues about character, history, morality, social change, and national identity.

The historical period covered in her book, 1880-1940, was a time of transformation that had many Americans wondering about their national identity, as their nation emerged from the travails of the Civil War to take its place as a vigorous, yet in many eyes, unformed presence on the world stage.

The novelists she has chosen to examine are, in chronological order, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, and Jessie Fauset, all in some sense realists, but each with distinct ways of perceiving reality and presenting it in their fiction.

A self-educated Midwesterner who came to wield enormous influence in his day as editor of the Atlantic Monthly and later, Harper's, William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was also a prolific novelist himself, operating "on the principle that nothing was too common or paltry a subject for fiction."

In Ms. Goodman's view, Howells understood "the political and commercial significance of manners . . . He understood that the tipping of a hat brim might betray an entire system of power." As a champion of a certain kind of social realism, Howells was a prescient observer of some of the larger trends in society and culture.

In novels like "A Modern Instance" (1882), "The Rise of Silas Lapham" (1885), and "A Hazard of New Fortunes" (1890), Howells suggested that institutions like the press actually shape rather than reflect society, foreseeing a time when "people will consult the tabloids to know how they feel and think." Already he discerned the ways in which the media culture of his day was blurring the line between the "masses" and the "classes." His hope was that the masses might rise to the level of the classes; his fear was that the classes would sink to the level of the masses.

Examining the case of Henry James (1843-1916), Ms. Goodman focuses on what this longtime expatriate wrote after paying what proved a rather disorienting return visit to his native land in 1904. …

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