MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 759-761
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American Literary Realism, Critical Theory, and Intellectual Prestige, 1880-1995
Phillip Barrish. American Literary Realism, Critical Theory, and Intellectual Prestige, 1880-1995. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. x + 213 pp.
Phillip Barrish's American Literary Realism, Critical Theory, and Intellectual Prestige is a sensitive, often intriguing study. While Barrish claims to read literary realism within an "historical framework," he is actually much more concerned with the relationship he charts between US literary realism and contemporary poststructuralist theory. While this project is counterintuitive, it is nevertheless often quite convincing. First, Barrish effectively complicates Pierre Bourdieu's work on distinctions with insights drawn from poststructuralist theory and close readings of realist literary texts. Then, he locates an interesting congruency in the claims to intellectual authority and prestige made by the literary realists and several [End Page 759] important poststructuralist critics. In one short book, then, Barrish teaches us not only how prestige and cultural capital functions in texts by William Dean Howells, Henry James, Abraham Cahan, and Edith Wharton, but also in those by Paul de Man, John Guillory, and Judith Butler.
Barrish argues that, for the realists, reality is never simply a set of material facts—life in the slums, say, or the awful reality of incest. Instead, following Judith Butler, he claims that "matter" itself is always a discursively produced, relational construct. As a result, Barrish describes realism as a kind of disposition—in particular, as an attitude or temperament toward a set of relations through which prestige may be accrued by an especially sensitive agent and/or reader. In addition, whereas distance from material reality is necessary for distinctions in Bourdieu's account of bourgeois status, Barrish shows that, for the realists, proximity to and even intimacy with the nitty-gritty real also helps to determine intellectual and cultural status. In Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham, for instance, Tom Corey and Penelope Lapham obtain realist prestige because they exhibit, through their refined appreciation of Silas Lapham's rural New England dialect, a "preferential taste for the simple or natural" without being aligned with the simple or natural. Their democratic taste for dialect distinguishes them from the other, less democratic, culture mavens in the novel. Similarly, Barrish shows how Merton Densher in James's The Wings of the Dove obtains his ethically creditable, realist position in James's text not through wealth or position but from his uniquely emotional understanding of Milly Theale's fatal illness and his ultimate refusal to benefit, by accepting her bequeathed fortune, from her death.
In addition to his suggestive readings of works by Howells, James, and Cahan, Barrish also brings Wharton's jazz-age novel Twilight Sleep to our attention, explaining that it is an especially important realist text because it challenges the gender politics he ascribes to the genre. Barrish rightfully claims that "intellectual prestige does tend to figure as male in turn-of-the-century realist works" and that Wharton is perhaps the most keen of the realists in her insistence on "the relation between 'materialization' and gender." Still, his claim that maleness is "aligned with 'positive [. . .] symbolic capital'" in realism remains for me a disputable one. Indeed, even though Wharton's heroine in Twilight Sleep does gain the realist intellectual status typically associated with men, she also ends up [End Page 760] just as prostrated and wounded as the population of similarly paralyzed male characters in the realist archive.
Barrish's focus on intra-class competition, by contrast, not only distinguishes his study from other important recent works on US literary realism, but also best links together his analysis of literary realism with his sociological response to poststructuralist criticism. According to Barrish, just as Howells, in his criticism, claimed realist prestige by championing his shifting sense of reality as more sophisticated than that afforded by other aesthetic forms or other cultural critics, De Man, Guillory, and Butler also claim intellectual prestige by demonstrating that the "matter" they analyze is at once more complex and...