- Literature for Social Change: From Realism to Modernism
For specialists in modernism, William Dean Howells may still figure in memory mainly as a representative of the genteel tradition that twentieth-century writers rebelled against, the man Sinclair Lewis famously called an old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage. The distinction drawn between Howells's Victorian-age realism and the innovations and energy of the new century was sharp, even bitter and angry. But, as Bruce Robbins has pointedly suggested, realism wrongly, repeatedly, and for various reasons has been used as a “scapegoat term that a given author, text, period, or genre can be shown to rise sophisticatedly and self-consciously above” (227). This scapegoating simplifies realism and, in relation to modernism, enables the erection of an untenable division. One of the books under review here, William Morgan's Questionable Charity, [End Page 413] is part of the series “Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies,” which aims to “examine the emergence of modernity in North America and Europe” by shifting attention “from modernity's twentieth-century forms to its earlier moments of uncertain and often disputed construction” (ii). But Paul R. Petrie's Conscience and Purpose could arguably be included under this rubric as well. Both books take as their topic US literary realism and social ethics—registering the general resurrection of ethics in our critical-theoretical field. And while their assumptions and scholarly frameworks are profoundly different, both books end up in a similar place, recommending the pertinence for modernism, and for us, of realism's ethical and social analyses and aims. As we entertain the idea that the concerns and conditions of modernism and postmodernism are not that different from each other, their break from realism, these books further suggest, is overstated as well.
The two books also have a number of more particular polemical similarities. Both write against the simplifications of realism that modernist/postmodernist studies have sometimes participated in—the reduction of realism to a servant of the status quo that represents the hegemonic version of reality under the guise of objectivity or the characterization of realism as a cultural function that serves to contain the social contradictions of the society it depicts. This is to say, they are both reassessments of left-political critiques of literary realism. Both argue against the supposed participation of realist writers, at least in any unambivalent way, in US cultural imperialism: Petrie takes on Richard Brodhead and others who characterize regionalism as a tool of hegemony, and Morgan disputes John Carlos Rowe and others who see Stephen Crane as acquiescing to the ideology of empire. Both invoke Amy Kaplan's The Social Construction of Realism as an exemplum of the containment hypothesis in which realist fictions serve a culturally conservative function of managing social contradictions; they instead see in realist works a complex social and ethical analysis and an endorsement of progressive and pragmatic reform that we would do well to heed and draw on. They both are about the fate and translation in the post-Civil War era of the moral and political clarity that inspired sentimentalism and abolitionism, and they suggest a similar pertinence of realist ethics and politics for the modern and postmodern periods. Finally, they both make Howells their centerpiece—an interesting development about which I will have more to say. In all, they credit literary realists with a great deal more intelligence about, and resistance to, their complicity with the dominant society and culture than the most influential critical trends of the past couple of decades have allowed. But again, they are otherwise very different books, mainly because they begin in [End Page 414] such different places when imagining authorial subjectivity and its relation to culture and society.
Paul Lauter, in his collection of essays, Canons and Contexts (1991), argued that the aesthetic criteria adopted by academic literary study in the...