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  • From Biography to History: The Historical Imagination and American Fiction, 1880-1940
  • John Rohrkemper
Lois Hughson. From Biography to History: The Historical Imagination and American Fiction, 1880-1940. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1988. 212 pp. No price given.

Lois Hughson's study is an account of the way five writers—Henry Adams, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, and John Dos Passos—wrestled with the implications of Emerson's belief that history is biography. Nearly half of the text traces the evolution of Henry Adams' historical thought, culminating in the dynamic theory of history developed in The Education in which he privileged a scientific model of historical narration that was strongly influenced by evolutionary theory. Hughson distinguishes between a biographical model that "moves toward coherence and identity" and a historical model that "seeks to show the way the past explains the present and to uncover the essential forces that make for change." She identifies three characteristics of the novel modeled on history: "a concern with social change, an interest in explaining events in terms of the consequences of the past, and in creating characters whose situations cannot entirely be understood outside of historically determined circumstances and whose destiny cannot be explained without reference to the processes of the public world."

Hughson begins with Adams, who formulated the historical model, and ends with Dos Passos, its most successful practitioner. Perhaps as a result of their importance to her thesis, her discussions of Adams and Dos Passos are the most lively, interesting, and insightful parts of the book (although there is something anticlimactic about ending with Dos Passos' nonfiction historical accounts of the nation's founders, for all of these accounts are seriously flawed historical narratives). Nearly as interesting is her chapter on Dreiser, who embraced the biographical model but denied the Emersonian assumption that experience leads to self-knowledge, growth, and coherence.

The chapters on James and Howells are somewhat less satisfying. The discussion of James is undercut by Hughson's focus on three novels that rarely are thought to be among his best: The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, and The Tragic Muse. Furthermore, Hughson admits that James more or less abandons the historical concerns of this period of his career and that his great later novels owe little directly to these experiments. As we might expect, Hughson's discussion of Howells focuses on A Hazard of New Fortunes, a work undeniably central to his career, but again she must admit that Howells' use of the historical model is short lived, and, like James, he was to abandon it in his later career. Hughson would argue, I think, that her analyses of James and Howells are important to her thesis because they suggest how difficult it was for novelists to abandon the biographical model and because they represent necessary stages in the development of the historical model. Still, these chapters lack the vitality of those that focus on writers for whom the issue is a more central concern of their entire careers.

From Biography to History attempts to follow a line in the development of American fiction; it makes no claim that this is the way to read the fiction of [End Page 278] American modernism. Still, in this study that privileges those works that are most richly contextual—most inclusive of social and historical currents—we might expect that Hughson would offer some evaluation of how this line of development fits in the larger canon of twentieth-century American fiction. That, however, might be the focus of another work. Given the parameters Hughson has set for herself, From Biography to History succeeds admirably.

John Rohrkemper
Elizabethtown College


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pp. 278-279
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