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Amy Kaplan shows how selected American writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century—William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton, and Theodore Dreiser—constructed public and private selves by willing and plotting their way into becoming professional authors of a particular and unique kind while creating through their writing the realities that their fictions somehow constructed and simultaneously mirrored. The critic's purpose here is to rescue the writer from anyone's misguided notion that the writer has a priori an essential self or that those works of realism created by such self-constructed writers have a one-to-one correspondence to any referential reality.
Kaplan poses the questions that impelled her investigations:
Why does the fiction of the referent become a powerful rallying cry for some, a point of contention for others, and an assumption taken for granted by still other writers at the particular historical juncture of the 1880s and 1890s? How do literary texts produce a social reality that can be recognized as "the way things are"? And what counterforces threaten to disrupt this process of recognition? How does "reality" come to be associated with depictions of brutality, sordidness, and lower-class life, and how are the same realms often cordoned off as "unreal"? Is realism part of a broader cultural effort to fix and control a coherent representation of a social reality that seems increasingly inaccessible, fragmented, and beyond control?
To find answers to these questions Kaplan reexamines "realism" within "three interrelated contexts": "social change," "the representation of class difference," and "the emergence of a mass culture." Prior scholars have not attended to these contexts, Kaplan insists, because their discussions have been skewed by adherence [End Page 233] to the romance thesis espoused by, among others, Richard Chase, especially in The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957). Critical preference for those "romances" that best exemplify Chase's thesis has resulted, apparently, not only in the devaluation of such realistic works as—the three titles privileged by Kaplan—A Hazard of New Fortunes, The House of Mirth, and Sister Carrie but also in establishing, seemingly, a canon within the canon that excludes such works from the mainstream. But this cry against the romance thesis, against such universalizing, essential, "mythic" ways of looking at American fiction requires proper historical contextualizing. Yet Kaplan misleads us when she tells us that "Chase's romance thesis has in effect shaped the canon of American fiction that we still read, teach, and write about today—a canon that was initiated by Brown and Cooper, developed by Hawthorne and Melville, and reached its apotheosis in James and Faulkner, with detours through Twain, Norris, and Fitzgerald." She ignores the fact that with two exceptions, each text Chase takes up was part of the canon long before he published his book or even before he read chapters from it at Columbia University in 1955. And the two exceptions are works of realism—Cable's Grandissimes and Howells' Vacation of the Kelwyns —that Chase makes no effort to fit into the received "romance" thesis. In my opinion Kaplan's contextualizing and positioning introduction makes too much of Chase, giving him a towering importance in the interpretation of American literature that few scholars or students in the 1950s could have imagined. He did, moreover, dissociate himself from the would-be hegemonic myth critics, announcing to his class that despite having written a book on myth (based on his doctoral dissertation) and a "mythic" study of Melville (although it is wrong to see it as only that), he considered himself as a worker in the liberal tradition he traced back to Taine by way of Matthew Arnold and Lionel Trilling, his teacher. How astonishing, then, to read that Chase was indebted to "his colleague Lionel Trilling's antiliberal polemics" (emphasis added). I suppose it all matters on how one defines "liberal," especially if the term is positioned in opposition not to "conservative" but to "Marxist."
Despite my caveats and running marginal qualifications and disagreements, however, I must say with all certainty that this book matters...