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It is hard—in fact, well-nigh impossible—to come upon virgin territory in the study of nineteenth-century American literature. But it is still worthwhile to review and reassess individual artists, literary theories, and social history in order to be able to achieve a clearer and fuller portrait of an age, its stresses and strains, its effect on writing, and its contribution to our present-day culture.
In his carefully organized volume of nine essays, The Mask of Fiction, John Crowley does full justice to his subject, suggested by Howells's biographical reminiscence, Years of My Youth (1916): "No man, unless he puts on the mask of fiction, can show his real face or the will behind it." Previously published between 1972 and 1987, these essays have been extensively revised. They make a significant contribution to the new wave of revision and revival of Howells's career as man and writer. Biographical essays make up Part One of Crowley's volume. They are vivid reminders of Howells's periodic nervous breakdowns and the almost Herculean tasks, duties, and "fearful" responsibilities he had to face. A most touching chapter, "Winifred Howells and the Economy of Pain," is a closely detailed review of the physical and emotional collapse of his daughter, in part due to the pressures of her literary competition with her famous father. Howells survived his many ordeals through his writing and editing, which served as much-needed self-therapy.
In Part Two of his study, Crowley reveals a side of Howells's writing personality not usually discussed. He traces Howells's "liberating inward journey that would lead during his remaining thirty years to the unlocking of some psychological mysteries and the contemplation of some psychic ones." Crowley probes and elucidates such works as The Flight of Pony Baker, The Son of Royal Langbrith, Fennel and Rue, New Leaf Mills, and Questionable Shapes.
Like other critics, Crowley would like to see Howells respected as a "major" writer. But from all the evidence available, he may have to be satisfied with Howells's current niche—as our formidable Dean—who opened wider the gates of Realism, who was a kindly mentor to younger writers, who was a good critic and editor. But he is still plagued with the problern of "art." Howells is certainly more than a "marginal" or "in-between" writer. The American literary establishment has not helped matters by its lack of agreement on what really constitutes a major writer.
Daniel H. Borus in Writing Realism, another carefully organized volume, effectively fills in and expands the reaches of the realist movement. He provides many answers and raises valid questions (some by implication), as he focuses on the question: why realism? To a lesser degree, although it is not his intention, he questions what is realism? He charts the aims and results of realism as it displaces the romantic movement and an elitist view of art and life. [End Page 550]
To build his elaborate study, Borus draws on an enormous amount of material from both literature and history. He shows how and why people, social, political, economic, and technological events "conspired" to create the realist movement. Continually he reminds critics and readers of material events that affected the realist imagination: the invention of the typewriter (1868) and the fountain pen (1884), along with the use of Gregg shorthand (the 1880s).
Borus goes to the novel as a basic source of investigation, and to three writers—Howells, James, and Norris—because of "their efforts to justify writing as a profession and a calling. Not only do the three represent different variants of realism, but they attempted to...