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  • Americanist Literary Realism:Howells, Historicism, and American Exceptionalism
  • Sophia Forster (bio)

In November 1887, America's preeminent author and editor William Dean Howells wrote an open letter to the New York Tribune urging others to join him in his attempt to stay the execution of the so-called Haymarket anarchists. These men had been arrested in the wake of the May 1886 Haymarket riot, a labor reform rally in Chicago that turned violent when someone threw a bomb into the crowd. For Howells, the situation's injustice arose from more than the lack of evidence against the accused. As Timothy L. Parrish points out, "they were essentially tried and convicted for advocating labor reform and for being foreigners"; they were convicted, that is, for their response to the same unequal social conditions that were becoming a source of increasing dismay to Howells (24). The letter had no effect on the outcome of the trial (four of the eight men convicted were executed), and Howells, the lone literary figure to make a public statement, was much criticized.

But if Howells's status as a radical seemed clear at that moment, the question has since become considerably muddied. This is partly a result of Howells's own tendency to qualify his political views. For instance, the Haymarket affair was no doubt very much in Howells's mind when he wrote to Henry James the following year,

I'm not in a very good mood with "America" myself. It seems to me the most grotesquely illogical thing under the [End Page 216] sun; and I suppose I love it less because it won't let me love it more. I should hardly like to trust pen and ink with all the audacity of my social ideas; but after fifty years of optimistic content with "civilization" and its ability to come out all right in the end, I now abhor it, and feel that it is coming out all wrong in the end, unless it bases itself anew on a real equality. Meantime I wear a fur-lined overcoat, and live in all the luxury my money can buy.

("Howells to James" 272)

Perhaps Howells's most striking expression of the irony he recognized in his position as middle-class social activist, this much-cited statement is rich in implication. While Howells asserts "the audacity of [his] social ideals," apparently prompted by his newly pessimistic perspective on "civilization"—he uses scare-quotes to designate the loss of the term's meaning when applied to the contemporary social landscape—he concludes with an admission of complicity in the current state of affairs.1 The contrast between the final two sentences, one long and abstract, the other short and concrete, suggests that Howells intended a rhetorical blow. Who he intended to fell is less clear. One obvious target is Howells himself. Indeed, the statement's suggestion that Howells's class allegiances trump his social ideals has tempted many recent critics to adopt it as the watchword for Howells's realist project, which, they argue, devotes itself to the maintenance of middle-class power in spite of Howells's ambivalence toward his own class location—or, more complexly, by means of that ambivalence.

But no necessary relationship exists between political conservatism and the discrepancy that Howells outlines between his beliefs and actions. Phillip Barrish suggests that Howells's numerous comments about his own contradictory position become "something other than repeated confessions of personal hypocrisy" because "he also often points towards structural impediments that no strength of individual resolve could overcome" (34). Howells does so in this very passage. His self-deprecating insistence that he lives in "all" the luxury his money can buy suggests a kind of compulsion, a force independent of his will. The contrast between what Howells preaches and what he practices indicts the system that creates such a force more than it attacks individual members of the buying class.

In many ways, Howells's theory and practice of realism exemplify the concern with structure that this passage indicates. In a fashion strikingly similar to that of historicist social science, which developed contemporaneously with literary realism, Howellsian realism concerns itself with the ways in which...


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pp. 216-241
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