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Eric Sundquist, ed. American Realism: New Essays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1982. 298 pp. $7.95 The title of Eric Sundquist's collection promises a great deal in its understated way. One expects to see reflected in its pages the changes registered by recent developments in the theory and practice of criticism on our understanding of a group of texts that we have traditionaUy regarded as epistemologically conservative—novels, primarily , that seem uniquely resistant to the current emphasis on the mediations of language and form. Of course, American realism , as the Jamesian more than any one else knows, has never presented any sort of united front, and students of "realism" have always been forced to decide whether they want to use the term in its strong sense to designate a specific program for representing reaUty in fiction or in its weaker sense simply to name the set of texts produced in America over a certain span of years. The task of a volume of this sort is, at least implicitly, to account for why certain authors need to be considered collectively as a movement, a school, or merely a chapter in American literary history and, conversely , to explain why others can be discounted even though they share similar representational strategies or are exact contemporaries of the realists. Sundquist, I think correctly, opts for the "weak" definition of realism (he identifies it with the decade of the 1890s, giving and taking a few years on either side) and so allows his contributors license to approach their subjects from a variety of "new" critical perspectives . But this freedom is compromised by what seems in these circumstances an overly schematic organization. The volume includes , in addition to an introductory essay by Sundquist, fourteen essays arranged symmetrically : there are two entries on each of the six male writers who have traditionally been regarded as America's major realists (Howells, Twain, James, Crane, Norris, and Dreiser) and two more devoted to women writers (Julia Bader's discussion of the local colorists and Joan Lidoff's psychoanalytic reading of The House of Mirth). By the logic of this symmetry, the women count coUectively as a single major figure and so remain essentially marginal. This rather timid opening of the canon omits completely one crucial woman writer, Kate Chopin, and the volume excludes along with Chopin aU those writers who, though not conventionally "literary," contributed significantly to the ideology of the period; if "realism" refers to any intellectual movement, it designates the new set of assumptions about how literary texts participate in social discourse generally shared by professional authors , beliefs made possible by, and reflected in the works of, such writers as William James, Thorstein Veblen, Jane Addams, Henry Adams, and Ida TarbeU to name only a few. The narrow Umits of the "canon" addressed by this coUection are exacerbated by the failure of many of the contributors to challenge significantly the standard aesthetic evaluation of the writers they discuss: for example, both writers on Norris begin their essays by apologizing for wasting our time on an author who "is difficult to write about, and something of an embarrassment as weU" (199). A truly revisionary project would either ignore embarrassing authors altogether or argue more confidently that we have been wrong in our evaluations of them. All of this is not to say that the volume is in any sense a failure. Sundquist has gathered here several very strong essays , few really weak ones, and three that offer seminal reinterpretations of the authors they address: Laurence Holland contributes an original account of the final chapters of Huckleberry Finn, suggesting that Twain uses Tom Sawyer's antics to expose the complicity of the author in his plot; and Philip Fisher and Walter Benn Michaels importantly revise the standard view of Dreiser in their complementary essays. Sundquist's introduction is noteworthy in its own right as an exploration of the historical forces that influenced the realists and made the 1890s the epoch that made modernism inevitable. In Sundquist's view, the texts his contributors discuss are not characterized by epistemological conVolume VI 63 Number 1 The Henry James Review Fall, 1984 servatism; rather, they demonstrate "intense experimentation with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 63-65
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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