There has yet to be a study of the graphic connections between Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Rise of Silas Lapham. This gap is surprising for a number of reasons. Not only were these American "realist" masterpieces completed during the same one-year period and serialized simultaneously in The Century Magazine, but they were written at a time when their mutually admiring writers stayed in frequent, enthusiastic contact—writing letters; swapping manuscripts; trading visits between Clemens' Hartford and Howells' Boston homes; even (especially) collaborating on a comedy, Colonel Sellers as a Scientist, whose premise was so outlandish and whose props were so dangerous that the play to this day is virtually unproduceable. More to the point, Howells pored over Huckleberry Finn's page proofs while he was midway through Silas Lapham, citing "the pleasure of admiring a piece of work I like under a microscope" (Smith 2. 484).
But this critical gap also makes sense. The novels are fundamentally different. Apart from their divergent regionalisms (Southwest and Northeast), they appear to be generically at odds: one a loosely threaded first-person picaresque that follows the "adventures" of a hapless orphan from one improbable scrape to the next, the other a carefully structured, omniscient novel of manners that charts the "rise" (and inevitable fall) of an arriviste businessman and his socially aspiring family. One's structure is serpentine, the other pyramidal. One's language is coarse, the other decorous. Huckleberry Finn mines its narrator's salty voice and tough conscience for shocking ironies and biting social [End Page 23] condemnation. Silas Lapham, treading lightly through its author's own neighborhoods, nudges at mild vanities and prejudices that only make its Boston-Brahmin world more charming.
And yet the novels share a complex eccentricity. Their authors marred them in identical ways, incorporating runaway burlesques of popular literature into their self-consciously "realist" forms. In both cases, satire comes to realism's defense, and very much at realism's expense. Hemingway called the last ten or so chapters of Huckleberry Finn "just cheating," referring of course to the episodes when Tom Sawyer, warped by years of romance reading, tortures Jim, Huck, and the reader with a series of sadistic adventures that derail the novel's hard-won integrity. Critics have long noted (dismissed, excused, built upon) a similar disruption in Silas Lapham (Seelye 53; Habegger 896; Kohler 224-28): in the novel's third act, the otherwise whip-smart Penelope Lapham, acting under the influence of a tearjerker (Tears, Idle Tears), succumbs to its moral of melodramatic self-sacrifice and sets in motion an unlikely subplot that mirrors the sentimental potboiler's character motivations. In both Huck Finn and Silas Lapham, what the authors most forfeit in lampooning popular literature are not only their plots' unity and probability, both of which they compromise in other ways as well, but the psychological verisimilitude of their most realistic and proto-realistic characters. Oscar Wilde's weak-willed Dorian Gray is "poisoned by a book" in a gothic story where things like that can happen (165), but Huck and Pen are poisoned by schlock at the same diegetic moments when they are tasked with championing generic and intellectual realism. What both authors flaunt with this forfeiting gesture—this send-up of realism alongside romance—is the artificiality of genre itself; in their efforts to set norms for American literary realism, they mocked its detractors with reckless gestures that flouted the possibility of norms.
Howells' and Clemens' adherence to realism went well beyond questions of literary genre. Like many of their contemporaries, these authors shared a belief in purified "fact" that asserted their modern presuppositions. Since seventeenth-century England, a realist leap of faith, to paraphrase Bruno Latour's prominent theory, has defined the "modern" intellectual position. Latour, building on the scientific history of Shapin and Shaffer, argues that a "modern" intellectual "constitution" arose during the Enlightenment that asserts the paradoxical coexistence of both purified subjects and purified objects, serving "as [End Page 24] counterweight to one another" (31). Since Hobbes argued for freestanding subjects in Leviathan, society has been intellectually divided from nature and from—most importantly during that period's religious...