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Miss Ravenel’s Conversion, Evolutionary Realism, and the Moving Equilibrium
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The problem is to inaugurate a condition of social progress. This cannot be done by disturbing the social order. Order is the condition to progress, and progress consists in setting up dynamic activities in the social structures themselves. A structure represents a state of equilibrium, but it is never a perfect equilibrium, and the conversion of this partial equilibrium into a moving equilibrium, provided it moves in the right direction, is social progress.

—Lester Ward, “Evolution of Social Structures” (1904)

Natural Selection led back to Natural Evolution, and at last to Natural Uniformity. This was a vast stride. Unbroken Evolution under uniform conditions pleased every one. . . . Such a working system for the universe suited a young man who had just helped to waste five or ten thousand million dollars and a million lives, more or less, to enforce unity and uniformity on people who objected to it; the idea was only too seductive in its perfection; it had the charm of art.

—Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918)

That the leading promoter and practitioner of literary realism in the U.S., W. D. Howells, praised John W. De Forest’s Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867) as “an advanced realism, before realism was known by name” suggests the history of the genre should go through De Forest.1 De Forest is, however, largely absent from such histories; when he is mentioned, it is generally as a curious precursor who anticipated the generic shift he did not quite lead.2 There are good reasons for this exclusion. In 1869, a year after calling for the “Great American Novel” that would capture “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence,” De Forest complained that “the tale of ordinary life no longer excites remark, no matter how well done” and sought to “make talk, & [bring] readers” with sensational romance and pointed satire.3 Although he abandoned realism a decade before it appeared prominently in distinguished journals and magazines, De Forest nevertheless constructed the evolutionary framework that subsequent realists, including Howells, George Washington Cable, and Hamlin Garland, used to make sense of history, manage diversity, and correlate individual development with national progress. Miss Ravenel’s Conversion, in particular, represents an important literary response to what Donald Pizer has called “the great late-nineteenth-century issue of [determining] man’s place in a world reconceived along evolutionary lines.”4 This effort is often associated with turn-of-the-century literary naturalism, but many postbellum realists were also fascinated with evolutionary theories. In this essay, I define Miss Ravenel’s Conversion as the earliest, most emphatic example of evolutionary realism, an important sub-genre that dramatizes the experiences of unremarkable protagonists in ways that assume, support, or illustrate scientifically valid, emotionally satisfying progress.

The Touchstone of Evolutionary Realism

Written between 1864 and 1867 and based in part on De Forest’s own Civil War experiences, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion is justly remembered for its startling account of wartime realities. But, as it happened, the novel’s main contribution to postbellum literary realism lay in its new conception of literature’s relationship to history. From the opening chapter, De Forest elides the difference between the individual and epochal by dovetailing individual “biography” and national history.5 Indeed, the opening sentence dates Lillie Ravenel and Edward Colburne’s acquaintance to a time “shortly after the capitulation of loyal Fort Sumter,” and their marriage roughly coincides with the Union’s victory.6 While novelists had long interpreted national history through their characters’ experiences, De Forest was among the first to stage emerging ideas of evolutionary progress on the individual and national levels. Pivoting national and literary history around the war, he develops a new mode of realism that ascribes order and purpose to modernity and shifts the novel’s emotional focus from the exceptional individual, hero of romance, to the social order, protagonist of social evolution.

Notoriously difficult to define, postbellum literary realism is perhaps best understood as a set of literary and critical responses to the perceived shortcomings of so-called sensational, sentimental, or romantic fiction. Toward a more aesthetically satisfying and sociologically useful literature, realists displayed a keen interest in literature’s...

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