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COMMONPLACE REALITY AND THE ROMANTIC PHANTOMS: HOWELLS' A MODERN INSTANCE AND THE RISE OF SILAS LAPHAM Rosalie Murphy and Seymour Gross* When in 1884 Henry James characterized William Dean Howells as "the great American naturalist" while yet acknowledging his fellow novelist's "romantic phantoms" and "tendency to facetious glosses,"1 he was locating if not quite defining the counter-impulses of Howells' fiction through the 1880s. Howells himself had years before begun his battle against the distortions and excesses of what he called the "romanticistic novel" and by the late 1880s had even come to regard Zola, the patron saint of naturalism whom Howells had helped to introduce to the American reading public, as "romantic" because of what Howells saw as Zola's distortions of reality. Throughouthis writing career Howells displayed a propensity and downright love for realism, committing himself to the belief that the moral function of fiction was "to picture life just as it is, to deal with character as we witness itin living people, and to record the incidents that grow out of character." The "romance" he acknowledged as a separate form of literature, one which "deals with life allegorically and not representatively . . . employs types rather than characters and studies them in the ideal rather than the real";2 it is, he says elsewhere, "like the poem, at once more elevated and a little more mechanical than the novel."3 But for all his periodic defenses of the romance as alegitimateform, Howells regarded the novel as the important literary work, that which delt with the "lifelike," the "true to life," the "probable," the "natural," the "real": 'Seymour Gross, Burke O'Neill Professor of American Literature at the University of Detroit, has published over sixty articles on American and English literature. Among his books are Images of the Negro in American Literature (with John Edward Hardy) and American Literature Survey (with Milton Stem). Rosalie Murphy is adoctoralcandidateat the University ofDetroit and is theeditor of ContemporaryPoets of theEnglish Language. Gross and Murphy are preparing an edition of The Blithdale Romance to be published by the Norton Publishing Co. in 1976. Rosalie Murphy and Seymour Gross Let no intending novelist suppose this fidelity to life can be carried too far. . . . I think the effectis like that in those cycloramas where up to a certain point there is real ground and real grass, andthen carried indivisibly on to the canvas the best that the painter can do to imitate real ground and real grass. We start in our novels with something we have known of life, that is, with life itself; and then we go on and imitate what we have known of life. If we are very skillful and very patient we can hide the joint. But the joint is always there, and on one side of it are real ground and real grass, and on the other are the painted images of ground and grass. Despite his intense longing and his strenuous efforts "to make the painted ground and grass exactly like the real," Howells feels he has not succeeded: "Some touch of color, some tone or texture is always wanting; the light is different; it is all in another region."4 The joint was not hidden, and it was the "romantic phantoms" (often leading to "factitious glosses") which were largely responsible. For Howells, the imitation of real grass and ground necessitated an authorial selection of detail which reflected his concern with the commonplace ("the small round of daily events") rather than with the unusual, the superior, or the eccentric; an emphasis on character, with plot growing out of character; a demand for literature which reflected the "peculiarly American," which to Howells' mind meant the "more smiling aspects of life" since America offered most Americans a "large, cheerful average of health and success and happy fife"; and an insistence upon the novelist's fidelity to his "own knowledge of things," not merely to the surface of things. But Howells's "knowledge of things," that material to which he must give "truthful treatment," included a literary tradition of romance and a cultural-historical tradition that was basically romantic.5 Such works as A Modern Instance (1882) and The Rise of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 1-14
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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