- The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism by Phillip J. Barrish
Most readers of this journal probably do not think they will discover much of interest in a new introduction to American Literary Realism. Indeed, if such a volume were found to be full of discoveries, it would surely fail to carry out its titular function as an introduction for students, teachers, and general readers who are new to the field. Yet Phillip Barrish, exemplifying what Howells might have called “that strange duplex action of the human mind,” offers us a rare scholarly treasure: a volume that is at once elementary in its sweeping presentation of the field and challenging for more experienced scholars of realism, who will find abundant food for thought in Barrish’s insightful readings of well-known texts.
Barrish has wisely resisted the urge to provide a comprehensive survey of significant writers. Instead, he organizes the volume thematically around important concepts, trends, and problems. Each of his ten concise chapters covers one such thematic cluster and culminates with detailed readings of major representative texts. There are few surprises in the linkage of themes and authors (e.g., Howells and Crane on realism and the city; Twain and Chesnutt on realism and race; Gilman and Chopin on realism and feminism; etc.), and yet Barrish’s thoughtful treatment gives each discussion a fresh emphasis. In a section entitled “Writing the Ordinary,” for example, [End Page 89] he details Howells’ experimental focus on “the humdrum aspects of contemporary middle-class existence.” Howells’ commitment to “the veracity of the ordinary” is hardly news, but Barrish’s nuanced reading of Their Wedding Journey presents the Marches’ fascination with local commonplaces as a species of consumer revolt. The Marches understand that localism has become an international commodity, according to Barrish’s reading, and Basil’s incessant commentary on the marketing of ostensibly “authentic” local goods thus constitutes a disgruntled acknowledgement of global capitalism’s increasingly comprehensive reach. “Writing the ordinary” turns out to be an intriguing response to social and economic forces that complicate the very possibility of “humdrum” experience.
Readers familiar with Barrish’s fine 2001 study, American Literary Realism, Critical Theory, and Intellectual Prestige, 1880–1995, will not be surprised to learn that Pierre Bourdieu has an important role to play in this account of realism, which is as keenly attentive to issues of “taste” and “distinction” as it is to local color, urban poverty, and other more familiar categories of realist analysis. Barrish is also careful to position literary naturalism as a branch of realist experimentation, rather than as a formally and theoretically separate school or philosophical movement. Acknowledging that some critics would prefer to jettison the term entirely, Barrish maintains that “as long as we do not attempt to make rigid distinctions between individual works—as if literary texts could be classified according to some Linnaean taxonomy, with each assigned to a carefully defined species, genus, and family—then ‘naturalism’ can still serve a productive function.” Accordingly, his discussions of “economic change” and “masculinity” in major works by Dreiser, Norris, and London present naturalism as a “multifaceted and contested category” that nonetheless “remains generative for those seeking to understand American realist fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
If this volume has a weakness, it can be blamed on the press, which presumably dictated formatting decisions, such as the inclusion of discrete text-boxes on subordinate topics. Thus in the midst of Barrish’s discussion of “Realism’s Debts to Romance” a shaded box interrupts the discussion with an irrelevant paragraph on “The Southwestern Humorists.” Thankfully, realism’s indebtedness to romance takes center stage again, only to be interrupted a page later with another shaded box on “The Slave Narratives.” Walt Whitman later gets his own box, as do the literary magazines. All of these are interesting asides, but it is unclear why, if they are relevant to American Literary Realism, they should appear as unassimilated distractions. Indeed, one of the signal virtues of Barrish’s...