- Some Glittering Nondescript Vertebrate:The Provocative Style of Realism in Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes
In his 1891 realist manifesto Criticism and Fiction, W. D. Howells pits his watchful eye against both the literary stylist, whose skills are “wasted in preening and prettifying,” and the hoodwinked reader, whose perceptual capacities are bedazzled and whose judgment is lulled by glamour or mystery.1 For Howells, realist perception is a quality for the writer and the reader alike to refine in order to escape the allure of artificial discourse, which rears its head in popular romance novels, imitations of past literary forms, prose that dwells on its own style rather than on truth, and advertisements that ignite desire. Criticism and Fiction thus promotes a two-pronged agenda, taking both writers and readers to task for succumbing too easily to the temptation to indulge in emotion, desire, and literary style when they ought to privilege the common stuff of real observation. Howells’ polemics stridently eschew both literature that enacts or induces misperceptions of reality and readers who embrace such literature. What emerges is a double definition of realism: it names observation as a mode of unmediated literary production, while it also identifies observation as a mode of reception that is mediated by the good judgment and common sense of the realist writer. Thus, even as realist representation implies a direct conduit from reality to text, effacing the mediating role of the writer in forming the text, realism as Howells would have it also constructs the selective intellectual frame that is necessary for its own apparently unmediated perception of the real.
Critics have taken Howells to task on both accounts—for a naïve faith in (or, alternately, for his anxious insistence on) the referentiality of his texts and, despite his avidly professed progressivism, for a transparent organizing [End Page 189] gaze that constructs a palatable version of the real. Both critiques emerge, it seems, from the sense that something is suspect in the simultaneity of Howells’ embrace of an unmediated text and his corollary insistence on framing readers’ perception. In this light, his progressive moral polemics on democracy and sympathy appear to be vigorously contradicted by the conservative morality fueling a selective vision of the real.2 Paul Petrie has argued that we can reclaim Howells’ progressive ethical agenda by reading his novels in terms of what he claims to do for readers rather than in terms of what realist form itself might be. “Howells’ central aesthetic principle is instrumental rather than ontological, deriving not from what literature is, in and of itself, but rather from what literature does, for actual readers in the historical world.”3 If we shift attention, Petrie argues, from the problems of realist form to the realist novel’s effects on readers, and thus from literary style to Howells’ “conception of literature’s social and ethical aims,” we can find “an underlying logical unity in Howells’ aesthetic thinking that formalist approaches … have tended to suppress.”4
While Petrie’s attention to readers is vital for understanding Howells’ project, it remains the case that literary form—“what literature is”—is precisely the locus of “what literature does, for actual readers.” If Petrie is right that Howells’ fiction enacts his ethical conception of literature, and I think he is, then a discerning analysis of form and style in Howells’ fiction might illuminate rather than suppress the logical unity that underlies his dual concern with realist production and realist reception, or what we might call his paradoxical desire to mediate unmediated perception in his readers.
These questions are brought to bear with particular force in the pages of A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889). Written in the uneasy wake of his controversial public support for the Haymarket anarchists, it is at once Howells’ most ambitiously political novel and his most self-reflexive novel, exploring labor unrest, immigration, and urban poverty as well as the writerly perspective of Basil March, who has just arrived in New York City to start a literary magazine.5 It is also the novel that critics have, on one hand, often charged with conservatively imposing a too-logical unity, mapping social and rhetorical order...