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TheSelfandthe Social Community: Another Look atAmericanRealism Alfred Habegger.Gende1; Fantasy and Realism mAmericanLiterature. New York: Columbia UniversityPress, 1982.378 + xiiipp. Elizabeth Hampsten. Read This Only to Yourself: ThePrivateWritings of Midwestern Women, 1880-19 JO. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.242 + xiiipp. William Dean Howells.Selected Letters. Vol. I (1852-1872). Edited by George Arms et al. BostonTwaynePublishers , 1979.498 + xxvpp. William Dean Howells.Selected Letters. Vol. II (1873-1881). Edited by George Arms and Christoph K. Lohmann. Boston: TwaynePublishers, 1979.371 + xivpp. Elizabeth StevensPrioleau. The Circle of Eros: Sexuali(\' in the Work of William Dean Howells. Durham, N.C.:Duke University Press, 1983.226 + xvii pp. EricJ. Sundquist,ed. American Realism: New Essays. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.298 +ix pp. BarbaraPitz In The Devil's Dictionmy, Ambrose Bierce defined realism as "the art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads." 1 Like Bierce, literary critics traditionally havebeen uncomfortable with realism's seemingly unsophisticated ideas and objective view of human experience, its documentary and detailed formsof expression, its quaint structures, and literary mediocrity. Further, naturalism,often seen as an extension of realism, has seemed a decadent embarrassment. Realism and naturalism, therefore, generally have been consignedto the realm of the literary historian, who focuses on the philosophical alienation of the idealistic imagination responding to cultural changesproduced by rapid industrialization, the rationalizations of social Darwinism,and the worship of wealth. For the literary critic, realism serves asa bridge spanning the complex vision of romanticism and the cultural and estheticdislocation of the modems. For the literary historian, realism expresses thesocial and intellectual effects of industrial capitalism. American realism, therefore, as a body of literature is critically linked to materialisticconcepts and mundane interests; however, the literature of this periodnot only documents the premises and facts of social interaction but alsoilluminates the fictions forming cultural foundations. Realism in general termsexplores the connection between the real world, primarily the social context, and the isolated self and, to understand it, one must apprehend a complete picture of the social and cultural organization it expresses and Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 1985,317-328 318 Barbara Pitz explores. One wonders, then, why critics often have neglected in their analyses and explications of realism the relationship of men to womenandof both to the structures and attitudes of their culture in favor of the relationship of men to machines or to business enterprise. The major value of the books under review here is their application of a recent interest in gender to American realism. The study of the meaning of gender in society aidsan understanding of those pressures of the community and of material reality, which realism documents on the individual. Gender studies contribute to the work of the literary historian by reassessing the validity of a literatureas representative of a society when that literature exemplifies the ideals and systems primarily of one gender or class within that society. In addition, the study of gender provides the literary critic with knowledge of the beliefsand customs of the audience, both of which help to determine literary form.The books under review emphasize the common ideals of both the writers ofthe period and their audience. These studies treat traditional critical concerns of American realism, such as the influence of and response to the success dream, conspicuous consumption as a replacement for production, the shaping power of the political community, and the sovereignty of the selfina deterministic world, from a new angle by emphasizing the importance ofthe heroine in realistic fiction, by discovering neglected popular writers whose work contributes to our understanding of the cultural fabric as well as toa realistic tradition, and by more fully analyzing personal, cultural and literary influences on the premier realists, in particular the dean of American realism, William Dean Howells. The essays collected in Eric Sundquist's American Realism: New Essays evaluate the ideas and techniques of American realism from a traditional critical stance, treating realism as a link between romanticism and modernism. This collection originated from a panel on American realism that Sundquist chaired at the 1979Modern Language Association convention and contains fourteen essays, for the most part written by well-known scholars, on the recognized writers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 317-328
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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