- Echoes of Emerson: Rethinking Realism in Twain, James, Wharton, and Cather by Diana Hope Polley
In American literature, the Civil War provides a historical bookend: critics place romanticism on the antebellum book shelf and realism on the postbellum one, separating the two periods in a supposedly neat fashion. This periodization influences not only how American literature is taught, but also how these genres and their relationship to one another are imagined. According to Diana Hope Polley's Echoes of Emerson, periodization feeds a common misreading of realism as a complete rejection of romanticism. By employing Raymond Williams's residual culture (which suggests past cultures communicate with the present) and M. M. Bakhtin's heteroglossia (the idea that a given language contains a multitude of dialogic voices), Polley supports her claim that romantic thought was alive and well in America during the late nineteenth century. Through an analysis of realist novels by Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather, Polley argues that realism engages romanticism—specifically, the transcendental theories of Ralph Waldo Emerson—and holds earlier romantic ideas in a dialogic discourse with realism. These writers stay true to the realist call to acknowledge history through the plots of their stories, but also continue to value Emerson's theories of self-reliance and spiritual individualism by creating characters who are Emersonian heroes and heroines.
The one thing missing from Polley's thought-provoking introduction is a more robust discussion on Emerson. While she briefly discusses her decision to use him to represent romanticism, some might find this choice puzzling. Why choose a predominantly nonfiction, transcendental writer to represent romanticism instead of a fiction, romantic writer like Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville? Is Emerson's [End Page 455] transcendental philosophy really synonymous with the romantic themes and fictional styles that William Dean Howells criticized during the realist period? In the end, the selection of Emerson does not discredit the argument, which is valid, but the quick consumption of all aspects of romanticism and romantic aesthetics into transcendental philosophy warrants further explanation.
The first chapter analyzes Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, providing a persuasive illustration of the author's thesis. Huck Finn represents the dialogic views of romanticism and realism. On the one hand, Huck is a realist, a quality Polley supports by comparing him to Tom Sawyer whose affinity for fantasy represents romanticism (24). At the same time, Huck's character is also decidedly Emersonian because of his take on nature and his self-reliant qualities (25). In addition to Huck's character, the novel's structure also demonstrates the dialogic voices of Bakhtin by setting an Emersonian character, Huck Finn, in a realistic and unaccommodating world that Twain "refuses to mediate"; indeed, the novel is unapologetically rendered through his juvenile narrator-protagonist Huck Finn (23). In the end, Polley claims that "Twain's novel insists on the power of history as a force that cannot be suppressed" (32), but this does not dismiss the romantic elements; rather, her point is that the novel displays the tension between these views. A variety of critics will enjoy this chapter since Huckleberry Finn is commonly read in college classrooms, and Polley finds persuasive answers to ongoing debates regarding the genre and controversial ending of Twain's novel.
While many claim Henry James rejected his romantic predecessors, Chapter Two of Echoes analyzes Portrait of a Lady, arguing that it adheres to realism while also embracing the search for spiritual transcendence. Rather than claim James employs Romanticism simply to undercut it (as many have done), Polley supports her idea that realism and romanticism coexist, by working methodically through the effects of other characters on Isabel Archer, the Emersonian heroine (56). Minor characters try to undermine her romantic quest, but Isabel does not fall apart; rather, she grows to appreciate the value of experience and history while still searching for spiritual transcendence. Experience has grown her consciousness, something that will allow Isabel to suture the two worlds of...