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  • Late-19th-Century Literature
  • Roark Mulligan

Literary critics have increasingly employed archaeological methods, discovering or rediscovering buried artifacts that shed light on past cultural practices but also on current issues. This focus on lesser-known works and neglected authors reveals a shifting literary canon, highlighting current social and cultural concerns. Although aesthetic, rhetorical, and structural analysis continues to serve as a methodology, art for art's sake has taken a back seat to art as cultural artifact, whether the artifact is an unfamiliar poem or a once popular novel. Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in the field of African American literature, but even in the examination of realists and naturalists we find a focus on neglected authors and forgotten works. In this recovery of overlooked texts there is an emphasis not only on lesser-known compositions but also on the reasons they have been neglected.

i Realists and Naturalists

In her groundbreaking Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women's Writing (Georgia) Donna M. Campbell redefines naturalism as "unruly," marked by dramatic excess, melodrama, and structural unevenness. Her expanded definition recovers women writers who had only occasionally been associated with naturalism or who were simply labeled early realists, such as Rebecca Harding Davis, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Elia Wilkinson Peattie, and Kate Cleary. In expanding the definition Campbell also expands the genre to include [End Page 211] not just fiction but also literary journalism, memoir, and the developing film industry, a field that involved women as actresses, writers, and directors. Other scholars who are recovering and reassessing ignored works support Campbell's claim. For example, in "Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Emergence of American Literary Realism" (SNNTS 48: 43–64) Sophia Forster reassesses Phelps's early novel Hedged In (1870), contending that it should be read as a precursor to the work of such authors as Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin, because Phelps employed the tropes of realism to move beyond the sentimental. In "Decadent Phelps: New Womanhood and the Decentered Self in Confessions of a Wife" (WoWr 23: 159–75) Stephanie Palmer studies Phelps's late (1902) novel as a critique of marriage and an exploration of sexual gratification, which places the work within the New Woman aesthetic. And Shirley Samuels scrutinizes Phelps's best-selling novel The Gates Ajar (1868) in her essay "Mourning and Substitution in The Gates Ajar," pp. 207–24 in Literary Cultures of the Civil War, analyzing the grief and faith of the narrator whose brother was killed in war, whose parents are dead, and whose aunt gives solace but dies, leaving the narrator with only her faith. In another effort to recover forgotten works Zachary Turpin rediscovers Rebecca Harding Davis's lesser-known writings in "Seventy-Three Uncollected Short Works by Rebecca Harding Davis: A Bibliography" (TSWL 35: 229–52), a catalogue of items composed over a fifty-year period following Life in the Iron-Mills (1861).

Although W. D. Howells is considered a canonical author and the dean of American realism, a renewed interest in his works as records of social, aesthetic, cultural, economic, and racial issues signifies another literary recovery. A total of seven essays are focused on Howells, more than on any other late-19th-century author. Three of them appear in a single issue of American Literary Realism (ALR 48). James Weaver's "Hairy Paws and Bald Heads: Anxiety and Authority in W. D. Howells' An Imperative Duty" (pp. 95–111) looks at a lesser-known short novel (1891), exploring its connection of race and medicine by uncovering the protagonist's growing understanding of nervous diseases and racial problems while failing to question his privileged position as a white male. In "Indian Summer's Critique and Celebration of the Epistolary Novel" (pp. 112–27) Robert Klevay examines Howells's 1886 text in which the narrative questions the extent to which letters can convey characters' emotional states and suggests that letters tend to conceal one's actual feelings and cause misunderstanding. But Indian Summer [End Page 212] emphasizes that this faulty communication is less important than the characters' acceptance of social change. And in "Bartley Hubbard's Sunday Work" (pp. 183–86) George Monteiro...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2125
Print ISSN
0065-9142
Pages
pp. 211-226
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-04
Open Access
No
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