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  • Affective Interludes:Public Transportation and Bodily Feeling in the Realism of W. D. Howells
  • John Sampson

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow,I was refresh'd.

—Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

In The Antinomies of Realism, Fredric Jameson makes a startling claim about the origins of literary realism. Affect—defined as the body's range of feelings and sensations—enters the novels of Flaubert, Zola, Tolstoy, and others as the narrative opponent of emotions.1 Jameson distinguishes affect not from emotions as such but from their capacity to be named. "If the word love comes up between them I am lost":2 in this example from Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), the naming of love makes the characters, and us, aware of their identities and destinies. There is a whole system of named emotions (fear, anger, etc.) available to authors for constructing knowable characters and plots.3 Affect, on the other hand, resists language because it refers not to a personal feeling or destiny but to a free-floating, impersonal mood registered in the body along a sliding scale "from the depressive to the manic, from gloominess to ecstasy."4 Take, for example, Tolstoy's description of Princess Lise in War and Peace (1869): "Everyone brightened at the sight of this pretty young woman. … Old men and dull dispirited young ones who looked at her … felt as if they too were becoming, like her, full of life and health."5

Realism, for Jameson, emerges from the tale (or récit) and decomposes into the molecular flows of modernism through its handling of a battle between affect and named emotions, which he aligns with two experiences of temporality as well as Henry James' distinction between "showing" and "telling." Affect involves showing a bodily sensation radiating through the present moment, while named emotions align with the telling of the plot and hence its linear chronology.6 By showing the waxing and waning of bodily intensities in the present, realists strain identity and narration to [End Page 16] their breaking points, at which point "language … rises to the challenge" to codify these once nameless states.7 While descriptive excess and linguistic innovation are signs of named emotions chasing the tail of bodily experience, affect responds by detaching itself from the body to become the autonomous milieu of everyday urban life. A new narrative apparatus—the still vaguely "realist" modernisms of the early twentieth century—is then dispatched to register the affective intensities of a single day (e.g., Mrs. Dalloway).8

If Jameson's grand narrative of the birth and death of realism were applied to the U.S. side of the Atlantic, a clear blind-spot in his study, one would need to account for the career of W. D. Howells.9 Howells, the socalled Dean of American Letters, influentially defined, defended, and practiced a homegrown realism in American periodicals like the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Monthly from the 1860s to his death in 1920, when his star faded as an equally homegrown modernism was in ascendance. In his 1930 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Sinclair Lewis famously knocked Howells' outmoded "tea-table gentility."10 In his day, Howells theorized realism in much more radical terms, as a democratic levelling of the political and aesthetic hierarchies upon which romantic fiction thrived in the ancien régime.11 To do away with romance, however, is not to banish the sensuous, unruly body from literature, as Lewis implies Howells does.12 In this article, I will test Jameson's account of the affect/named emotion antagonism as a driver of formal change by applying it to Howells and his conception of realism as "[d]emocracy in literature."13 Howells' experiments with affect, I claim, stem from the democratic bodily poetry of Whitman and, Lewis' view notwithstanding, helped pave the way for American modernism's non-narrative snapshots of everyday urban life.

To begin with, we find...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5103
Print ISSN
1540-3084
Pages
pp. 16-39
Launched on MUSE
2020-09-29
Open Access
No
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