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Reviewed by:
  • The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Realism ed. by Keith Newlin
  • Harold H. Kolb
The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Realism. Edited by Keith Newlin. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2019. 718 pp. Cloth, $150.00.

This large, interesting, and useful collection of thirty-five essays by American, German, British, and Chinese scholars is apparently titled—perhaps by general editor Keith Newlin, perhaps by Oxford—to make it match Newlin’s earlier work, The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Naturalism (2011). A more descriptive title might be “Essays on Literary and Other Realisms from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-first century in America and Abroad.”

The book begins, in the first essay, as the reader of a work entitled American Literary Realism might expect, with Henry James and W. D. Howells, but with a European “transnational” slant. This discussion focuses on James’ education in Geneva, London, and Paris, and his self-described debts to Turgenev, Balzac, Stendhal, Guy de Maupassant, and Le Realisme of mid-nineteenth century Paris. Balzac, James said, was “the man who was really the father of us all.” And as a young man, Howells spent four years as consul in Venice, and later as editor and critic he read and reviewed Russian, Italian, Spanish, and Scandinavian writers. “Tourguenief’s method,” Howells declared, “is as far as art can go. . . . Most of [his] books I have read many times over.”

The next two essays take aim at the presumed masculinity of nineteenth-century American literary realism. In “American Realism and Gender,” Donna Campbell delineates the large numbers of talented nineteenth-century woman writers—Stoddard, Cooke, Davis, Alcott, Phelps, Harper, Woolson, Freeman, and others—who created a literary track parallel to but different from their male contemporaries. “Each successive wave of women realist writers altered the conventions to suit their own aims, even if that disqualified them from earning the official label of ‘realist.’” Sophia Forster in “The Feminine Origins of American Literary Realism” maintains that we have now moved beyond the “masculine rhetoric that characterized high realism to recover the enduring legacies of romance and sentiment in the male realists” and thus “it is time to consider in the context of literary realism those women writers [Davis, Phelps, Stoddard, Alcott] whose fictions trade in the plots and tropes of antebellum genres [that] helped to define the genre.”

Twain scholar John Bird adds to these redefinitions: “American humor in its various forms [Down East humor, Southwestern humor, the literary [End Page 183] comedians, local color] in the first half of the nineteenth century helped prepare the ground for American realism in the second half.” Mark Twain is “the culmination of all four comic movements, as well as the bridge to the use of humor in realism.”

The final three essays in section one continue to expand the discussion by “an attempt to reframe the relationship between two key strains of nineteenth-century American writing—realism and regionalism,” an examination of “realism’s and naturalism’s fluctuating acceptances and critiques on the assumed ‘natural’ order as an extension of nineteenth-century conceptions of civilization and savagery,” and a discussion of “the contribution of late nineteenth-century American writers to the development of modern aesthetics.” Taken together, these seven essays in section one are reformulations of and additions to what we might call traditional American literary realism in the nineteenth century, from the Confederate surrender in 1865 to the economic depression of the mid-1890s. Their contribution is to make that period more complex and varied, and richer than we had thought.

Now an enlargement of scope in the Handbook takes place and the six sections following tend to refer not simply to a three-decade period in American literary history but to a variety of writings, and other forms of art, in which various tenets of nineteenth-century literary realism were continued, critiqued, transformed, and superseded by later writers, artists, and intellectuals. “Realism” or “realist” is contained in the titles of thirty-three of the volume’s thirty-five essays, but it frequently refers to reality in general, to what is real to certain people at a given moment in history, as the essays in section 2...