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Reviewed by:
  • The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Realism ed. by Keith Newlin
  • Katherine Fusco (bio)
The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Realism, edited by Keith Newlin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xiv + 736 pp, 46 photographs, 5 tables. Cloth, $150.00; Ebook, $149.99.

In editor Keith Newlin’s introduction to The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Realism he makes clear that this volume’s project is to help readers think about realism now. This editorial decision is reflected in the centering of women writers in the “Contexts” section, with chapters by Donna Campbell and Sophia Forster, as well as the focus on the realisms of immigrant writers and authors of color in chapters by Ramón J. Guerra, Jean Lee Cole, and Jolie A. Sheffer. Many of these chapters, which feature authors such as María Amparo Ruiz de Burton and Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket/Humishuma), look at the way authors previously marginalized by literary canon formation strategically or partially took up realist techniques. For example, Sheffer considers the way writers of color “frequently combine allegory and realism in order to articulate that their individual stories of racism and injustice are, in fact, collective stories” (272). In her chapter on “American Realism and Gender,” Donna M. Campbell makes a similar point about women’s authorship, arguing that “authors such as Gilman, Hopkins, Zitkala-Ša, Mourning Dove, Far, Mena, Austin, and Wharton drew from forms of writing not typically associated with realism, such as utopian fiction and Native American legends, yet they retained realism as a literary technique even as they extended its concepts beyond what Howells and James would have considered appropriate” (60). Chapters such as these expand the canon of realism to be sure, but they also enliven the stakes of the literary movement’s formal and ideological habits. In other words, by showing how women authors and authors of color riffed on, challenged, and exceeded the tradition of Howellsian realism, these scholars help readers long familiar with realist literature see it in new ways and help [End Page 239] novice readers understand realism as a movement with real formal stakes. This aspect of The Oxford Handbook and Newlin’s thoughtful editing would alone be enough to recommend the volume.

But beyond this fresh and more expansive view of realism, the handbook is also valuable for its pedagogical uses, both in Part VI, which explicitly focuses on the teaching of realism, and in Part IV “Representing the Real” and Part V “Realism and the Other Arts.” These latter two sections offer important contextual materials for teachers and students of realism. Part IV is particularly exciting for the way it expands the volume’s look at realism to consider intellectual modes of inquiry “beyond the aesthetics of depicting common life” (Newlin 11). The chapters focused on the natural sciences and medicine are especially engaging, including essays by Andrew Hebard, Melanie Dawson, Gary Totten, and Phillip Barrish. Beginning with Howells’s discussion of the realist depicting the grasshopper, Hebard’s chapter poses a provocative question, how to “assess Howells’s gesture toward natural history at a moment when natural history was on the decline as a dominant scientific paradigm” (360)? Tracing the shift in science from natural science’s more writerly and observational style toward methods more grounded in experimentation and statistical thinking, Hebard argues that changes in the scientific method offered realists such as Howells a way to think about changing literary conventions. In her chapter, Dawson follows on Wai Chi Dimock’s work on literature’s relationship to a science that emphasized “the dumbfounding largeness of the universe” (qtd. in Dawson 375). Focusing specifically on geological deep time, Dawson considers the formal challenge new geologic knowledge presented to realists committed to the observable detail, arguing that “in confronting both ancient histories and deep time in the natural world, realist literary works exhibit signs of anxiety, shifting either into modes of romance or naturalism” (376). Drawing on the work of Cheryll Glotfelty, Totten takes an ecocrititical approach to highlight realist literature’s interest in the “appropriation of natural spaces” to a consumer culture (396), as demonstrated in the novels of Edith Wharton and stories such as Sarah...


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pp. 239-241
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