- American Literary History and the Turn toward Modernity ed. by Melanie V. Dawson and Meredith L. Goldsmith
In American literature, the period from 1880 to 1930 witnessed a shift from realism to modernism. Did this change occur abruptly or gradually? The essays in American Literary History and the Turn toward Modernity argue convincingly that the change was a gradual one.
Melanie V. Dawson and Meredith L. Goldsmith have edited an impressive collection of essays in this book, which characterizes this period as a crucial era in the history of American literature. In their introduction, the editors portray this period as a distinct era in its own right—separate from either the nineteenth or the twentieth century. This approach to the fin de siècle serves as a guiding principle that unifies the nine essays contained in the book.
One of the major strengths of this book is the combination of its discussion of canonical writers such as Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London with its treatment of lesser-known writers like Sarah Piatt, Laura Jean Libbey, Jessie Fauset, and students whose poetry appeared in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s newspapers and magazines. The essays in this collection feature scholarship on a wide range of genres, including fiction, poetry, memoir, and critical prose. This book provides a cogent argument that the varied authors under discussion, despite their differences in genre, race, gender, and culture, all contributed to a literary movement that simultaneously harkens back to the values of the nineteenth century and anticipates the advancements of the twentieth century—albeit while resisting classification in either century.
Myrto Drizou’s essay on Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) characterizes the novel as an archetypal fin de siècle work. According to Drizou, Dreiser dramatizes “the ability to imagine, express, and enact open-ended forms of exchange between old, familiar structures and new, unknowable opportunities” (59). [End Page 328] Drizou suggests that Sister Carrie portrays the future as a prospect that is both threatening and promising.
In an essay on Wharton’s The Writing of Fiction (1925), John Nichols situates Wharton’s guidebook in a tradition of manuals about writing published during the same period. Nichols argues that Wharton strikes a fine balance between the populist appeal of guidebooks by Ring Lardner and Anita Loos, the academic tone of those by Arthur Quiller-Couch and Percy Lubbock, and the coterie audience of those by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein: “The Writing of Fiction,” Nichols writes, “straddles the nineteenth and early twentieth-century cultural constructions of literature as an object of both popular and academic study and as a vehicle for the realist and modernist movements” (84). Instead of privileging either realism or modernism, Wharton suggests that writers can achieve a balance between the two traditions.
One of the most insightful essays in the book is Dawson’s “Companionate Marriage across the Century’s Turn: Progress, Patriarchy, and the Problem of Representation.” According to Dawson, the period from 1880 to 1930 witnessed a substantial change in the concept of marriage. The model of companionate marriage, based on the values of compatibility, friendship, and intimacy, gradually gained preeminence over arranged marriages that emphasized financial convenience. Dawson highlights an apparent contradiction between the evolution of marriage in real life and the depiction of marriage in fiction from this era: “As the companionate model became a social reality, early twentieth-century literature instead depicted marriages that appear disastrous, patriarchal, unfulfilling products of sheer desperation” (179). Dawson substantiates her argument with numerous examples, including Wharton’s Summer, Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms, and Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers. Although the contrast between real-life and fictional marriage in this period seems confounding initially, Dawson perceptively reconciles this apparent contradiction: “By . . . drawing attention to lifestyles opposed to the companionate relation, modern fictions . . . provide something that advocacy in favor of companionate unions could not: a visceral sense of the consequences of unequal, patriarchal, non-companionate unions, particularly in terms of what they meant...