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PERFORMATIVITY AND THE REPOSITIONING OF AMERICAN LITERARY REALISM Joyce W. Warren I have seen too much of life to be merry at a wedding. — Fanny Fern, 1852 Critics who have addressed the question of literary realism have maintained that although the movement began in Europe inthe mid-nineteenth century, literary realism did not develop in the United States until the end of that century.1 In all of the essays and books on American literary realism that have been published since the term became part of our cultural vocabulary,few writers have even considered the work of mid-nineteenth-century American women writers. Feminist critics have noted realistic elements in the work of antebellum women writers,2 but most critics who have written specifically on American literaryrealism have begun their discussions with worksthat were not published until after the Civil War, the authors of which were predominantly male."5 Although most male writers in the United States did not begin writing "realism" until the late nineteenth century (Howells,James, Crane, Norris)and into the twentieth century (Dreiser, Steinbeck), there were many women writers who were writing realistic fiction in the mid-nineteenth century. That their work has not been considered realism is owing primarilyto the gendered construction of the definition of American "realism." First, it is important to recognize that "realism" is a fluid term: itsdefinition varies depending on the speaker and the historical period. In the medieval period the word "realism" meant the reality ofthe ideal image. It wasnot until the eighteenth century that realism was established as the opposite of idealism.4 Moreover, it is inaccurate to say that literary realism began in the nineteenth century; we can speak of the "realism" of Chaucer or Shakespeare, for example, and the eighteenth-century novel provides many examples of realism.5 But it was in the nineteenth century that the term was first used in a literary context.6 4 : JOYCE W. WARREN In the twentieth century, literary realism has proved to be a problematic concept from many different perspectives. New Critical formalists in the 19505 and 19605 devalued realism because of its emphasis on social contexts and reinterpreted it in terms of literaryform.7 Marxist critics have criticized realism, maintaining that realist texts have simply reified bourgeois capitalism.8 Feminists have criticized realism, asserting either that it seeks to establish a false authenticity of experience or that it is a reification of male hegemony and patriarchal language.9 Advocates of literary modernism have criticized realism, maintaining that it focuses on the external without recognizing the social and psychological forces at work beneath appearances.10 Poststructuralists have critiqued the realists' assertion of a mimetic representation ofthe "real" and have insisted that language does not reflect but rather produces and shapes reality.11 There is overlapping among these critical approaches to realism and there are differences in emphasis, but what is significant is that there are many different responses . Some critics talk about epistemological realism, while others mean only realism as a mode of writing. Others have conflated the two.12 As Terry Lovell notes, "There is no concept in the history of aesthetics which has generated more confusions/'13 Considering the instability of the term "realism," one is tempted to say that it might be better to dispense with the category altogether. Certainly there are arguments in favor of such a move: the problems associated with chronological labeling, the confusion regarding the definition of realism, and even the question ofthe desirability of moving women writers into the category. Nevertheless, the concept of American literary realism exists as a genre and has existed for more than a hundred years. Although we might wish to dissolve the category, we cannot erase its hundred-year history. What we must do instead is rewrite American literary history, making important changes in the category "realism." In a discussion of realism, what is most important is to recognize that the concept is itself a construct.14 Ideologically, representations in the name of "realism " constitute one writer s perception; what one perceives as real depends on one s situatedness, and gender as well as race and class are important factors in determining one s perceptions. Postmodernist theory asserts that there isno "reality ," only "representations."15 In the nineteenth century, however, the term "realism" was difficult to challenge because its practitioners maintained that they were writing the "truth,"16 and it is difficult to argue against what istermed the truth when society's power structure reinforces the discourse...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780820343532
Related ISBN
9780820343532
MARC Record
OCLC
794306972
Pages
320
Launched on MUSE
2012-11-02
Language
English
Open Access
No
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