TitleThe experimental realism of William Dean Howells
NameMcGrath, Brian Seto (author), Jehlen, Myra (chair), Dowling, William C (internal member), Jackson, Gregory S (internal member), Lears, Jackson (outside member), Rutgers University, Graduate School - New Brunswick,
SubjectLiteratures in English,
Realism in literature,
Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920--Criticism and interpretation
DescriptionThe “experimental” in my title refers to Howells’s self-conscious development of a literary form that could give the most complete, deepest account of a reality characterized by the ordinary and even the banal. For the middle class, Howells’s perennial subject, the norm is to aspire to transcend, and the ordinary can appear elusive, even nonexistent. Of course, in political terms, a middle class culture considers everyone basically the same, this resemblance defining the ordinary. It is assumed that everyone shares the same economic goals, and the same desire for familial and individual success. Being ordinary is therefore a moral quality. This means, paradoxically, that ordinariness can only prove itself in exceptional individuals. To strive is virtuous, to fail is shameful; either way one’s ordinariness is subsumed to a greater drama. The drama at the center of middle class art is the plight of the exceptional individual demonstrating a Platonic ordinariness. It is hard to think of characters in novels who are not exceptional financially or morally. In Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove finance and morality go together. The novels of Eliot, Dickens, even those of the French realists unfold stories in which ordinary characters, by some exceptional moral quality, try to transcend their economic and historical situations. Howells called this story romantic and insisted on writing about the most mundane aspects of ordinary life. His novels were not about the exceptional who rise above the crowd but about ordinary people who do not transcend but stay on the ground. Howells described this divide between moral ideals and actual economic circumstance as “the infernal juggle of the mind. ” This contradiction at the heart of everyday life was what he wanted to depict. His design of characters and plots, even his sentences, develop continuously into further complexity as they discover the tensions and self-betrayal inherent in middle class optimism. “Discover” is the key term: Howells wrote in order to find out the truth about ordinary life, and the more he discovered the more his novels tended toward disjunction. In resisting the urge to reaffirm middle class morals, he was having not only a political argument with the dominant ideology of late-nineteenth century America but a formal argument with the conventional novel. Down the critical years, Howells’s trust in the novel form to do its own work has been difficult to see because his way of demonstrating it was so unusual. To the extent that his form was un-transcendent, descriptive rather than theoretical, it has been unapparent. My dissertation is an attempt to make evident and describe the working of Howells’s unapparent form. I have used a method of analysis congruent with his practice. I proceed as he wrote, historically, by following the unfolding events of his style and form.
NoteIncludes bibliographical references
Noteby Brian Seto McGrath
CollectionGraduate School - New Brunswick Electronic Theses and Dissertations
Organization NameRutgers, The State University of New Jersey
RightsThe author owns the copyright to this work.