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The Realism War. James, Twain, and Howells. Nineteenth-century Definitions of Romance. Romance focuses “upon the extraordinary, the mysterious, the imaginary.” –Bliss Perry (1903)

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The Realism War

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the realism war
The Realism War

James, Twain, and Howells

nineteenth century definitions of romance
Nineteenth-century Definitions of Romance

Romance focuses “upon the extraordinary, the mysterious, the imaginary.” –Bliss Perry (1903)

Nathaniel Hawthorne: the romance “has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation” (Preface to The House of the Seven Gables)

nineteenth century definitions of realism
Nineteenth-Century Definitions of Realism

Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worth of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance. George Parsons Lathrop, 'The Novel and its Future," Atlantic Monthly 34 (September 1874): 313‑24.

nineteenth century definitions of realism continued
Nineteenth-Century Definitions of Realism, continued

Realism, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm. --Ambrose Bierce The Devil's Dictionary (1911)

romance and realism taste and class

Aspired to the ideal

Thought to be more genteel since it did not show the vulgar details of life


Thought to be more democratic

Critics stressed the potential for vulgarity and its emphasis on the commonplace

Potential “poison” for the pure of mind

Romance and Realism: Taste and Class
w d howells
W. D. Howells
  • Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, 1871-1881
  • “Editor’s Study” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (January 1886- March 1892)
  • Criticism and Fiction (1891; collected from “Editor’s Study” columns)
howells s early novels
Howells’s Early Novels
  • Dr. Breen’s Practice (1881)
  • A Modern Instance (1882)
  • The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885)
  • April Hopes (1888)
  • Annie Kilburn (1889)
howells on realism
Howells on Realism

“Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material” --William Dean Howells, “Editor’s Study,” November 1889.

the ideal grasshopper
The Ideal Grasshopper

“We hope the time is coming when not only the artist, but the common, average man . . . .will reject the ideal grasshopper wherever he finds it . . . Because it is not like a real grasshopper” --W. D. Howells, 1887

the smiling aspects of life
The Smiling Aspects of Life

We invite our novelists, therefore, to concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and to seek the universal in the individual rather than in the commonplace.” –W. D. Howells, 1886

howells on james century 1882
Howells on James (Century 1882)
  • The art of fiction has, in fact, become a finer art in our day than it was with Dickens and Thackeray . . . . These great men are of the past.
  • The new school derives from Hawthorne and George Eliot rather than any others . . . . This school, which is so largely of the future as well as the present, finds its chief exemplar in Mr. James.
the reaction
The Reaction

A Literary Combination.

Mr. H-w-lls: Are you the tallest now, Mr. James?

Mr. J-mes (ignoring the question): Be so uncommonly kind, H-w-lls, as to let me down easy: it may be we have both got to grow.

henry james and realism
Henry James and Realism
  • “The Art of Fiction,” 1884
  • Washington Square (1880)
  • The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
  • The Bostonians (1886)
  • The Princess Casamassima (1886)
  • The Aspern Papers (1888)
  • The Turn of the Screw (1898)
mark twain
Mark Twain
  • “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” North American Review, 1895
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884/5)
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1890)
  • Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1895)
defending realism
Defending Realism
  • W. D. Howells
  • Henry James
  • H. H. Boyesen, “The Great Realists and the Empty Story-Tellers”
  • Mark Twain
  • Hamlin Garland
  • Thomas Sergeant Perry
  • George Pellew
attacking realism
Attacking Realism
  • W. R. Thayer, “The New Story-tellers and the Doom of Realism” Forum 18 (December 1894): 470-80.
  • H. C. Vedder.
  • Maurice Thompson.
attacking realism england
Attacking Realism (England)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson
  • H. Rider Haggard
  • Andrew Lang
attack on howells i
Attack on Howells I
  • H. C. Vedder. “Can it be that Mr. Howells gives us in his books a fair representation of life as he has known it? Has his whole experience been of this stale, flat unprofitable sort?”
  • “Has he never known anybody who has a soul above buttons?” American Writers of Today, 1894.
attack on howells ii william roscoe thayer
Attack on Howells II: William Roscoe Thayer
  • French realism should be called “Epidermism,” not realism, because it reduces “literature, art, and morals to anarchy.”
  • The Rise of Silas Lapham was “produced by Epidermist methods” by an author who “smacked his lips” over Zola’s filth.
  • Picture of Emile Zola.
thomas bailey aldrich
Thomas Bailey Aldrich
  • Romance beside his unstrung lute,Lies stricken mute.The old-time fire, the antique grace,You will not find them anyplace,Polemic, scientific air:We strip Illusion of her veil;We vivisect the nightingaleTo probe the secret of his note.The Muse in alien ways remoteGoes wandering.
maurice thompson realism as disease
Maurice Thompson: Realism As Disease.
  • Realists represent “literary decadence” and worship “the vulgar, the commonplace, and the insignificant.”
  • The best part of Howells is “romance disguised as realism. His literary tissue is healthy, the spirit of his work is even, calm, just, and his purpose is pure,” so he cannot be a realist.
  • Picture is Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (1875).
reaction against realism the turn toward romanticism
Reaction Against Realism: The Turn Toward Romanticism
  • “A large number of readers, who have wearied of minute descriptions of the commonplace, are to-day often found condemning an author who does not keep his hero in imminent danger of death through at least seventy-five percent of his pages.“ --John Kendrick Bangs, 1898
howells to james 1915
Howells to James, 1915

“I am comparatively a dead cult with my statues cast down and the grass growing over them in the pale moonlight” (Selected Letters 6: 31).