Synoptic Version of Chapter 6 from The Incorporation of America
This chapter opens with a reference to a critic in the Christian Union complaining that fiction shouldn't involve "commonplace" people. This critic, Hamilton Wright Mabie, thought that the characters in fiction should be ones that are "sweet and ideal" and that avoid vulgarity at all costs. Mabie's view urged that art should protect itself from common life, concern itself with "ideal" characters, pristine thoughts, and honorable emotions.
Realism represented the antithesis of all these things and posed a threat to all of the goals of literature that Mabie the critic expounded. Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, two painters that were a part of the Ash Can School, rebelled against Mabie's ideals for art. Part of their rebellion and the beginnings of Realism in America had to do with the subjects and activities in their paintings and the treatment of both.
Thomas Eakins was involved with the photographer Eadweard Muybridge's photography experiments of the human figure in motion at the University of Pennsylvania. in the 1890's. Eakins used figures in his paintings that included single rowers, or boxers. Homer's subject's showed people engaged in activities such as hunting, fishing, and playing. The fact that these two painters involved the everyday, common person going about their activities.
Eakins' painting entitled, "The Gross Clinic" appeared at the 1875 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. This painting was excluded from the Fine Arts section of the Expo and then consigned to the Medical section. The reason that it was excluded had to do with "breaking the guidelines" that the critic above had outlined. "The Gross Clinic" showed the details of the body. It was "too daring". It broke the principles of gentility like other pieces of Eakins' work by depicting things like inward strain, loneliness, and disappointment.
Trachtenberg outlines that realism could be identified with the rebelliousness of the age.Whether the particular "crime" was depicting commonplace people, showing the inner details of the human body, or portraying commoners in activities, both Eakin's and Winslow's paintings broke with the traditions of Romanticism. New art or "Realism" attempted to show life as it really was-- painting was one avenue of this art.
The writer William Dean Howells fought verbally against the Aristocratic Spirit in Harper's monthly in the 1880's and 1890's. He was a "spokesperson" of a sort for Realism in American Literature. Howell's said, "The realist feels in every nerve the equality of things and the unity of men." The idea of realism involved democracy in the world of fiction. The aristocratic spirit was losing its honor and the wealthy began to identify with cultural icons to set themseves apart as a class. Howells defended "Fictions of the Real". Howells thought that people generally had a"weak "and "childish" imaginations and they tended to resist the kinds of writing that showed what life was really like. People, Howells thought, would rather seek out the idealized version of things or the "unreal".
Howells was strongly against the "dime novels" of the time. He worried that this quickly consumable commodity was only a distraction and dailed to deal with what was really important in life. This pseudo-literature was not susceptible to formal literary criticism. Instead, he wanted to persuade his readers that reading was a moral exercise that may bring "public enlightenment and elevation". Howells saw realism as a kind of "corrective to faulty vision". If a reader embraced "Fictions of the Real", they would come to understand what is really there. Howells believed in the "healing powers" of reading the "real".
Howell's own work moved from courtship romances and polite travel narratives to social realism. Geographically, Howells moved from Boston to New York, but he continued to admire the "Boston" group of writers ( including Emerson, Lowell, and Longfellow). He believed that somehow Boston "fed" the belief in the seriousness of literature. Howells believed in not only the healing power of literature, but also the "elevating influence of fine writing and reading". (WE MUST READ OR BARBARIZE.)
Howells was linked with the European idea of realism which signified a general rejection in the arts of academic models. In the same way that Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins depicted the commonplace people in their paintings, William Dean Howeels began to create characters in his fiction that were from the lower social classes. Just using commonplace characters was a large piece of the revolution that Realism brought in its wake. Howells was one of an assortment of writers that began to use a "discourse of the low" in their fictions (ie. Sarah Orne Jewett).
Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884) was the first American novel to be told entirely through the vernacular of a lower class boy. And it is interesting to note that Twain was considered more of an entertainer than a writer. Twain began his career "outside the circle of acceptance", but gradually gained acceptance.
Howells still used courtship-romance plots and thought he was somehow "preserve the moral assurances of realism. But for Howells, realism and America were becoming one and the same. America was inviting the artist to "study and appreciate" the common. For he and other writers, this was the "Fiction of the Real".
As far as the profession of writing went, Howells explained that few writers could hope for economic independence from their writng alone. He was talking about up until the Civil War. However, with the onslaught of magazines in the 1880's and 1890's, a writer could make a living. Howells pointed out that the writer still "retained a low grade among businessmen."
Howells made many points about writing as a profession and the selling of art in his essay entitled, " The Man of Letters as a Man of Business." One of his main points was that, "there is something false and vulgar in the practice of selling art." He wanted to make his fellow artists realize that they were economically similar with farmers, common workers, and mechanics. Therefore, the artist of the "real" was the true artist of America. He then went on to stress that the artist must assume the role of businessman in a world full of business and sell his or her products as an independent distributor. Somehow Howells ended up contradicting himself because his brand of realism involved the very competition it was supposedly condemning.
Back to the idea of dime novels, Howells considered the worst aspect of this fiction to be its implausibility. Howells and other editorial writers worried about the way society would be changed by this "anti-social" literature. Mainly, the plots in dime novels depicted Indian warfare, wild sea- adventures, hunting stories and the like. Characters never were seen attending to their day-to-day duties. If reading was a moral exercise (as Howell believed) and the reader was supposed to gain lessons about how to live or what life was really like from this reading, then the dime novels were"dangerous" to society.
Both William Dean Howells and Frederick Law Olmsted believed that the crux of the matter was a choice between "civilization" and "savagery". Howells became unhappy with some of the types of realism that appeared and hoped for an authentic "Fiction of the Real".
Enter Melville. Herman Melville said of realism, "Truth told uncompromisingly will always have its ragged edges." This "raggedness" was very hard for Howells to accept. Writers of this era also included: Henry James, Kate Chopin, Mary Wilkins, E.W. Howe, Hamlin Garland. Soon a new "naturalism " started to evolve in works by Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser. The "raggedness" of realism/naturalism involved "lost hopes, hypocrisy, Narrowed and constricted lives, and the grinding frustrations of poverty and isolation. Different writers, though they may have been a part of the realist movement, used different treatments of their subjects. This would not be unlike the use of brush strokes in painting. One example would be in James' novels where the hero or heroine learn that their freedom manifests only through human social relations.
Melville's Billy Budd incorporates a different kind of social law--one unto itself. The characters in the narrative recognize the mutual predicament that they face and deal with it in a world within a world. The character Billy Budd is the hero -- an image of the character's own idiosyncratic history.