Alan Trachtenberg


Chapter 06: Fictions Of The Real

"Realism," complained Hamilton Wright Mabie, erstwhile critic for the Christian Union, seemed bent on "crowding the world of fiction with commonplace people, whom one could positively avoid coming into contact with in real life; people without native sweetness or strength, without acquired culture or accomplishments, without the touch of the ideal which makes the commonplace significant and worthy of study." In such chiding remarks, the voices of gentility insisted on their view of art: on one side, "culture," "sweetness," "the ideal"; on the other, crowds of "commonplace people," with a broad hint of city streets and slums. Fiction, the critic implies, should display the good taste of gentlefolk; it should "avoid" vulgarity by the simple device of refusing to recognize it. Like the refined gentry, art should protect itself from common life, should concern itself with "ideal" characters, pure thoughts, and noble emotions.

Although gentility had strengthened its hold on institutions of education and art, publishing and philanthropy, nevertheless critics and editors frequently took a defensive tone, challenged as much by new currents of art and literature as by vulgar politics and business. "Real ism" seemed such a threat, the term naming not so much a single consistent movement as a tendency among some painters and writers to depict contemporary life without moralistic condescension. Of course, the threats seem relatively timid now compared to the rise of modernist experiment and innovation in the arts which reached New York from Europe


early in the twentieth century. In painting, for example, convention still held strong. Artists took their typical subjects from the familiar academic modes of landscape, genre, and allegory, excluding signs of contemporary conflict and disturbance. Fashionable salon art favored scenes of leisure, of polite ease amid comfortable surroundings; a passive enjoyment of sunshine and beaches, of rich interiors, of rural scenes glazed with nostalgia, struck the most frequent note. To be sure, exceptions appeared: John Ferguson Weir's industrial interiors in the 1870's, Thomas Pollock Anshutz's remarkable picture of lounging workers in "Ironworkers: Noontime" (1882), and Robert Kohler's dramatic "The Strike" (1886). But not until the "Ash Can School" at the turn of the century would a concerted movement appear to depict city life in its daily unheroic scenes.

In the works of the two most prominent realists of the period, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, a greater range of subject matter and a more strenuous original vision did appear as striking exceptions. Homer's variety of subject was perhaps the most extensive among established easel painters, embracing figures intent in work or sport: fishermen and women mending nets, seamen battling roiling high waters, huntsmen tracking their prey, country children at chores and games. Homer's canvases seem free of thematic concerns, certainly of moral judgments, idealizations, or simple interpretations, but they often hint at philosophical reflections on man's vulnerable condition in nature and the consequently enduring value of activity, of play as much as labor. Eakins's work was often even more overtly athletic, isolating single figures-boxers, wrestlers, rowers-as lonely performers of skill and endurance. Eakins's pictures disclose a world scrutinized in fine detail, with exacting analytical rigor. As a teacher as well as an artist, he insisted on studying anatomy directly from human models, and defied the prudery of art schools in his native Philadelphia in employing nude models. He participated as a nude subject in the photographer Eadweard Muybridge's experiments in recording the human figure in motion at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1890's.

Eakins's unflinching acceptance of the body, encouraged by his friendship with the older Walt Whitman, troubled his relations with the established art world. His famous "The Gross Clinic" (1875) was consigned to the medical section of the Centennial


Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, excluded from the fine-arts exhibition because of the daring of its subject: the eminent surgeon Samuel Gross performing an operation while lecturing to a class. The canvas showed in detail an incision into a living body, and portrayed a range of responses in the audience, from fascination to horror. The picture also manifested Eakins's affinity with science, with its objectivity and rules of analysis: qualities he strived to achieve in his own art. Increasingly, Eakins turned to portraiture and the study of character; many of his canvases of performers, doctors, writers, businessmen, and their wives seem themselves surgical incisions, pictures of inward strain, disappointment, loneliness. Honesty of report, faithfulness to the act of seeing, refusal to idealize, disciplined accuracy: these features epitomized Eakins's realism, his break with the strictures of gentility, and his kinship with the rising rebellious spirit of the age.


The "realist feels in every nerve the equality of things and the unity of men," wrote William Dean Howells in the late 1880's. As for the complaints of genteel critics, he observed that "the aristocratic spirit," having lost its place of honor, now sheltered itself in aestheticism: "The pride of caste is becoming the pride of taste; but, as before, it is averse to the mass of men; it consents to know them only in some conventionalized and artificial guise." By contrast, "democracy in literature is the reverse of all this. It wishes to know and to tell the truth." Realists want to know the world as it really is, to create a world of fiction congruent with "real life." Thus, the literary battle lines were drawn, in Howells's mind, on a distinct political terrain. Realism represented nothing less than the extension of democracy into the precincts of fiction.

Howells launched monthly polemics against the aristocratic spirit from his seat in the "Editor's Study" of Harper's Monthly in the late 1880's and 1890's, a steady flow of reviews and screeds in defense of a fiction of the real. The target was not difficult to fix, but he well understood the superior resources of the enemy. Public taste, he complained, remained in vassalage to false values, preferring easy pleasures of shallow "romance" to the more exacting demands of the real. As he sensed defeat, his tone grew


bitter and resigned. "By far the greatest number of people in the world," he lamented in 1899, "even the civilized world, are people of weak and childish imagination, pleased with gross fables, fond of prodigies, heroes, heroines, portents and impracticalities, without self-knowledge, and without the wish for it." The public imagination seemed to resist the healthier doses of reality, the general reader remaining a "spoiled child" spurning instruction. "I suppose we shall have to wait," Howells conceded sadly in a New York Times interview with Stephen Crane in 1894.

Howells waged a battle on behalf of literary principles he had begun to practice in his novels of the 1880's, fictions in which he wished not only to open his pages to the real but also to persuade his readers that reading was a moral exercise, a serious exertion of civic faculties. "The novelist has a grave duty to his reader," he wrote, a duty of no small consequence to the republic. In this regard, Howells's campaign for realism resembled other campaigns for culture, for public enlightenment and elevation, for a restored middle ground. The "real" his touchstone of value, "false" became his deepest term of disdain, directed especially against those "innutritious" novels "that merely tickle our prejudices and lull our judgment, or that coddle our sensibilities, or pamper our gross appetites for the marvelous ... clog the soul with unwholesome vapors of all kinds." As fearful of "barbarism" (from the unmentionable worlds of dime fiction and sordid adventure) as he was contemptuous of arrested aesthetic sensibilities (in genteel sentimental romance), Howells takes his place among the legions of nervous intellectuals seeking a role for themselves and a sense of control in what he named at the turn of the century "our deeply incorporated civilization." But if, under the banner of realism, he stands within those ranks, the banner itself marked a difference; while it may have clad him in a certain insulating virtue of its own, it also tempted him perilously close to the edge of his middle-class convictions and values. As a doctrine, realism gave Howells a stand on an imagined middle ground. In literary practice-, however, it often caused that ground to shift under his feet.

Realism served Howells less as a doctrine and more as a conviction of rectitude. As he told Stephen Crane in 1894, realism was a corrective to faulty vision, a way of disclosing what is really there. The realist novel is "made for the benefit of people who


have no true use of their eyes."Its aim is "to picture the daily life in the most exact terms possible, with an absolute and clear sense of proportion." True fiction "adjusts the proportions ... .. pre- serves the balances," and thus "lessons are to be taught and re forms won. When people are introduced to each other they will see the resemblances, and won't want to fight so badly." Seeing, picturing, recognizing: these represent realism's mode of recon- cilliation, the seriousness and gravity of its service to the republic.

Howells had arrived at his commitment to the healing powers of realism in the course of the troubled 1880's. In that decade, he moved from Boston and his post as chief editor of the prestigious Atlantic Montbly, to New York and eventually to the editorship of Harper's Monthly. The move corresponded to a shift in his own fiction, away from the courtship romances and polite travel nar- ratives he had mastered in the 1870's, toward the novel of social realism in A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), The Minister's Charge (1887), Annie Kilburn (1889), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). The change in residence and mode of fiction truly marked a major turn for Howells. As a young aspiring writer in rural Ohio before the Civil War, he had learned through self-education to adulate both the Republican Party and the high literary culture of New England, of of Emerson, Lowell and Longfellow. Rewarded with the position of consul in Venice for his campaign biography of Lincoln, he missed serving in the Civil War but gained enough of a reputation by his travel writ- ings to return to a highly prized job on the staff of the Atlantic, tapped by the elder Brahmins as their adopted Western son. Even after his move to New York, Howells continued to cherish the Boston ideal. In its day, he wrote at the end of the century, predicaments, the daily plights of normal existence, just as they Boston held together "a group of authors as we shall hardly see here again for hundreds of years." Moreover, "there was such regard for them and their calling, not only in good society, but among the extremely well-read people of the whole intelligent city, as hardly another community has shown."

Boston nourished a belief in the seriousness of literature, in the elevating influence of fine writing and reading, which remained a deep assumption of Howells's realism and a frequent theme of conversation within his novels. "I wonder what the average liter- a ture of non-cultivated people is," says the young Corey to his father, the old Boston Brahmin, in The Rise of Silas Lapbam. The


question concerns the young man's growing acquaintance with the Laphams, a country family newly rich on the weight of their father's success as a paint manufacturer. Living now in Boston, they seek acceptance in "soc iety," and their unpolished ways, their lack of cultivation, and their conspicuous wealth pose a problem for the cultivated elite. "I don't suppose that we who have the habit of reading, and at least a nodding acquaintance with literature," replies the father, "can imagine the bestial darkness of the great mass of people-even people whose houses are rich and whose linen is purple and fine." The son agrees but ventures the opinion that the Laphams are nevertheless "intelligent people. They are very quick, and they are shrewd and sensible." "I have no doubt that some of the Sioux are so," Bromfield Corey retorts. "But that is not saying they are civilized. All civilization comes through literature now, especially in our country. A Greek got his civilization by talking and looking, and in some measure a Parisian may still do it. But we, who live remote from history and monuments, we must read or we must barbarise."

The elder Corey's words find echoes in Howells's own defense of literature: we must read or we must barbarize. But realism proposes a kind of reading, a way of seeing, which will mollify Corey's too stringent judgments; it will propose a more balanced view in which Silas Lapham's basic moral soundness will appear in true proportion to his country roughness and arriviste vulgarity (itself a result of a misplaced desire, on behalf of his daughters, to "rise" in Boston society). Throughout the novel, dialogue and action disclose how false readings misprepare people for real predicaments, the daily plights of normal existence, just as they prejudge inner character by social appearance.

In its narration, Silas Lapham asserts itself as the very model of the kind of reading and seeing the world needs badly: a pedagogy as well as a story. In this process of pointing to itself as an example of the realism missing from the human relations it portrays, the novel relies on the good Reverend Sewall, another Brahmin, intimate of the Coreys, yet also a sympathetic adviser to the Laphams. Sewall instructs the reader as well as his friends to beware of the false lessons of sentimental fiction. For the most part, he explains, novelists have had a "noxious" influence, fastening onto love and marriage "in a monstrous disproportion,"


praising self-sacrifice even when inappropriate. Considering their influence now that fiction forms "the whole intellectual experience of more people" than does religion, "novelists might be the greatest help to us if they painted life as it is, and human feelings in their true proportion and relation." For this they must overcome their abhorrence of the commonplace-"that light, impalpable, aerial essence which they've never got into their confounded books yet," exclaims yet another clear-eyed character. "The novelist who could interpret the commonplace feelings of commonplace people would have the answer to 'the riddle of the painful earth' on his tongue"-as Sewall attempts to interpret Lapham to the Coreys; as the novel itself attempts to interpret the entire Corey-Lapham world and all its misunderstandings, small and large.

The high value of reading, then, in the high culture of Boston, provided a key component in Howells's restorative realism. But the notion of reading as a corrective seeing, a true perspective, implied additional assumptions, not always in rapport with each other. When Howells insisted that "realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material," it was partly to quiet alarms that realism held in store a revolution in letters, morals, and possibly society, hinted at by Flaubert in Madame Bovary. But "truthful treatment" does link Howells's realism with that of European writers in one significant regard. Appearing first in France in the 1830's, the term "realism" came to signify a general rejection in the arts of academic models, a defiance of the standards of symmetry and harmony on behalf of firsthand experience, direct observation of the visible world. In literature, its effects showed especially in the novel, in its "complete emancipation," in Eric Auerbach's words, from the neoclassical doctrine of "levels of style" according to which "everyday practical reality" and lower-class people "could find a place in literature only within the frame of a low or intermediate kind of style, that is to say, as either grotesquely comic or pleasant, light, colorful, and elegant entertainment." Thus, continues Auerbach, realism came to mean "the serious treatment of every reality, the rise of more extensive and socially inferior human groups to the position of subject matter for problematic-existential representation." In short, realism freed the "low" from the hold of the "high," permitting rough-edged slang-speaking characters like


Silas Lapham to be taken seriously as having genuine problems and true consciousness.

"But let fiction cease to lie about life," demanded Howells. "Let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know." Moreover, "let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know 17 -the language of unaffected people everywhere. Howells well understood that simply to allow characters low on the social scale to speak with the same freedom as what he dubbed "grammatical characters" constituted a kind of revolution, an overturning of those ingrained conventions which still guided popular novels. Moreover, because those conventions of linguistic representation worked hand in hand with the ever-present convention of the romantic-courtship plot, freedom of speech alone implied a radical change In the status of that plot, if not a complete elimination of it. Thus, Sewall's attack on the "monstrous disproportion" of the courtship-marriage plot served also to justify a novel about Silas Lapham's mundane "rise" in the first place.

A discourse of the "low," in dialect and vernacular speech, had already found a place in American writing, in the Southwestern humorous tales published in the East before the Civil War, in "local color" stories which had begun to appear in the 1850's and broadened into a major current in the postwar decades, and even in very popular sentimental romances such as Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850). But by and large, the low remained low, subordinated by plot and other devices of social designation to what can be called a discourse of respectability-a mode of writing which takes as Its own the speech and social perspective of its "grammatical characters": a subordination found in varying degrees in Bret Harte's California mining-camp stories and poems, James Whitcomb Riley's Indian Hoosier poems, the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris, George Washington Cable's Creole stories, Mary Murfree's treatment of rural Southern whites, the New England regional fictions of Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett. With few exceptions, dialect either appeared within a grammatical framework or otherwise made clear it was intended for a grammatically proper reader. This place ment of speech in such a way that it is unmistakably recognized as "low," as culturally inferior to the writing of the narrator, owed as much to economics as to the social attitudes of writers


(most of them middle or upper class in origins), an effect of prudential considerations in a literary marketplace controlled largely by major Eastern periodicals like Atlantic, Century, and Harper's. In the 1880's, the monthlies had evolved a remarkable authority over the production of fiction. Realism suited their purposes of reaching a national audience as long as it was tempered to accord with the predominant Protestant morality they assumed among their readers. For the privilege of publication and payment, regional writers were expected to present themselves at least, even if not their characters, as standing within that morality, that national discourse of propriety.

Not until Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), told entirely in the vernacular voice of an illiterate outcaste boy of the Mississippi valley, did the linguistic freedom implicit in realism Come to fruition in America. From the outset, Mark Twain had circumvented the journals and the respectable publishing houses often (like Atlantic and Harper's and Scribner's) tied directly to the journals, by publishing his books on a subscription basis, sold door-to-door by traveling agents, reaching a nonliterary audience almost as large as that of dime novels and story papers sold at newsstands. Stamped thus with the onus of popularity, less an "author" than an entertainer, a personality, a "humorist," Mark Twain began his career outside the circle of respectability, and soon found a begrudging genteel acceptance. In the linguistic experiment of Huckleberry Finn, he found a freedom for the realistic telling of tales of insanity, murder, thievery, betrayal, feuding and lynching, and brutalities of racism without precedent in American fiction: without precedent, and unique until the appearance in 1900 of Theodore Dreiser, who in Sister Carrie and later novels would abandon respectability altogether, along with the very notion of "high" and "low," romantic plots, and the entire apparatus of reconciliation that lay at the heart of Howells's enterprise.

In 1895, Howells defended the growing use of dialect as indicating "the wider diffusion of the impulse to get the whole of American life into our fiction." Huck Finn and Sister Carrie suggest that getting "into" fiction entailed more than the deft inclusion of vernacular speech. Howells, who rarely employed dialect, confined the vernacular to dialogue: his narratives remained securely within the discourse of respectability, as in Silas Lapbam,


with the important modification that Silas is allowed a major, not merely a comic or incidental role, a role moreover, which serves to correct the social, moral, and literary perspective of grammatical characters like Bromfield Corey and the reader, For it is clear from the narrator's own ease of discourse that he addresses the Coreys among his readers, not the Silas Laphams, who are not yet presumed to have developed a taste for serious fiction. Howells remains, then, within the circle, attempting to revise its vision from within.

And this posture, of standing within, of staking his risks on the middle ground, involved Howells in what has appeared to later critics as a fatal flaw in his realism: his permitting respectability to censor his observations and insights. This reservation, how- ever, mislocates the contradiction. In fact, Howells revised the notion of realism to fit his own role, the role of fashioning serious fiction as an anodyne for the rifts he observed in the social fabric, the growing tensions between old and new ways of life. "Fidelity to experience and probability of motive" represented to Howells fidelity to the true underlying shape of American experience, Realism will always find "consolation and delight" in "real life" because, Howells believed, real life, in America at least, was at bottom truly governed by a moral universe. Neither callousness nor dishonesty led him in 1886, the year of the Haymarket crisis whose outcome would so agitate his convictions as to make of him a Christian socialist and in the 1890's a utopian novelist, to write: "In a land where journeymen carpenters and plumbers strike for four dollars a day the sum of hunger and cold is certainly very small, and the wrong from class to class is also inap- preciable, We invite our novelists, therefore, to concern them- selves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American." What was "peculiarly American," he continued, was "the large, cheerful average of health and success and happy life."

The contradiction in his notion of realism may be found rather in his fictions: not in his beliefs but in his practices. The Rever- end Sewall holds that fiction, however paradoxical, should be true, that novels should paint life "as it is." Howells himself stressed perspective, balanced and proportioned seeing; that is, picture. Picture implies the making of a form, and also the closure of an event: that is, it implies plot. By Howells's notion of "real life," balance, proportion, picture, and plot inhere in reality it


self: all a matter of proper seeing. Yet, seeing is not, for him, description alone; realism is "false to itself " when it "maps life instead of picturing it." A true-to-life picture, then, will seem credible because life itself contains that picture, that form, that symmetry of plot.

So goes the theory. In practice, in his novels of the 1880's especially, Howells frequently felt he needed to force his picture into its proportions and balances even if by acts of arbitrary plotting, by transparent devices of romance such as the Corey-Lapham marriage, and Silas's quite unbusinesslike renunciation of the opportunity to revenge himself against a former crooked partner and make a handsome pile of money in the bargain: a renunciation which wins him the admiration of the Coreys as having in the end "behaved very well-like a gentleman." The denouement entails destruction of a scapegoat, the crooked partner Rogers, as indeed, in A Modern Instance and A Hazard of New Fortunes, acts of violence-the killing of Bartley and of Conrad Dreyfus-serve as punishments or sacrifices essential to the balance and proportion of the picture, of the plot. Moreover, the romantic-courtship element, which Howells never entirely abandoned, serves the same end by another course, the reverse of violence and murder: the regenerative powers of the good woman, of emotional and domestic love. For the sake of the moral order he assumed realism would disclose, it was essential that characters reap their just rewards, that good come to the good and bad to the bad-even at the cost of plausibility. Too often Howells contrived devices-chance encounters, changes of heart, sacrificial acts-to ensure a relatively benign outcome, if not exactly a happy ending, then at least a morally pleasing one. Thus, Howells resorted often to "romance" to preserve the moral assurances of his "realism."

Realism, then, brings Howells to the point where, in spite of himself, his fictions of the real disclose the unresolved gaps and rifts within the traditional world view he wishes to maintain, to correct and discipline. That outlook no longer possessed the resources of self-renewal, of creative accommodation to the new shape of its world. Resorting to romance, Howells conceded, without acknowledgment, the fundament of illusion on which his realism rested: the illusion and romance of "America" itself.


For Howells, realism and America were always interchangeable terms, the one informing and assuring the other of that ultimate coming-out-all-right which held together the middle-class Protestant view. In response to Matthew Arnold's remark that America lacked "distinction," Howells respectfully if illogically replied that "somehow, the idea that we call America has realized itself so far that we already have identification rather than distinction." This means: "Such beauty and such grandeur as we have is common beauty, common grandeur, or the beauty and grandeur in which the quality of solidarity so prevails that neither distinguishes itself to the disadvantage of anything else." Howells remarks improbably that America invites "the artist to the study and the appreciation of the common, and to the portrayal in every art of those finer and higher aspects which unite rather than sever mankind, if he would thrive in our new order of things." As solidarity, as order, as higher and finer aspects which unite, "America" is thus America's own romance-what Melville would call in another connection, in the same troubled days at the end of the 1880's, "the symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction."


"My mother called them all lies, " Penelope Lapharn says to Tom Corey about novels. "'They're certainly fictions,' said Corey, smiling." But fictions, in the best of cases, Howells would add, are also true. His campaign for realism had on one important side the high motive of establishing precisely this, the authority and legitimacy of serious fiction as a serious enterprise. Realism held within itself a defense of literature: a defense as much against the idealists' claim that art belonged to a "higher" sphere, as against traditional moral scruples, like Mrs. Lapham's, against novels and novel reading.

Like James, Howells was especially vexed by the apparent anomaly of serious literature, fictions with truth-telling claims, in a culture ruled by business values, by images of success and failure. The role of reading in Silas Lapbam, of journalism in A Modern Instance, of the founding of a new periodical of letters, arts, and opinion in A Hazard of New Fortunes, embodied that


concern; the novels can be taken as examinations of the predicament of serious writing as well as pedagogies of serious reading.

A critical predicament, central in A Hazard of New Fortunes, was the changed ec onomic situation of the writer as a social type, a vocational category. Until the Civil War, Howells explained in an essay at the end of the century, "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business," few writers could hope for economic independence from literary income alone. Now, because of "the prosperity of the magazines," it is possible for writers to "live prettily enough," chiefly by sale of serial publications to journals. Still, the man of letters retains a "low grade among business men. This is because "literature is still an infant industry," book publication making "nothing like the return to the author the magazine makes." Also, even among "the highest class" of magazine readers, the "love of pure literature," as opposed to opinion, science, travel, and so on, has been "growing less and less," hardly strong enough "to justify the best business talent in devoting itself" to letters. For those seeking financial success, writing remains a poor investment of time and effort, though indeed storytelling is now a recognized trade, occasionally lucrative for those willing to produce "the sort of fiction which corresponds in literature to the circus and the variety theatre." Even the best-known serious writers often earn less than "a rising young physician," a fact "humiliating to an author in the presence of a nation of business men like ours."

The humiliation points to the mixed feelings rampant in Howells's essay. At the outset he had established as a basic premise the bizarre anomaly of art in a world of business. The artist knows "there is something false and vulgar" in the practice of selling art, something obscenely wrong in the conception of artworks as commodities, in the poet's use of his emotions, for example, "to pay his provision bills." "The work which cannot be truly priced in money cannot be truly paid in money." Yet there is no doubt that "Literature is Business as well as Art, and almost as soon." As things stand, in fact, "business is the only human solidarity; we are all bound together with that chain, whatever interests and tastes and principles separate us." The reference to circus-like fiction, however, cuts across the image of a solidarity of writers, for it implies that the artist is also perforce an entrepreneur and entertainer, a competitor. Even though "literature has no objec-


tive value really, but only a subjective value," authors have become "largely matters of fashion, like this style of bonnet, or that shape of gown."

In the shape of competition, serious writers preserve the subjectiv e value, while circus-like writers produce the commodities, like sentimental romances and what Henry James excluded from "legitimate fiction" altogether, the dime novel or "sensation novel." The competitive scene, as James described it in "The Question of Opportunities" (1898), was "subdivided as a chessboard, with each little square confessing only to its own kind of accessibility." With "divisions and boundaries," he wrote, increasing stratification of readerships by social class, by level and interest,"the very force of conditions" compelled American writers to react against the possibility of any single literary mode, "any taste or tone," establishing itself as the "general" fashion, by staking out individual claims. If the process continued, he fore saw, "we may get individual publics positively more sifted and evolved than anywhere else, shoals of fish rising for more delicate bait." It was this that Howells faced with misgiving: further fragmentation of the social world and further diminishment of both the earning power and the cultural influence of that "pure" and serious writing on which a restored middle ground, a revived America, depended. And so his doublefronted campaign, against the "gross fables," prodigies and marvels of the popular, and for novels of enlightenment and instruction, of reflective consciousness. Unless novels tend "to make the race better and kinder," he wrote, they cannot be "regarded as serious"; they are "lower than the rudest crafts that feed and house and clothe, for except they do this office they are idle; and they cannot do this except from and through the truth." The function is both practical and religious: "Let all the hidden things be brought into the sun, and let every day be the day of judgment. If the sermon cannot any longer serve this end, let the novel do it." His defense of the realist novel is a defense, then, of civilized mind itself: "I confess that I should suspect an unreality, an insincerity in a mature and educated person whom I found liking an unreal, an insincere novel."

Yet, "in the actual conditions," Howells concludes his essay on "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business," the artist is "anomalous," no better than an amusement for the "classes," unknown


and unregarded among the "masses": "the common people do not hear him gladly or hear him at all." Howells brings to a close this essay of complaint with a remarkable unexpected image-unexpected, yet once anno unced, a perfectly apt figure of speech.

In the end, the writer is "an artist merely, and is allied to the great mass of wage-earners who are paid for the labor they have put into the thing done ... who live by doing and making a thing, and not by marketing a thing after some other man has done it or made it." In the last analysis, the author "is merely a workingman, and is under the rule that governs the working-man's life," the rule that he must earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. "I wish that I could make all my fellow-artists realize," he writes, "that economically they are the same as Mechanics, farmers, daylaborers." The solidarity of business, which had assumed each individual writer to be an entrepreneur competing with his goods in the market, now appears as a solidarity of labor, a solidarity, moreover, which figures forth a broad community of producers strikingly like that of the antebellum free-labor doctrine, the revived America of Populism, of Bellamy's "Nationalism," of Christian socialism. "It ought to be our glory that we produce something," Howells exults, and "we ought to feel the tie that binds us to all the toilers of the shop and field, not as a galling chain, but as a mystic bond also uniting us to Him who works hitherto and evermore." The bond is nothing less than sacral America itself, now a distant hope of incarnation rather than an immediate prospect: "Perhaps the artist of the future will see in the flesh the accomplishment of that human equality of which the instinct has been divinely planted in the human soul."

Thus, the artist of the real is the artist of "America", a figure which not surprisingly submerges the competitiveness out of which realism had defined its own zealous mission against the degradations of circus and variety-house fiction. If the marketplace has made wage workers out of artists, against the grain of their essentially subjective work, then the solidarity of producers ought to dissolve the competition, reattach the artist to the sacred body of the nation, at least as a future prospect. Certainly a compelling image, nevertheless it evades the very insight it embodies. For the burden of Howells's essay is that the artist must be a businessman in a business world, must sell his wares not as


a wage slave but as an independent entrepreneur, directly into a competitive market. This is precisely the goal of Howells's realism: to take a competitive stance among competing modes, and yet insist on it as the on ly true mode, the only serious fiction. Thus, Howells's realism bears the mark of the very competition it condemns as alien to art and the instinct of equality.

And while Howells's own condemnation raged most angrily against the best sellers of the age, sentimental romances like Ben-Hur, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Trilby, his reference to circuses and "gross fables" also excluded the story-paper fiction which represented the reading of perhaps the majority of urban Americans. Published as pamphlets in mass quantities, without even the pretense of qualifying as "book," as belonging to culture, such fiction represented one of the most ephemeral commodities of the era. Dime fiction was indeed the product of proletarian labor-hundreds of authors working anonymously in factory-like quarters in New York, reported Edward Bok of the Ladies' Home Journal in 1892. Such a writer "turns into a veritable machine," paid at piece rates by the story or the word. As early as 1864, the North American Review took notice of the ir sales, "almost unprecedented in the annals of booksellers," obtaining "greater popularity than any other series of works of fiction published in America." Writing in Howell's Atlantic Monthly in 1879, novelist W. H. Bishop called "story-paper literature" the "greatest literary movement, in bulk, of the age, and worthy of every serious consideration for itself." It was a phenomenon, Bishop urged on his polite readers, which "cannot be overlooked."

Precisely because of its conditions of production, its popularity, its serving no other objective ends than the sale of quickly consumable commodities of entertainment and distraction, dime fiction was not susceptible to formal literary criticism; its producers did not enjoy "careers" subject to critical reception and the honor of reviews. They were Howell's lowest order of literary producers: the undisguised hacks. And their product thus raised the deepest, most unsettling fears among respectable critics: that for the young readers of such sensational and fantastic fiction, the line between fiction and real life might indeed be entirely obliterated. Ranging from the evangelical rhetoric of Anthony Cosmetic's Traps for the Young (188 3), to newspaper and


journal editorials and commentary, the commonest fear was that young people would take the "pernicious stories of the 'dime novel' class" as models for themselves. According to Comstock, crusader for the Supp ression of Vice, "these stories ... disparage honest toil and make real life a drudge and a burden. What young man will serve an apprenticeship, working early and late, if his mind is filled with the idea that sudden wealth may be acquired by following the hero of the story?"

Editorial writers often described youngsters shooting themselves or others "during a period of mental aberration caused by reading dime novels." The fear was not only of random aberrant violence. In 1878, Scribner's Monthly worried about the "effects on society" of fiction so outrageously antisocial: "stories about hunting, Indian warfare, California desperado life, pirates, wild sea adventure, horrors (torture and snake stories), gamblers, practical jokes, the life of vagabond boys, and the wild behavior of dissipated boys in great cities." The magazine worried especially about the social effects of typical characterizations of authority: "all teachers, of course, are sneaks and blackguards"; "fathers and sons are natural enemies"; vagabond life is "interesting and enticing," while "respectable home life ... is not depicted at all." Held up to admiration are "low people who live by their wits ... heroes and heroines of bar-rooms, concert saloons, variety theatres, and negro minstrel troupes." The police are "all stupid louts," and the law not to be minded. It is impossible "that so much corruption should be afloat and not exert some influence."

Less moralistic, less fearful of personal disasters following an afternoon immersed in a tale of lurid adventure, Bishop viewed the story papers from a perspective similar to Howells's realism. The worst aspect of this fiction is its implausibility. "The admiration grows," he writes, "for the craving which can swallow, without misgiving, so grand a tissue of extravagances, inaneness, contradictions, and want of probability." Villains display "no redeeming traits," and the good are always good. Characters are "never exhibited attending to the ordinary duties of existence." To be sure, there are elements of genuine popularity: living persons and current events frequently appear, as well as "a great many poor people." Indeed, "the capitalist is occasionally abused." But, "though written almost exclusively for the use of


the lower classes of society, the story papers are not accurate pictures of their life." Their fault lies, in short, in their not being realist novels.

More benign than other critics, Bishop also proposes a program o f reform. All things considered, he writes, the story papers ,care not an unmixed blessing." They "reward virtue and punish vice." "They encourage a chivalrous devotion to woman." And, most of all, they represent among the masses a "taste for reading" which, "however perverted, is connected with something noble, with an interest outside of the small domain of self." With their popularity, their profound hold on their vast audiences, perhaps story-paper fiction "offers a solution to the problem of how the literature of the masses is to be improved." Certainly, Bishop argues, "the enormous extent of this imaginative craving" will demand objects of satisfaction. "Lack of culture is a continuous childhood," he explains, and most of the present audience "is not reflective." But an improved popular literature may hold the key to an improved culture.

Dime novels consisted of a baffling melange of storytelling devices, overlapping plots, hidden identities, disguises, long-lost heirs. Violence was rife: fistfights, knifings, shootings, acts of treachery, cowardice, and bravery. Bishop is probably correct in supposing an absence of "misgiving" among their readers. They were read rapidly, probably with a rising pulse beat. What lay behind the appeal of such fictions of the unreal remained obscure, inaccessible at least to literary reformers and intellectuals like Howells. Embracing dime fiction along with sentimental romance under the same heading of "injurious" literature, Howls described it as "the emptiest dissipation," a kind of "opium-eating," drugging the brain and leaving the reader "weaker and crazier for the debauch," in "dumb and passive need." His own imagery of excoriation grew more extreme at the height of his campaign for realism in the late 1880's, depicting fictions "which imagine a world where the sins of sense are unvisited by the penalties which follow, swift or slow, but inexorably sure, in the real world," as "deadly poison: these do kill." Such pervasive appetite for poison, for opium, could only imply a state of barbarism. It is a "palpable error," he insisted, "to regard civilization as inclusive of all the members of a civilized community." Many


still "live in a state of more or less evident savagery with respect to their habits, their morals, and the propensities ... Many more yet are savage in their tastes, as they show by the decoration of their h ouses and persons, and by their choice of books and picture."

Obviously, it is not to these savage Americans Howells addressed his essays in Harper's or his novels. Howells's language of contempt indicates his abandonment of the popular. Whatever the reasons, the story papers expressed to him a mass consciousness at profound odds with realism, with culture itself. They stood as "low" to "high," and thus challenged Howells and others to their task of defining a level, a stratum of their own, a Central Park of the imagination, where civilized acts might be performed in the "light of common day" upon a greensward of measured vistas and balanced views: a communal spectacle of a revived Republic. It was for Howells as for Olmsted a matter of "civilization" or "savagery": we read, or we barbarize.

The virtually Manichaean antithesis of the alternatives arose from the depth of Howells's investment in the concept of America, of republican equality and solidarity. Fully capable of discerning how untenable the concept was fast becoming in the face of a rigidifying class structure and open class strife-how fragile the supporting moral universe seemed to be against social injustice and mechanization-he nevertheless persisted in his belief. "I'm not in a very good mood with 'America' myself," he wrote to Henry James in 1888.

It seems to be the most grotesquely illogical thing under the sun; and I suppose I love it less because it won't let me love it more. I should hardly like to trust pen and ink with all the audacity of my social ideas; but after fifty years of optimistic content with "civilization" and its ability to come out all right in the end, I now abhor it, and feel that it is coming out all wrong in the end, unless it bases itself anew on a real equality. Meantime I wear a fur-lined overcoat, and live in all the luxury my money can buy.

Blaming the word "America" as "illogical," Howells could only pass off his own illogicality with a self-deprecatory remark, burying his abhorrence in the persisting faith that the old Amer-


ica might yet "base itself anew on a real equality." Herein lay his desperate hope for a fiction of the real.


"The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentia lly having less to do with fable than with fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges." So wrote Herman Melville in Billy Budd, Sailor, the tale he called an "inside narrative," unfinished and unpublished at his death in 1891. Melville had endured the Gilded Age in virtual silence, unknown, unread, a ghost of the past performing a daily round of chores at the New York Custom House. It seems unlikely he attended to Howells's campaign for realism, but in these two sentences from his final tale the chief dilemma of a fiction of the real comes powerfully to the fore.

Howells proved unable or unwilling to accept the raggedness of "truth uncompromisingly told," retreating always into the symmetry of a fiction he held "pure," including the illogical fiction of "America." To be sure, the strains and tensions and the violence of his age make their way into his novels. Indeed, in the fictions of Howells, James, Mark Twain, in the regional stories of Kate Chopin, Mary Wilkins, E. W. Howe, Hamlin Garland, in the new "naturalism" of Crane and Frank Norris and Dreiser in the 1890's, a ragged picture does emerge, of lost hopes, hypocrisy, narrowed and constricted lives, grinding frustrations of poverty and isolation. The report is relieved, especially in the regional fiction, by acts of courage, a surviving residue of older ways, rural customs and habits and speech. But the major picture included a keen lament for the passing of an older, more secure and reliable way of life, one based on ingrained assumptions about the possibilities of freedom. The discovery of social constraints, of the incursions of history on the idyll of Huck and Jim on their raft, or of vile manipulation on Isabel Archer's belief (in James's Portrait of a Lady) in a perfect freedom of choice and self-determination, tainted much of the fiction of the age with sorrow, bitterness, cynicism. In worlds of greed and plotting, James's heroes and heroines learn what their author himself insisted in his writings on fiction: that experience is always social,


that freedom only manifests itself within human relations. On the whole, realism portrayed the old American credo of a community of autonomous natural beings as a sad illusion. Howells's problems in arriving at satisfactory conclusions to his novels, like Mark Twain's last-minute resort to romantic plot at the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, reflect the intellectual difficulty of absorbing that lesson, of creating fictions of fact rather than fable.

Under Howells's tutelage, writers embraced more unsettling contemporary fact than the audiences of respectable literature had been accustomed to reading. Yet fact consistently battled with fable in his own works, and in the end Howells narrowed his range, addressing an imaginary audience, a "literary elect" who might serve as a saving remnant against the future when the solidarity of writer and reader might be realized. "I believe," he confessed in a lecture in 1899, "that it is far from these nervous centres that the author finds his closest, truest, liveliest appreciation. For my part I like to think of my stories, if they are so blest, as befriending the loneliness of outlying farms, dull villages, distant exile."

From his own internal exile within the nervous city, He Melville had his say in the privacy of his cryptic tale of Billy Budd, without a hope of reaching living readers, high or low or middle.

Written late in the 1880's, Billy Budd turns to an event more than a generation earlier, the Somers Mutiny of 1842, in which a member of Melville's family joined the tribunal in sentencing to death a young offender against the ship's military discipline. Set "in the time before steamships," before the harsh industrial conflicts in the years in which Melville wrote, the tale bristles with personal implication for the aging writer whose family had thirty years earlier worried for his sanity. But the story of the "fated" Billy, a common sailor consigned to death by a possibly deranged captain during the naval wars between revolutionary France and counterrevolutionary England, also reflects on the turbulence of Melville's own times. The tale is set amid a turbulence which Melville is at pains to describe as not so much an external threat of French victory over England, "a Power then all but the sole free conservative one of the Old World," but an internal one of "insurrection" in the British fleet. just months


before the events, British sailors had rebelled at Spithead and Nore, signaling their mutiny by running up the royal flag "with the union and cross wiped out," thus "transmuting the flag of founded law and freedom de fined, into the enemy's red meteor of unbridled and unbounded revolt." Growing out of "reasonable discontent" over "glaring abuses," the revolt flamed into an "irrational combustion," a "distempering irruption of contagious fever." It was a time, like the days and months following the summer of 1877, or Haymarket in 1886, when the red banner terrified established authority, portending even further unbounded revolt. Officers at sea felt compelled "to stand with drawn swords behind the men working the guns."

The similarities of historical moment-of mass unrest and challenges to authority, of issues brought to law and settled by authorized force-resound too insistently to be ignored. Certainly, this is not to say that Melville intended his tale to serve as an explicit commentary on the current events of his own declining years. Free of any direct allusion to contemporary affairs, the narrative does speak of the Great Mutiny at Nore as similar to "some other events in every age befalling states everywhere, including America," but it seems likely that Melville has in mind the Civil War, which elsewhere he had described as a mutiny against the Republic. Moreover, to what extent does the tale even concern itself with its own larger historical moment? True, Billy's story begins with an act-his impressment in the open sea-pointedly described as an example of abuse not redressed by the settlement at Nore. Snatched from the Rights-of-Man, a homeward-bound merchant ship named in honor of Thomas Paine, Billy is coerced into the King's service aboard the outward-bound HMS Bellipotent, a 74-gun warrior ship rushing to join the royal fleet awaiting battle with the French. The "inside narrative," writes Melville, will have "little concernment" with the actual maneuvers of the ship, but surely the revolutionary moment, and especially Britain's fear of the Red Flag, will contribute in no small way to Billy's end. The larger history will fade imperceptibly but nonetheless decisively into the drama of Billy, Claggart, and Starry Vere.

What concern us, then, are not so much the parallels between the represented history of the tale and that of Melville's America, but the reflection on history itself, on the impingement of an


outside on an inside narrative. The tale recounts an act, a doubled act within an outside history: Billy's killing of Claggart, Vere's killing of Billy. It also recounts a continuing act of interpretation.

Billy Budd, the "Handsome Sailor," seems the incarnation of a "natural" goodness, the corporeal form of an otherworldly innocence. And Claggart, the "master-at-arms," seems a predestined opposite and foe, demonism incarnate as human malice, envy, and spite. In Claggart lurked some element of unmotivated evil the narrator cannot explain except by evoking, if only figuratively, the "mystery of iniquity" of the old Calvinist doctrine. Claggart seemed by nature "bad," while Billy "had none of that intuitive knowledge of the bad which in natures not good or incompletely so foreruns experience." Are Billy and Claggart, then, moral types, fables fallen into a world of fact? When Billy strikes out in speechless rage at Claggart's false accusation that the young sailor had plotted mutiny, and kills his superior officer at one blow, Captain Vere grasps instantly the fatal conjunction of fable and fact. "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" He must hang, moreover, and hang at once, as Vere would argue before his own disbelieving officers, precisely because of those angelic features which arouse so powerful a current of sympathy. Vere had witnessed the false accusation and the deadly blow with rising fatherly feelings. But then, momentarily "eclipsed" by emotion, he emerged from his spell "with quite another aspect ... .. The father in him ... was replaced by the military disciplinarian."

Did Vere act precipitously? After all, as members of the drumhead court themselves argued, Billy might have been held over in chains until a regular court might be convened. There is no doubt that Vere acts in a state of extreme distress. But what does his condition signify? just as Vere performs an act of interpretation on Billy and Claggart, so the reader is constrained to interpret Vere, who indeed proves a more intractable case of ambiguity. "Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins?" asks the narrator. "Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity." The case is left to the reader: whether Vere must be considered insane or not "everyone must determine for himself by such


light as this narrative may afford." Was it insanity, or guilt, or some stoic sense of impersonal tragedy which drove Vere, at the moment of his own death after a successful battle with the French ship Antheé, to murmur "words inexplicable to his attendant: 'Billy Budd, Billy Budd' "? Does the narrative finally afford sufficient light to clarify Vere's condition, or to make his final words explicable?

The narrative cloaks all questions of motive, of meaning, in a cunning uncertainty. Only the outside narrative, the chronicle of mere events, remains incontrovertible. Everything inside seems equivocal, murky, elusive. And it is precisely the encroaching sense of the inside world's ultimate obscurity which would have brought discomfort and protest from those among Melville's readers still faithful to inherited notions of an America, a city on a hill, in which reason and nature might achieve a perfect harmony. Such believers would fiercely reject Vere's instant condemnation of Billy. To hang an angel for performing his Father's work: what more violent desecration of the harmony once implied by the "rights of man" and by popular Christian belief?

Vere meets these objections without flinching. What springs to our attention in the following passage is not only a grim justification but its basis in a distinction of realms uncommon in popular American political thought:

How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?-Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, though this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King's officers lies our duty in a sphere correspondingly natural? So little is that true, that in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free agents ... Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate in many instances, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.
Not "nature" but "king" defines duty, not natural reason or natural law but the state, the arbitrary power whose authority, signified by the officers' buttons, runs like the King's yarn throughout the society. Finally, it is the irreconciliability of Na-


ture and King which seals Billy's fate: the fate of "fable" in a world of "fact."

Billy would have had a home in the old imagined America of a natural law supporting a naturally reasonable society. But once i mpressed on the Bellipotent, he left behind all familiar meanings and unambiguous relations. The force which tore him from the haven of the Rigbts-of-Man represented the hard facts of warfare, class conflict, malice, intrigue, unrelenting law: in short, history. Meanings no longer secure, motives hidden at impenetrable depths, the very name Billy Budd "inexplicable": just so, his story in the end lies twisted and perverted in "official" accounts in the press. Moreover, neither the death of Billy nor that of Vere discloses any ultimate meaning, any symmetry of form. As Michael Rogin has argued cogently about this very political tale, the state no longer promises. redemption. "Lying between two guns, as nipped in the vice of fate," Billy lies a victim of an order which, in the face of his utter innocence, cannot justify itself except by evoking "order" itself, form and symmetry for their own sake. And is not Vere himself also caught in that same nipping vice?

Of course, Melville writes about an earlier era, a distant event. But still, Billy Budd invites us to take it as Melville's final, undelivered message to his countrymen and fellow writers. In the light of the narrative, the historical world can no longer be mistaken as hospitable to the American fable of a natural innocence and solidarity. History discloses itself as the realm of power, the laws and iron weapons of the state set against the receding utopia of the "rights of man." Not in nature but in the King's yarn lay the hidden meaning of the law. So much is clear from the buttons on Vere's coat, and from the sight of Billy hanging from the yardarm. But so much, in treating of narratives inside larger events, remains unclear. Melville's message thus includes a severe commentary on interpretation itself, on the ways of knowing and judging behavior. Melville's message, translated freely, argues not only that the state must be seen as distinct from "nature," grounded in power and social interest, but also that the process of seeing and knowing must be freed from "fable," from utopian wish. To perceive their new world, Melville implies, Americans must reckon with ragged edges, the cunning currents and deceits of history.

There is an even deeper message in Billy's fate. just as the state


no longer grounds itself in natural reason, neither does it even claim to represent a shared community of interest. That community known in the tale as "the ship's populace" finds itself utterly separate from the ruling state, subordinate to it, coerced by external law, the apparatus of the master-at-arms and his unholy crew of enforcers and spies. The populace is free only to obey or disobey, accept or rebel. Rewards and punishments remain wholly material: ultimately, life and death. There is no hint of redemption, or self-fulfillment in obedience. What survives in the tale, then, is not the power of the guns or of the coercive yardarm, but "Billy in the Darbies," the concluding ballad, a "rude utterance" from an "artless poetic temperament," testifying in "low" art to the separate and enduringly compassionate vision of the "ship's populace." Under the strict governance of the state, yet disinct from it in a very profound way, the sailors appear in Melville's narrative as a community of work and play in which a mutual predicament fostered a law of its own, a social law of sympathy and compassion. Billy Budd is their hero, the human image of their own precarious history. Only the poem at the end renders the name explicable.