Masters of American Realism
By William E. Grant
Volume VI, Number 3
The American novelists who emerged after the Civil War found themselves in a far different world than that of the great romancers who had preceded them. The romance, which seemed so appropriate to the efforts of Charles Brockden Brown, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville to create an epic and mythic tradition to parallel the great cultural heritages of older nations, quickly lost credibility in the face of the very different circumstances following the war. As Vernon L. Parrington characterizes the period, "from the smoke of the great conflict an America had emerged unlike any the earlier generations had known. An ambitious industrialism stood on the threshold of a continental expansion that was to transfer sovereignty in America from a landed and mercantile aristocracy to the capable hands of a new race of captains of industry." 1 Along with this social and political transition came an intellectual revolution as science rendered increasingly obsolete the concerns of traditional philosophy and metaphysics. In the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the machine was enthroned as the visible symbol of progress and the new order which would carry the nation into the next century. "The conquest of nature was the great business of the day," Parrington writes, "and as that conquest went forward triumphantly the solid fruits of the new mastery were gathered by industrialism. Science and the machine were the twin instruments for creating a new civilization, of which the technologists and the industrialists were the high priests." 2
One of the most immediate effects of the post-war social and economic upheaval was the dissolution of the hegemony of the aristocratic New England literary establishment over American letters. From the West, fresh with the frontier sense of democratic possibility, came such authors as William Dean Howells and Mark Twain with new visions of what the American experiment meant. While earlier American writers, following or reflecting the dictum of Emerson's "The American Scholar," had sought from the limited example of New England a mythic vision to poeticize the national experience, such writers as Howells and Twain recognized diversity itself as the essence of their sense of America. Thus, Howells could argue that an American literature, as Hawthorne, Melville, or Whitman had conceived it, was impossible because we were more nearly a nation of unique sections than a single entity. We were less likely, he contended, to produce a literature reflecting a single American identity than a group of sectional literatures American in spirit but unique in substance and style. Indeed, up to the time of the Civil War, he argued in Literature and Life (1902), "we had a Colonial literature, a knickerbocker literature, and a New England literature. But as soon as the country began to feel its life in every limb with the coming of peace, it began to speak in the varying accents of all the different sections - North, East, South, West, and Farthest West; but not before that time." 3 In one form or another, those "varying accents" are the very essence of the American literary realism which emerged in the 1870s to dominate our fiction until after the turn of the century.
Howells's emphasis on the geographical aspect of American realism suggests the close relationship between this movement and both the "frontier humorists" who preceded it and the "local colorists" who generally paralleled in time the great American realists. Exploring American regional dialects for comic purposes, the frontier humorists did a great service to their national literature between the 1840s and the Civil War by popularizing the "varying accents of all the different sections" which Howells felt to be the essence of American fiction. The local colorists, on the other hand, stressed more broadly and with greater verisimilitude the unique features of the many regional societies which comprised nineteenth century American culture. At their best, the local colorists were virtually indistinguishable from the realists except for the more limited scope of their imaginations. Edward Eggleston reflects this limitation when he writes in The Mystery of Metropolisville, "It seems to me that the work to be done just now, is to represent the forms and spirit of our own life and thus free ourselves from habitual imitation of that which is foreign. I have wished to make my stories of value as a contribution to the history of civilization in America." 4 Elsewhere this same author wrote, " the taking up life in this regional way has made our literature really national by the only process possible." 5 In contrast to Eggleston's limited sense of the novel, Howells believed, his admiration of regionalism and defense of the idea of an American literary tradition notwithstanding, that "there is no such thing as a nationality in the highest literary expression, but there is a universality, a humanity, which is much better." 6 Ultimately it was the writers who, like Howells himself, Twain, James and a few others of our realists, transcended the limits both of regionalism and nationalism to achieve a universal dimension in their work and thereby established the major tradition of American realism.
Both because of the diversity of writers and works within the movement - it is difficult, for example, to think of two writers more dissimilar superficially then Henry James and Mark Twain - and the common use of the term as a synonym for literary verisimilitude, realism is difficult to define precisely. Historically and formally it represents a revolt against the romanticism which dominated American fiction before the Civil War. Howells writes in Criticism and Fiction (1891), " Romanticism then sought, as realism seeks now, to widen the bounds of sympathy, to level every barrier against aesthetic freedom, to escape from the paralysis of tradition. It exhausted itself in this impulse; and it remained for realism to assert that fidelity to experience and probability of motive are essential conditions of a great imaginative literature . . . When realism becomes false to itself, when it heaps up facts merely, and maps life instead of picturing it, realism will perish too.7 As another aspect of the revolution against romanticism, realism adopted a characteristic subject matter by repudiating the exotic, individualistic, and idealized character types of earlier American fiction in favor of characters, settings and situations which more nearly reflected the lives of ordinary Americans in ordinary situations. Generally, the realist tends to reject such obvious fictional devices as balanced symmetry, ornate language, elaborate plot, and exotic locales in favor of a direct and forceful prose objectively relating a reasonably believable, if not commonplace, story. As briefly summarized by Thrall, Hibbard, and Holman's Handbook to Literature, realism can be thought of as the ultimate of middle-class art, and it finds its subjects in bourgeoise life and manners. Where the romanticist transcends the immediate to find the ideal, and the naturalist plumbs the actual to find the scientific laws which control its actions, the realist centers his attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action and the verifiable consequence. 8
Like most literary movements, realism did not spring full-blown onto the American cultural stage. All our great romancers relieve the fantastic tone of their works with realistic scenes and episodes which anticipate post-war taste in fiction. Humorists like Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, and George W. Harris, well before the Civil War, explored the rich literary possibilities of America and prepared the way for the vernacular tradition that would reach fruition in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In the realm of fiction per se, Harriet Beecher Stowe deserves particular mention for The Minister's Wooing (1859) and Old Town Folks (1869), both of which are more important examples of early realism than Uncle Tom's Cabin.Most important among proto- realistic works, however, is John William De Forest's Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867). Called by Arthur Hobson Quinn "the most truly a realist of the novelists who began to write in the early 'fifties'" 9, De Forest anticipated Howells (who praised his work generously) in his use of realistic detail and a representative variety of believable Civil War characters. His anti-romantic and unsentimental treatment of the war makes Miss Ravenel's Conversion the best account of the conflict to appear before Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895). As Alexander Cowie summarizes his career, De Forest "wished to be free to describe man in truer colors than . . . the public wished to pay for. America was not yet ready to view at close range the sterner manifestations of the realistic muse." 10 As a result, America's first significant realist fell into the obscurity which still mars his reputation, and the movement had to wait for a later generation to bring it into the cultural foreground.
Though not so great a writer as either of his two major contemporaries, Mark Twain and Henry James, it is clearly William Dean Howells who stands at the head of the realistic movement in American fiction. As assistant editor and editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1866 to 1881, and as author of "The Editor's Study" in Harper's Magazine from 1886 to 1891, Howells was in a position both to help such writers as Mark Twain and Henry James and to encourage popular taste toward appreciation of the realism of which he was both practitioner in his own fiction and theoretician in his critical writings. A leader in the fight against romanticism, Howells ironically found in Emerson's words, which he quotes in Criticism and Fiction, his basic literary credo: "It is only the extra-ordinary person who can say, with Emerson," Howells writes,
I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic . . . I embrace the common; I sit at the feet of the familiar and the low . . . Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote . . . Today always looks mean to the thoughtless; but today is a king in disguise . . . Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphos. 11
Compared to the topics treated by his European contemporaries and afterward by both the later American realists and the Naturalists who branched away from the movement Howells launched, his sense of what constitutes "The common . . . the familiar and the low" is limited indeed. Frequently faulted for his unwillingness to deal with the less pleasant aspects of American life, Howells must to some extent be accepted on his own terms according to the dictates of taste and imagination which shape his fiction. Believing that sordid, ugly, or sensational aspects of life not only were inappopriate for his readers but were, in themselves, not representative of his America, Howells justified his sometimes pallid materials by arguing in Criticism and Fiction for a sincere but ultimately narrow-minded limit on the subject matter appropriate to American fiction.
Our novelists . . . concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and seek the universal in the individual rather than the social interests. It is worth while, even at the risk of being called commonplace, to be true to our well-to-do actualities; the very passions themselves seem to be softened and modified by conditions which formerly at least could not be said to wrong any one, to cramp endeavor, or to cross lawful desire. Sin and suffering and shame there must always be in the world, I suppose, but I believe that in this new world of ours it is still mainly from one to another one, and oftener still from one to one's self. We have death too in America, and a great deal of disagreeable and painful disease, which the multiplicity of our patent medicines does not seem to cure; but this is tragedy that comes in the very nature of things, and is not peculiarly American, as the large cheerful average of health and success and happy life is. It will not do to boast, but it is well to be true to the facts, and to see that, apart from these purely mortal troubles, the race here has enjoyed conditions in which most of the ills that have darkened its annals might be averted by honest work and unselfish behavior. 12
Fortunately for his reputation, Howells achieved more in his novels than his sterile genteelism would seem to permit. Though circumspect in matter of language and episode, Howells nevertheless deals honestly and sincerely with some of the major moral and social issues facing his generation. Always the critic as well as the writer, he frequently demonstrates in his novels the principles of realism he espoused as a theory of literature, so that he is at his best when documenting the concerns of rather ordinary Americans in situations we recognize as commonplace and typical. His best novels treat the new generation of Americans rising to affluence after the Civil War in the laisse 3 faire atmosphere of the Gilded Age and explore the moral issues confronting a society cut loose from the traditional values and institutions which had stabilized the country earlier. A Modern Instance (1882), the work in which Howells first achieves artistic maturity, treats the rise and fall of a talented young newspaperman who might have been admirable but for his inherent lack of moral standards. Just the opposite point in made in The Rise of Silas Lapham(1885) - universally regarded as Howells's finest novel - as Silas rises in the reader's eyes morally even as he falls economically. Like Huck Finn, Silas demonstrates that even in a corrupt, materialistic society, a man can be capable of the kind of choice which asserts moral values over material ones. In each of these works, Howells shows himself a master of character as he is able, without subordinating his thematic concerns, to create characters who are highly individualized while still representing American types.
Howells, who completed thirty-eight novels over a thirty year period in addition to travel books, criticism, and other writings, is notable for the range as well as the quality of his work. In Indian Summer (1886), for example, he deals with Americans in Europe as James would in his international novels. A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889) is one of several "economic novels" in which Howells speculates upon economic and social concerns. Always a master of character, he creates in The Land Lord at Lion's Head (1897) an excellently realized portrait of a complex and realistic individual, while the last of his first-rate novels, The Son of Royal Langbirth (1904) recalls Hawthorne and Melville in its treatment of the effect of past sins on an innocent generation. While it is difficult to categorize Howells's fiction into a neat system his works do, in their various ways, repeatedly demonstrate his conviction that fiction must ultimately serve a didactic purpose. "Neither arts, nor letters, nor sciences, except as they somehow clearly or obscurely, tend to make the race better and kinder, are to be regarded as serious interests," he wrote in Criticism and Fiction; "they are all 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." 13
Though Howells's Western background no doubt contributed to the fresh vision he brought to American literature, socially and aesthetically he largely transformed himself into a member of the Eastern establishment after becoming editor of The Atlantic. Thus, it remained for his friend and older - by two years - contemporary, Mark Twain (1835-1910), to revolutionize American fiction by practicing principles Howells had outlined. "I should like to hear" American novelists "speak true American, with all the varying Tennessean, Philadelphian, Bostonian, and New York accents," 14 Howells wrote, but not until Mark Twain were those accents heard in the mainstream of our literature. Reflecting a similar sense of an indigenous American language, as well as paralleling Howells's attitude toward the regional basis of American literature, Twain wrote:
Does the native novelist try to generalize the nation? No, he lays plainly before you the ways and speech and life of a few people grouped in a certain place- his own place - and that is one book. In time he and his brethren will report to you the life and the people of the whole nation . . . And when a thousand able novels have been written, there you have the soul of the people, the life of the people, the speech of the people; and not anywhere else can these be had. 15
As no writer before him had, and as few since have, Twain caught the native accents of his region to introduce an unmistakably American tone into his works, and so to change forever the direction of our prose fiction tradition. It was, no doubt, primarily this aspect of Twain's style that inspired Ernest Hemingway to comment in Green Hills of Africa,
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn . . . it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.16
Twain served his literary apprenticeship as a comic journalist and lecturer, absorbing first-hand the traditions of frontier humor and stage comedy which were among the shaping forces of American realism. Like Melville before him, Twain made literary capital of his experiences as an unsettled young man. "When I began to lecture," he has said, "and in my earlier writings, my sole idea was to make comic capital out of everything I saw or heard." 17 This attitude was reflected in his early travel books, The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Roughing It (1872), each of which uses the journey motif as a structural principle to hold together a series of largely comic episodes told with all the relish and wit of a skilled raconteur. Never a highly structured writer, Twain would repeat this essential formula in his more substantial later novels, but already he was developing also the characteristics of style that would distinguish him as a major novelist. As Dixon Wecter has written in The Literary History of the United States, Twain "perfected his early journalistic manner until it became one of the great styles of American letters - easy, incisive, sensitive to nuances of dialect, rich in the resources of comedy, satire, irony and corrosive anger."18 Unlike his contemporary, Henry James, who constructed marvelously architectural "houses of fiction," Twain would always be essentially a raconteur whose stories would flow with the freedom of the great river that ran through his best work.
Never easy to categorize, Twain's fiction seems to have perplexed Howells somewhat because it so defied classification. "It was not until he had written Tom Sawyer that he could be called a novelist," Howells wrote, but
Even now I think he should rather be called romancer, though such a book as Huckleberry Finn takes itself out of the order of romance and places itself with the great things in picaresque fiction. Still, it is more poetic than picaresque, and of deeper psychology. 19
Though technically as elusive as the Howells quote suggests, thematically Twain clearly belongs among the realists with whom he is generally associated. In spite of his comic tone, his best work contains seriously anti-romantic themes reflecting the author's conviction that romanticism was something like as insidious intellectual disease that blinded its adherents. The contrast between quixotic Tom Sawyer and pragmatic Huck Finn reflects this view, as do such episodes in Huckleberry Finn as the sinking of the Walter Scott and the decidedly unchivalrous Shepherdson-Grangerford feud. Even such a work as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) reflects in part Twain's distaste for romanticized illusions about the past and his fundamental affirmation of the common man over any elitist system. Sharing with Howells a faith in democracy and the common man, Twain earns his place among the realists as much for his ideas as for his style.
Having tried his hand writing about the Far West, the Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East in his travel books, Twain yet had to discover "his own place" before his best work would emerge. In 1875 under the title "Old Times On The Mississippi," Twain first returned in his work to the river he had known as a boy and young man. Later, incorporated along with less impressive chapters into Life On the Mississippi (1883), these chapters (IV-XVII) became, along with the Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the basis of Twain's reputation and the central corpus of his contribution to our national literature. The verisimilitude of his pictures of the river from a cub pilot's perspective, a boy's life in a small Missouri town in the last century, or the variety of life along the Mississippi observed by Huck would elevate these works to a high place in the tradition of realism, but Twain so exceeds these limited accomplishments as to earn the designation "masterpieces" for his best work. Never fully at home in the world of sophisticated ideas, Twain's recollections of the world of his childhood and youth freed him, as Dixon Wecter writes, "from those economic and political perplexities, adult dilemmas and introspections, where in rare and knotty casuistries he lost the sureness of touch that came to him through the report of his five senses, or through the championship of justice when the issue was as simple as the conflict between bullies and little folk." 20 Twain had said of himself, "I don't care anything about being humorous, or poetical, or eloquent, or anything of that kind - the end of my ambition is to be authentic - is to be considered authentic." 21 In these three works, Twain achieves all the qualities he enumerates, but most of all he achieves one of the most authentic expressions of the American experience our literature has to offer.
With the exception of The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), a work which falls short of the earlier masterpieces, Twain never returned in his work to the Mississippi after Huckleberry Finn. At his best a chronicler of the remembered past, he found no substitute for his own "certain place." The Prince and the Pauper (1882) showed him searching for new material in imagined history, and he would return to this subject matter in both A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and, more obliquely, in The Mysterious Stranger. Along with Pudd'nhead Wilson, these works constitute the best of Twain's later productions, but they scarcely approach the quality of his earlier masterpieces. Not only did the imagined history of these works fail to approach the authenticity of the remembered past, Twain had lost the essential idealism and optimism which shaped his earlier vision. "I have been reading the morning paper," he wrote to Howells in 1899. "I do it every morning - well knowing that I shall find in it the ususal depravities & baseness & hypocrisies and cruelties that make up Civilization, & cause me to put in the rest of the day pleading for the damnation of the human race." 22 Adopting first a cynical determinism and finally stoical resignation, Twain betrayed the faith of his younger period even as he felt the capricious world had betrayed his trust in it. His best work remain a monument to his genius, however, and to hope, shared with Emerson and Howells among others, that a good heart might triumph over the worst the world could show.
While Twain was, as Robert E. Spiller has called him, "the folk genius of his time and place," 23 his more urbane and Eastern contemporary, Henry James (1843-1916), must be acknowledged the artistic genius of the same period. Finding his homeland generally lacking in the history and culture he thought necessary to the development of a significant literary tradition, James early turned to Europe for connections with the traditions and institutions that would become the foundations of his art. After 1869, he made England his permanent home, developing there the internationalist perspective characteristic of his best work. As for his own national identity - both American and English literary historians and critics claim him for their respective traditions - James thought of himself as a citizen of a larger Anglo-Saxon community which transcended the limits of nationality. He wrote in 1888,
I can't look at the English-American world, or feel about them any more, save as a big Anglo-Saxon total, destined to such an amount of melting together that an insistence on their differences becomes more and more idle and pedantic . . .24
In his work, his ideal was to make it impossible for the reader to determine at any particular moment whether he was "an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America." 25 In spite of his determination to transcend national limits, James is, in at least some major aspects, simply the most thoroughly international writer of his generation of American realists. While Howells and Twain were fascinated with the Old World and touched upon the international theme, James made it the center of his work and perfected it as a literary form.
Though a close friend of Howells, James never accepted his limited definition of the novel as simply a faithful record of social actions and relationships. Very conscious of the artistic possibilities of the novel introduced into the tradition by Flaubert and Turgenev, James saw the form as an unrealized imaginative possibility which must be shaped by the perceiving mind to reflect the unique vision of the creator. As he wrote in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady,
The house of fiction has . . . not one window, but a million . . .everyone[sic] of which has been pierced, or is still pierce-able, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will . . . [These windows] have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from each other. He and his neighbors are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine . . . The spreading field, the human scene, is the 'choice of subject', the pierced aperture, either broad or balanced, or slit-like and low-browed, is the 'literary form', but they are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watched - without, in other words, the consciousness of the artist. Tell me what the artist is, and I will tell you of what he has been conscious. Thereby I shall express to you at once his boundless freedom and his 'moral reference.' 26
In this theory, art is record of a unique vision which necessarily must reflect the individual consciousness of the artist. Reality in the novel, then, has not, as Howells would have it, reference to a fixed quality of the external world, but is a perception relative to the individual creator. Ultimately, the quality of the shaping mind will determine the significance of the vision and the value accorded the work by its readers. James explains this relationship in "The Art of Fiction" (1884) where he writes: There is one point at which the moral sense and the artistic sense lie very near together; that is in the light of very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of mind of the producer. In proportion as the intelligence is fine will the novel, the picture, the statue partake of the substance of beauty and truth. To be constituted of such elements is, to my vision, to have purpose enough. No good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind . . . 27
While Howells's definition of the novel was narrowly literal and potentially confining to the artist's imagination, James's is so expansive as to make it simply coincidental that his choice of subject matter - the socially and culturally rather ordinary middle-class Americans who make up his novels - should be compatible with Howells's theories of fiction. James's realism is, as Robert E. Spiller points out, not a "realism of fact," but a "realism of method."28 As James insisted, "we must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnee: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it." 29 Not only were his theories of fiction more adequate to account for directions literature would later take than those of any other American critic up to this time, James's technical innovations in the novel form, especially in the area of narrative management and point-of-view, influenced the direction of the novel in English more than any other writer of his generation. A "novelist's novelist" to whom others turn to learn their craft, James's fictional record of his own perceiving mind demonstrates that he achieved his own ideal of becoming "one of the people on whom nothing is lost."
Generally it is customary for critics to divide James's career into periods or phases according to style, themes, or topics as he progressed toward the "major phase" of his final years. Following the pioneering work of Joseph Warren Beach, Alexander Cowie in The Rise of the American Novel describes three "rather distinct periods" according to James's subject matter. "In the first period (1875-1885)," Cowie writes, "he used principally American characters, partly in American, partly in European settings."30 Roderick Hudson (1875) treats the theme of the artist in conflict with society, while The American (1876-1977) and The Portrait of a Lady (1880-1881), James's first authentic masterpiece, deal with the international theme of American innocence and Old World corruption. Washington Square (1880) and The Bostonians (1885-1886) dealt with Americans on their own soil, but both failed to achieve the strength of James's better work. By the end of this period, James had treated the major themes which would continue to preoccupy him throughout his career. As summarized by Spiller, these are "the contrast of American sincerity and crudity with European deceit and culture, the conflicting realities of life and of art, and the substitution of psychological for ethical measurements of good and evil." 31
The Princess Casamassima (1885-1886) begins the second phase of James's career (1885-1901). Having resided in England by this time for sixteen years, he moved away from his familiar American characters to deal almost entirely with English types in English settings and situations. A period of seeming uncertainty for James, the works of these years are often evaluated as much for their anticipation of his later, more complex style as for themselves. Beach regards The Princess Casamassima highly, for example, because he sees it as the novel of these years "most characteristic of its author . . . because it anticipates most nearly the technique of The Ambassadors." 32 The Tragic Muse (1889-1890), on the other hand, though he acknowledges it a "very fine novel" in some repects, Beach deprecates because he believes it represents a lapse from the high point James reached in The Portrait of a Lady and The Princess Casamassima in the development of the late style. As James moves, in spite of some faltering, toward his mature style in which the novels increasingly would be cast within the perceiving mind of a single character, The Spoils of Poynton (1896) emerges, according to Beach, as "the first absolutely pure example of the James method," 33 in which James "for the first time was breaking completely with the tradition of the English novel." 34 As Cowie adds, "The Spoils of Poynton . . . may be regarded as a study, a very finished study, for James's most elaborate canvasses." 35
The theme of the artist in conflict with the practical world which James returned to in The Tragic Muse well might reflect his own uncertainty about his future during these middle years. Having failed signally to achieve popular success as a novelist, James experimented between 1889-1895 with dramatic writing only to suffer the most humiliating failure of his life when his play, Guy Domville (1895) was hooted on the London stage. Beach regards most of the fiction of this period as reflecting uncertainty and indirection, and dismisses several works, including What Maisie Knew (1897), The Awkward Age (1898-1899), and The Sacred Fount (1901) as mere "technical exercises" in which James experimented with the method he had developed in The Spoils of Poynton. Taking a more positive view based upon theme rather than style, however, Spiller regards all these novels plus "The Turn of the Screw" (1898) "as a series of variations on the theme of evil, mostly as it appears in children and as it takes the form [of] . . . the violation of one human heart by the possessive will of another." 36 Obviously the novels of this period are difficult to assess, but, even if, as Spiller suggests, after The Portrait of a Lady, "the art of Henry James apparently faltered and for almost twenty years became diffuse and uncertain of its direction," 37even the failures of these years are the failures of a literary genius, and they have much to recommend them.
James's art slowly developed throughout his life, so it is not surprising that his final works are his greatest. Though some critics have deplored the circuitous and subtle indirection by which James sought to explore the perceiving mind on which he focused his late work, most would agree with Beach that Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl(1904), the primary works of his "major phase," represent the culmination of his development toward "the natural and seemingly unsteadied application of his method, and the best demonstration of its possibilities for art."38 Returning to the familiar theme of Americans in Europe, James recapitulates with increasingly fine moral discrimination some of the same concerns which earlier had contributed to the success of such works as The American and The Portrait of a Lady. It is, however, as much technical accomplishment as content that assures these works their high stature in the James canon.
Art always was for James, as he described it in "The Art of the Novel," essentially a way of seeing. Increasingly in these late years he realized his goal of making his intricate and complex narration the record on a perceiving mind - what he called the "center of consciousness" - so that the "action" of the novel becomes the act of "seeing" or perceiving. In Wings of the Dove, Kate Croy is seen through the eyes of others because, as James says, "her painter's tenderness of imagination about her
. . . reduces him to watching her . . .through the successive windows of other people's interest in her." 39 The Golden Bowl, he points out "remains subject to the register, ever so closely kept, of the consciousness of but two of the characters." 40 While each of these novels is a successful example of James's control of point-of-view, it is The Ambassadors - written earlier than Wings of the Dove though published later - which is the masterpiece of James's late narrative method. The "compositional law" of the novel, James writes, was "that of employing but one centre and keeping it all within my hero's consciousness." 41 Characters and events are seen only through Strether's eyes so the focus of the novel is on "seeing" rather than "doing" and the fine discrimination of a consciousness replaces overt action as the basis of James's plot. As he summarized it, "the business of my tale and the march of my action . . . is just my demonstration of this process of vision" 42 by which Strether grows and develops as he observes life and learns from it. As Spiller comments, "for once, and finally, James had written a tale which is all pattern and not confused by the necessity of action." 43 He had also demonstrated that reality lay in the mind of the beholder, and so began the tendency toward the psychological realism that would characterized a new generation of writers. Like his criticism, James's novels anticipated the aesthetic future more than those of any of his American colleagues.
With James, who completed no major fiction after The Golden Bowl, though he did undertake his massive revisions for the New York Edition of his collected works, ends the great tradition of nineteenth century American realism. Such younger writers as Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser had turned to the naturalism which branched away from realism late in the century, and a later generation would move toward experiments in form and more romantic attitudes than had characterized Howells, Twain, and James. The tradition, however, was not dead. Immediately following James, the mantle of realism fell on his friend Edith Wharton (1862-1937) whose technical command of the novel form, at its best, rivals James's own. In such major works as The House of Mirth(1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920) she reveals a sureness of characterization that makes her perhaps the best American fiction writer of her generation. Beginning in 1900 with Monsieur Beaucaire, Booth Tarkington (1869-1937) explored life in Indiana in a style which, though more romanticized than is characteristic of the stronger realists, earns him a modest place among realistic writers of this century. Ellen Glasgow (1874-1945), too, began her studies of rural Virginia and the New South early in the century, but not until Barren Ground(1925) does her work begin to achieve major stature. In Vein of Iron (1935) she returned to her rural subject matter to once more combine a strong sense of region and local color with a perspective of a post-Howellsian realist. Other, lesser novelists could be added to this list, but these, with the notable exception of Sinclair Lewis, are the most important group to bridge the years between the great realists of the last century and those writers of the depression thirties who would significantly revive realism once more.
It is appropriate that this survey of American realism end with Sinclair Lewis not because he is the end of the tradition which began with De Forest, but because he, more than any other figure, represents a transition between the early, Howellsian tradition of realism and the continuation of the style after World War II when it would be overshadowed by postwar experimental writing. Though Lewis in his Nobel Prize address (1930) credited Theodore Dreiser with having "cleared the trail from Victorian and Howellsian timidity and gentility in American fiction to honesty and boldness and passion of life," a case can be made that this was, to a large degree, Lewis's own contribution to American fiction. Certainly his being honored in 1930 as the first American to win the Nobel Prize suggests that, in European eyes, he was the foremost American novelist of the generation in which Dreiser, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald published their best work. The award is a recognition, also, that realism was, during the 1920's, still regarded as the maincurrent literary mode in American letters - perhaps for the last time.
Not only had "Howellsian gentility" characterized American realism up to the time of Lewis, a number of unexamined assumptions about American culture and society, many of them handed down directly from Howells's generation, dominated the literary mind and popular opinion. Beginning with Main Street (1920), Lewis would almost systematically attack the very "smiling aspects of American life" which Howells had regarded as the essence of American realism. Twain's Tom Sawyer, for example, had been instrumental in helping establish the idea of the American small town as the focus of our most idealistic version of Jeffersonian democracy, an image regularly offered up by popular writers in the early part of this century. With his almost savage attack on the mind-destroying conformity and narrow-mindedness of Gopher Prairie, Lewis ended forever any serious tradition of small town paradises. Babbitt (1922) dealt with the American businessman, who, whether regarded as good or evil, was nevertheless treated as a powerful figure in American fiction, by showing him to be only a banal and pathetic boob. The treatment of Zenith, which contains some of the best realistic observation and detail of the small rituals and observances of American life of any novel, did for the small city what Main Street did for the town. The medical community, religion, and marriage are treated with equal satiric candor respectively in Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929). It was these fine novels, all written before the Nobel Prize award, which earned Lewis, in his own time, the high esteem in which the Nobel committee held him, and which continue to earn for him an enduring place as America's last truly major realist.
As American literature shifted after World War I toward the experimental, the psychological, and the mythic interests that characterize the tradition since and strongly relate it back to the romantic tradition of the earlier half of the nineteenth century, it could be said that Howells and his contemporaries lost their battle against romanticism. But Hemingway's comment on Huckleberry Finn or James's contribution to the emergence of the modern novel reminds us that American literature has been irrevocably touched by the realists who, each in a unique way, changed forever the course of American literature.
29 James, "The Art of Fiction," 60.