The Novelist as a Social Force in the 1880s


Volume III, Number 1, 2
Spring, 1980, Fall, 1980

In the 1980s it may seem very strange to realize that one hundred years ago it was neither the father figure of the T.V. news program nor the latest sociological poll but the American novelist who exerted tremendous influence upon the ways in which Americans came to know themselves. Those of us who are familiar with R. Gordon Kelly's perceptive study, Mother Was A Lady, are aware of the conscious efforts by American children's periodicals to shape culture. Kelly sees children's literature as "one important way in which the adult community deliberately and self-consciously seeks to explain, interpret, and justify that body of beliefs, values, attitudes, and practices which, taken together, define in large measure a culture - that is, a distinctive way of life.1 If The Youth's Companion could serve to reinforce the ideals of democracy, religion, and moral order, is it not to be expected that the pen of the author of adult fiction might also be a powerful social weapon?

It is certain that two early practitioners of Critical Realism, William Dean Howells and Henry James, recognized the unique position and potential power of the novelist. In Criticism and Fiction, published in 1891 but containing articles from his trail-blazing columns, "The Editor's Study," in Harper's Monthly Magazine between 1886 and 1891, Howells defined the potential power of the novel. He saw the American democracy as the ideal environment in which the literary artist could study and record the common experiences and portray "those finer and higher aspects which unite rather than sever humanity."2 Howells regarded the novelist not as pure entertainer, but as having a higher function, "something like that of a physician or a priest." The office of the novelist was closely related to that of a teacher, an instructor who could make men realize their kinship and help make the race "better and kinder." The sense of mission is as clear as that set forth in any political document.

Howell's friend, Henry James, also interpreted the novel as an instrument which attempted to "re-present" life, that is to produce the illusion of life as the result of constant sensitivity to all facets of the world surrounding the author. The greatest art, to James, was that most closely related to life. Like Howells, James found the novelist handicapped by the overwhelmingly feminine audience for the novel, but his basic optimism as to the universal scope of the art form is best displayed in his "House of Fiction" with its millions of windows, each providing a unique observation point for the consciousness of the artist.

In the 1880s American novelists became increasingly aware of the limitless and varied panoramas to be seen from these fictional windows upon the world, for theirs was a society in flux, a society in which the only certainty was uncertainty and the only order was the process of change. At first, the American novelist was content with rendering a mirror image of the realities around him but, as the decade progressed, the Realist assumed the responsibility of shaping the society which he observed. By the end of the decade Bellamy's Looking Backward, would not only criticize but would formulate a new social order, one logically rising out of the destruction for which the existent order carried the seeds. This movement from satirist-critic to Utopian reformer through fiction occurred within a ten year span - that of the 1880s.

It is possible that the most ambitious work covering and recording the cultural tremors of the period cannot be claimed as fiction, since it has been already claimed by both the historian and by the scholar of autobiography. Yet where else in American fiction is there a more sustained creation of a persona, a kind of American Everyman, than in The Education of Henry Adams? As Adams prophesied, "What I am the mass is sure to become."3 It is true that publication, limited and private at that, was delayed until 1907, but the Education is essentially of the 1880s.

Henry Adams did open the decade with the publication of two novels: Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884). Both are prophetic of the Education for they trace the quest by a heroine for the nature of a Force, no longer easily available in the institutions of government and of the Church. The sharp political satire of Democracy was based upon Adams' own experiences in and observations of the Washington scene. Many of the characters, although usually composites, can be traced directly to such Washington figures as Grant, Blaine, and Rutherford and Lucy Hayes. More important, however, is the collision of traditional morality with the unscrupulous pragmatism of the struggle for political power.

Madeleine Lee, the heroine of Democracy, like her creator, fled from the flagrant corruption which, as she told her suitor Senator Ratcliffe, set up an "impassable gulf," the same gulf which sent Adams away from his attempt to analyze the power base of Washington politics. Madeleine Lee is no more shocked by Ratcliffe's machinations to obtain the Presidency than was Adams in that dramatic moment when he heard Grant read the names of his cabinet and realized that his idealized future of political influence had become "an absurdity so laughable as to make him ashamed of it."4

Adams often referred to the "natural superiority" of woman and it was logical for him to make Esther Dudley the protagonist in his study of the bitter conflict between religion and science, which affected American culture by creating a schism between orthodox and liberal religion. For the modern reader, Esther seems to anticipate Adams' major themes in Mont-Saint Michel and Chartresand "The Virgin and the Dynamo" and thus assume literary importance, but the contemporary readers of this then-anonymous novel largely ignored it. Yet inherent in the title character is the desperation of Marian Adams, Henry's wife, which led to her suicide, and symbolized one pole of reaction to the scientific challenge to religious certainties. Although more subtle than Democracy, this second and last novel by Adams reflects what can now be recognized as a basic philosophical tension underlying American society.

While Adams and other like John Hay carefully concealed their identities as novelists, Henry James dared to make fiction writing his profession. His earliest novels fall within the decade of the 1880s and provide the most easily available examples of James as reflector of society and therefore as a force in helping Americans to understand themselves. The later "great" novels also contain the same basic themes but the psychological and artistic intricacies make them less useful for the purposes of such a study at this.

In the late 1870s James had produced two works which established the European-American confrontation and provided revealing mirror images of American society. The first, The American(1877) presents a hero, successful in business but typically American in his lack of awareness of the aesthetic forces which surround him when he enters the complexity of Europe. As Bowden says, "Europe offered a life molded by a great tradition of the past, a life often deeper and more sensitive than American, but also more corrupt and often more inhuman."5 The central social irony of the book, as Leon Edel sees it, is that ". . . Newman has not been corrupted by his gold. . . he can, in the end, be as moral and therefore as noble as the old corrupt Europeans."6Contemporary reviews indicate that James' readers did not grasp the subtlety of this social confrontation and saw merely a confrontation of good and evil. The modern reader is amazed by James' sensitivity to levels and nuances of social interaction.

In The Europeans (1878), James' true comic sense was evidenced as he provided the other side of the coin, contrasting the American and European, this time on New England soil. While the novel does not have the artistic stature of The American, it is filled with images of the New England which James knew. As James Russell Lowell wrote to James, the setting was so believable that ". . . you revived in me the feeling of cold furniture which New England life has often goose-fleshed me with. . ."7 However, despite a rigidity and seeming parochialism, the moral fibre of the New England characters is triumphant and provides and existence as large, solid, and irreproachable as the New England houses which define the setting.

Although James continued to be fascinated by the international theme, as evidenced by The Portrait of A Lady (1881) and the "great novels" of 1902-1904, in the 1886 he produced what Edel calls "the most considerable novel of the decade,"8 The Bostonians. It combined the treatment of two socially important subjects: Boston reformers and "the situation of women" which James called "the most salient and peculiar point in our social life."9 The minuteness and extensive detail of this realistic work weakened the structure in James' opinion and led him to exclude it from his New York Edition, but the social documentation is invaluable. The reader meets many representative characters inhabiting the twilight of New England's greatness.

There are at least four women who represent an equal number of feminine stances. There is Miss Birdseye, who may or may not have been inspired by Elizabeth Peabody, but whose aged spirit now and then reveals flashes of the great days of reform. Mrs. Tarrant's traditional role as wife and mother has been cannibalized by the religious charlatanism of her husband. Verena Tarrant, who has been "conditioned" by her father to pour out a stream of fragmented inspiration despite her own empty-headedness, functions as the potential "prize" of at least three warring factions within the plot. Finally, there is Olive Chancellor whose struggle to possess Verena may be sexually inspired, as seen by a number of modern critics, but is certainly aimed at making the girl the voice of the suffragette aims and protests.

Frequently neglected in the attention paid to the motivation of Olive's struggle is the representative value of her opponent, Basil Ransom. As a member of the post-Civil War generation, coming from the South in search of social identity, he embodies the difficulties of adjustment in the reform atmosphere of New England, for he does not share the same social inheritance. Through him James also expresses his own grave fears about the feminization of American life - an ironic position for an author whose greatest character creations were to be women. In The Bostonians James is no longer the reflector of American society alone: he indirectly exerts formative influence upon social concepts by his authorial stance.

For James' contemporary, friend, and fellow Realist, William Dean Howells, the 1880s mark his greatest period of development. This development was twofold: in the concretizing of the literary philosophy of Realism and in his personal movement from scientific observation and recording of American society to a conscious criticism, with the goal of social reform. Like James, Howells explored the subject of the New Woman, but with much greater empathy. In Dr. Breen's Practice (1881), A Woman's Reason (1883), and Annie Kilburn (1889), Howells made central his presentation of American women in new roles and mirrored the internal as well as the external struggles which they faced. In general, however, Howells' novels of the 1880s were concerned less with a single social problem and more with increasingly broad and complex panoramas, geographic, economic, and societal.

In A Modern Instance (1882) one finds reflected many of the societal conflicts of the period: rural life vs. urban, generation vs. generation, religious belief vs. skepticism, yellow journalism vs.the responsible press, the traditional vs. the fragmented family, and, most shocking, the first analytical treatment of divorce, seen not so much as a moral matter but as the result of social lacks and pressures. This first novel of the 1880s clearly pointed ahead to Howells' later treatment of characters within their total environment and to Howells' greatest theme, the social interdependence of mankind as summarized in his repeated expression, "complicity."

The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) was the first American work of fiction to personify the conflict of the new business ethic with the older morality which Edwin Cady describes so graphically as "suffering from dry-rot," seeming still strong but collapsing under the exigencies of new forces. Silas, the unheroic hero, finds himself alone to face his struggle with himself and rises spiritually only at the price of financial failure. Even then the reader is left unsure as to whether the reward is happiness, as Howells says farewell to his "businessman Faust." On every level the book speaks to complicity, the community of men's interests.

Howells' growing social consciousness was enlarged by his reading of Continental authors such as Turgeniev and Tolstoy and by the sharpening of social tensions in America. Personal involvement in the plight of the Chicago anarchists and the risking of his own career, in an abortive attempt to save them, moved Howells from the recording of the rich texture of daily life to the exerting of positive force for moral reform and advancement. The ambitiously complex structure of A Hazard of New Fortunes (January, 1890) proved what he noted in Harper's Magazine in 1887: "Art, indeed, is beginning to find out that if it does not make friends with Need it must perish."10

Howells was now truly the Critical Realist. As such, he challenged the self-made man of the Gilded Age and presented in microcosm the labor strife, the social confrontations, and the economic war between the "haves" and "have nots." Read with a perceptive eye, The Hazard of New Fortunes challenges the facile charge that Howells wrote of only the smiling aspects of American life. It points ahead to the Naturalism of Crane, Dreiser, and Norris who added the element of mechanistic determinism to replace Howells insistence upon human responsibility. In Howells' own career the next step (1884) was the clear statement of Christian Socialism applied to American society by Mr. Homos, the traveler from Altruria. Always present was the belief that human nature could change, that the ballot was stronger than the bullet in man's struggle to determine his own destiny.

Howells' close friend, Mark Twain, was not so sanguine. Although The Gilded Age, written with Charles Dudley Warner in 1873, predates our decade, it established the critical views of man and society, which intensified with age and personal tragedy. In 1884, Twain's earlier themes were expressed with his greatest artistry in that non-child's book, Huckleberry Finn. Of all his friends and/or critics only Howells was sensitive to the latent fury underlying the book's social treatment. Critics of the 20th century have perhaps perceived more than Twain ever intended, but there is little doubt that the author did consciously portray man's great inhumanity to man, even in the most ideally pastoral setting. Slavery, mob rule, man's stupidity, the blindness of institutions - all were viewed through the old, wise eyes of a young protagonist.

Unlike Howells, Twain had no illusions as to man's control of his own fate. Momentarily, in A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1889), moral disintegration seemed to be stayed by the wonders of the machine society. But this hope dissipated before man's stupidity, his short-sighted greed, and his inhumanity. The comedy ended in the terrible stench of death as Hank Morgan's forces went down before the power of the Church and the people's superstition. The way was open for Twain's slow march toward the blackness and determinism of The Mysterious Stranger in which Satan reveals to another young-old character the only possible answer:

It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream - a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought - a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among empty eternities.11

While Twain's contemporaries would have been shocked by the gloom of his late, unpublished works, the overview from almost a century enables us to see the continuum of Twain's social criticism, of sincere indignation at the foibles and sufferings of weak man, whose goodness he never accepted. Twain's own lack of certainties prevented him from moving beyond bitter satire toward the formulation of positive social changes.

The popularity of Twain and Howells, if not Henry James, is unquestioned during the 1880s. Howells became the "Dean of American Letters" who encouraged the subsequent generation of writers to build upon his Realistic credo and to venture into areas of subject matter where he could not go. During the 1880s he sponsored many local colorists, among them women like Murfree, Woolson, and Jewett, but I have been unable to find any reference in Howells' works to the woman whose social influence was as widespread as his own numerically, and of greater chronological duration. I refer to Louisa May Alcott. I base my judgment of Alcott as an important professional and role model for generations of young women upon the more than 300 pieces of writing by Alcott and an even larger number of articles and books about her which I have examined.

Largely as the result of what I call "the Alcott myth," arising immediately after her death in 1888 and reinforced during the Freudian emphasis in criticism during the 1920s, Louisa Alcott has been presented as a prime example of the Cult of True Womanhood, as "Duty's Daughter," the title her father, Amos Bronson Alcott recorded in his Journal. It is true that she assumed the support of her family, largely because the nominal head of that family was quite literally in the clouds. But her own comment stands: "I asked for bread and got a stone - in the shape of a pedestal."12 She was, in truth, a successful professional writer, experimenting throughout her life with literary forms and, like Twain and Howells, writing for a definite audience.

In recent years there has been renewed interest in her impact on educational and labor reform and her activity in the suffrage movement. She was not the perfect example of the Cult of True Womanhood but was a 19th century New Woman whose consciousness had been raised - in the sense we use the term today and in the same ways. This Alcott is available in her books and stories, if we are willing to look beyond the label of writer of juvenile books.

I cannot cite extensive evidence because of time limitation, but a few examples may be suggestive. As early as 1863 she wrote two anti-slavery tales: "M.L." and "The Brothers" in which the Black protagonists are the heroes. Many of her novels and stories centered on the nature and advisability of marriage. There is also the possible continuum from abolition to Women's Rights. One piece of evidence is "Love and Self Love" a tale published in the Atlantic in 1860, in which a sixteen year old girl marries a middle-aged man and becomes increasingly childlike and dependent on a man who regards her as property.

Alcott's own life and works provide the best example of her reiterated belief that a single professional woman could succeed. However, her active support of suffrage was important: she influenced Thomas Niles, her publisher, to print a history of the pay poll tax; she urged equal pay for women and men teachers, as proven in the following letter to her friend, Maria Porter, who had been elected to the local school board:

I hope that the first thing you propose in your first meeting will be to reduce the salary of the head master of the High School, and increase the salary of the first woman assistant, whose work is quite as good as his, and even harder; . . . I believe in the same pay for the same good work. Don't you? In future, let woman do whatever she can do; . . . above all things let's have fair play. . . Let us hear no more of 'woman's sphere' either from our wise (?) legislators . . . or from our clergymen in their pulpits. I am tired, year after year, of hearing such twaddle about sturdy oaks and clinging vines . . . Let woman find her own limitations and if, as is so confidently asserted, nature has defined her sphere, she will be guided accordingly - but in heaven's name give her a chance! Let the professions be open to her; let fifty years of college education be hers, and then we shall see what we shall see. Then, and not until then, shall we able to say what woman can and what she cannot do and coming generations will know and be able to define more clearly what is a 'woman's sphere' than these benighted men who now try to do it.13

Because most of Alcott's correspondence was destroyed, at her direction, after her death, we must depend largely upon the literary works to document her sentiments. She was always in rebellion against "the Cult of True Womanhood." On the prescribed duties of a housewife, she wrote to a friend: "If I lived alone I should make beds once a week, clean house every ten years, and never cook at all, which would simplify things grandly."14 In an early letter to her father written from Boston in 1856 during one of her forays into the city to find employment, she wrote: "I like the independent feeling; and though not an easy life it is a free one, and I enjoy it. I can't do much with my hands; so I will make a battering-ram of my head and make a way through this rough-and-tumble world."15

So she did, and in her novels, especially in the Little Women series, and particularly in Little Women, Little Men and Jo's Boys, she gave fictional form to her ideas on the role of women, family roles, race relations, education, and standards of equality. As Elizabeth Janeway, reviewing the centennial edition of Little Women in 1968, said of "Jo" - "Louisa May Alcott fulfilled a universal dream of growing up into full humanity rather than limited femininity."16

Perhaps the strongest support for the thesis of the social influence of the novelist in the 1880s is provided by the only important novel by Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888), which closed the decade but exerted a remarkable influence upon the 1890s. Like Howells, Bellamy was governed by a central philosophical concept which became semi-religious. It was simply the conversion from the imprisonment of "self" to a communion or solidarity with all mankind, indeed all of creation. But Bellamy was more than philosopher. As Jay Martin points out, Bellamy was able "to grasp, both intuitively and by design, the variety of milennia in the '80s; he fused these with traditional literary themes and so portrayed his society not as a wish but as already accomplished."17 There is evidence of the powerful influence of the book upon such formative writers as Veblen, Dewey, Kropotkin, Howells, and others. Because it was a good enough work of fiction to convince, it wielded more influence upon large numbers of people than did many of the admittedly greater intellects. Evidence is presented by sales: 30,000 in 1888, 40,000 a month in 1889.

The narrative is too well known to require repetition but the technique of "double vision" was unique. It provided through the eyes of one individual a view of the economic and social chaos and tensions of the 1800s and the vision of what could be. In Bellamy's Utopia the nightmare problems of the decade found solution, yet the major virtues of American democracy were retained and the American potential was realized. The individual retained importance; the gap between the rich and the poor vanished; political corruption disappeared; the family remained intact; humanity became truly humane, not only in an agrarian setting but in the new, urban, industrial American society.

The literary impact of the book was great. Howells was inspired by his disciple to climax his own Christian socialism in two Utopian novels. Throughout the 1890s scores of other utopian dreams appeared in print while other authors answered Bellamy with dystopias based upon a different vision of the nature of mankind. This proliferation of utopian and dystopian novels and their variant emphases and solutions is worthy of separate consideration, too lengthy and complex for inclusion in this study. But their very numbers indicate the social influence of Bellamy and his famous novel.

Politically, the impact of Looking Backward was felt by Progressives, Populists, Social Gospelists, and Socialists and was climaxed by the formation of the Nationalist Party. As Sylvia Bowman indicated in Edward Bellamy Abroad (New York: Twayne, 1962), the ripples of influence extended broadly to Europe, South Africa, Canada, Russia, and New Zealand. Most remarkably, Bellamy societies exist today in the United States and Europe. College students still read the book with interest and argue vigorously about the desirability of life under such a social and political order as Bellamy's.

In the beginning of a new decade, the 1980s, just twenty years before Bellamy's fictive 2000, the student of American culture is constantly reminded of the viability of the novelist as social force during the decade of the 1880s. On every hand one sees the matured or maturing fruit of the then-sprouting seeds which the American Realist examined in his laboratory - a laboratory which encompassed all of society, all of mankind.




1R. Gordon Kelly, Mother Was A Lady (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974), xiii. 

2William Dean Howells, Criticism and Fiction (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 139. 

3Henry Adams, The Letters of Henry Adams (Boston and New York: 1930), Vol. II, 386. 

4Henry Adams, Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 262. 

5Edwin T. Bowden, The Themes of Henry James (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 37. 

6Leon Edel, Henry James, The Conquest of London: 1870-1881 ( Philadelphia, New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1962), 252. 

7As quoted in Leon Edel, The Conquest of London: 1870-1881, p. 315. 

8Henry James, The Middle Years: 1882-1895 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1962), 

9The Notebooks of Henry James, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 47. 

10Harper's Magazine 75 (September, 1887), 639.

11Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger in Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger and the Critics, ed. John S. Tucky (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1968), 74. 

12Louisa May Alcott, Life, Letters and Journals, ed. Ednah H. Cheney (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1903), 276. 

13Maria S. Porter, "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott," New England Magazine 18 (March ), 13/14.

14Letter to Alf Whitman, as quoted in Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger, "The Alcotts Through Thirty Years," Harvard Library Bulletin 11 (1957), 373. 

15Journals, 89. 

16New York Times Book Review (September 29, 1968), 46. 

17Harvests of Change (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 220.