The experimental realism of William Dean Howells

Brian Seto McGrath
2010
The "experimental" in my title refers to Howells's self-conscious development of a literary form that could give the most complete, deepest account of a reality characterized by the ordinary and even the banal. For the middle class, Howells's perennial subject, the norm is to aspire to transcend, and the ordinary can appear elusive, even nonexistent. Of course, in political terms, a middle class culture considers everyone basically the same, this resemblance defining the ordinary. It is assumed
more » ... nary. It is assumed that everyone shares the same economic goals, and the same desire for familial and individual success. Being ordinary is therefore a moral quality. This means, paradoxically, that ordinariness can only prove itself in exceptional individuals. To strive is virtuous, to fail is shameful; either way one's ordinariness is subsumed to a greater drama. The drama at the center of middle class art is the plight of the exceptional individual demonstrating a Platonic ordinariness. It is hard to think of characters in novels who are not exceptional financially or morally. In Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove finance and morality go together. The novels of Eliot, Dickens, even those of the French realists unfold stories in which ordinary characters, by some exceptional moral quality, try to transcend their economic and historical situations. Howells called this story romantic and insisted on writing about the most mundane aspects of ordinary life. His novels were not about the exceptional who rise above the crowd but about ordinary people who do not transcend but stay on the ground. Howells described this divide between moral ideals and actual economic circumstance as "the infernal juggle of the mind. " This contradiction at the heart of everyday life was what he wanted to depict. His design of characters and plots, even his sentences, develop continuously into further complexity as they discover the tensions and self-betrayal inherent in middle class optimism. "Discover" is the key term: Howell [...]
doi:10.7282/t3qz29q5 fatcat:2rvjodkqtfgihkxqlentiij5me