A Century Of American Realism

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Professor John A. Garraty of Columbia University is the author of a collection of interviews with eminent American scholars, Interpreting American History: Conversations with Historians , just published by Macmillan. To give an added dimension to this absorbing series of discussions, he arranged an interview with a distinguished literary critic, Alfred Kazin. In addition to several works of criticism, including his influential On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942), Mr. Kazin has edited the works of such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser; he also is the author of two autobiographical volumes, A Walker in the City (1951) and Starting Out in the Thirties (1965). The following interview has been slightly abridged.—The Editors

PROFESSOR GARRATY : Professor Kazin, why do you choose as the topic for our discussion “a century” of realism in the American novel, rather than, say, one hundred and fifty or even two hundred years?

PROFESSOR KAZIN : The American novel, as a realistic form, began just about one hundred years ago when men like Henry James and William Dean Howells, who were very much influenced by European novelists, suddenly began to write realistically about American society. The novel as a form really began around that time. I don’t mean that there weren’t novels before, but they were really what used to be called the “romance.” Melville, Cooper, and Hawthorne were romanticists, properly speaking.

The major difference between James and Howells, on the one hand, and people like Hawthorne and Cooper and Poe is, first of all, that James and Howells thought that the novel was the greatest possible literary form. They were full of admiration for the great European novelists, especially Balzac (the master of them all), but also Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and they believed that modern society in all its aspects was the proper subject of the writer. The word “realism,” though it can be very confusing, had to do with this concern for reality in fiction. James and Howells didn’t like to use the word. Only late in his career did Howells speak of the necessity of being a realist, and James hardly ever did. But they were both thinking of reality in this sense of the word, and today Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Louis Auchincloss, and how many other depicters of modern American society have the same point of view. But in the romantic fiction that was published before the Civil War—in Poe’s hallucinated stories, in Hawthorne’s guilt-ridden, fear-filled characters, and of course in Melville’s great apocalyptic novel Moby Dick , the approach is quite different. One gets the lonely individual, very much concerned with his physical fate, in a world ridden by demons and ghosts and ancestral symbols, as in Hawthorne, or with religious problems, as in Melville. Only with James and Howells, roughly a century ago, did this marvelous sense of the world as a place that can be accepted for itself alone begin to appear.

With the new taste for realism in literature came an appreciation of realism in painting and drawing. It is no accident that the art which Henry James all his life loved more than any other was painting. It was allied also to the novelists’ sense that Europe provided the natural environment for a writer. The American writer who went abroad came to see himself as a detached spectator of American life. When he came back, he was changed.

The new realism was allied also to the influence of magazines. Writers like Poe and Hawthorne had made a living, if you can call it a living, by writing for magazines, and in fact much of their best work was in the form of short fiction. But suddenly magazines like the Atlantic Monthly , which had been founded before the Civil War, became extraordinarily hospitable to a new kind of realistic short story. There was a very clear-cut beginning to this trend. It began when William Dean Howells became assistant editor of the Atlantic and met Henry James. They discovered how much they had in common, and they discovered, too, that they could take on the whole of American society as a literary project. They felt themselves part of a movement.