A Century Of American Realism

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Another aspect of realism was that for the first time a certain kind of American woman became the principal character in novels. Daisy Miller [1879] depicted a type of woman who hadn’t appeared in American fiction, or in American life, before. Almost a century later, when the freedom and the vitality of women clearly exemplify what has happened to American society, it’s a fact of some interest to look back and realize that James’s awareness of this “new” woman is pretty much what distinguishes him as a novelist. When James saw the young American girl sitting on the piazza of the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, surrounded by her parents and possible suitors, she stood out for the same reason that she stood out for Henry Adams: in a society full of rather tiresome money-getters, she was a symbol of culture and refinement and the only person who seemed to be interested in beauty per se. This is what Henry Adams meant when he said in his Education that he never knew an American woman who wasn’t better than her husband. Winslow Homer expressed this point of view in a different medium in his paintings of the young American girls walking in their flowing summer gowns on the cliffs of Newport, holding up their parasols as feminine insignia. Of course, the other side of this is that the audience for the novels of James and Howells and other novelists was very much an audience of women. This is still true, to my knowledge. I almost never see a man carrying a book unless it is a textbook or income-tax guide, whereas women still do carry novels and best sellers. The feminization of culture seemed to James of very great importance. Women were his readers; women were his main characters; women were the principal new form which attracted the interest of writers like Howells and James and even Mark Twain, though what they did with women in their books was something else again.

The early realistic writers in America, despite their interest in women, displayed very little of the European realists’ concern with sexuality in their books. What Henry Adams said about Henry James is in a sense true of all of them: James knew nothing about women except the outside. Of course, James never had a wife, but Howells and Twain were married, and they were nonetheless very careful not to touch on any vital aspect of human passion.

Isn’t that related to the fact that American culture was really a subdivision of British culture, and that the period we’re talking about was the height of the Victorian Age? Were English writers of stature dealing with sexuality at this time?

The so-called Victorian attitude toward sex wag really a very temporary interlude in the English literary tradition of healthy licentiousness. The eighteenth-century English novelists were extremely frank and even bawdy in this respect, and even Dickens, when he came over here, made a point of shocking Americans by saying, for example, that he didn’t want his sons to be virgins when they were married. The American attitude toward sexuality was peculiarly American in this period, because of the actual roughness of American society. The literary class was very genteel and very careful; I’m often fascinated by the self-conscious gentility of Howells and James and even of Mark Twain. All of them wrote exquisitely; they were all marvelous stylists. But they were all rather goody-goody when it came to literary culture. Their air of superior refinement was their way of getting away from the roughness of the American experience more than anything else. This was fundamental. The American novel today has certainly gone to the other extreme, but the early realists felt themselves to be a part of that small Brahmin class even Mark Twain, the self-educated printer and frontiersman. And as a result, their work displays a certain tendency to elegance quite different from the aristocratic quality of English fiction in this period. Of course, the English had a much more complex society to describe. The American experience was peculiarly narrow in this sense. That was one of the reasons why James went to England, why he started writing novels about English society.

James and Howells—James particularly—considered Balzac simply the greatest novelist that Europe had ever produced. They felt he could create his splendid imaginative world only because of the great variety of classes in Europe and because of the conflict between the aristocracy and the emerging middle classes. They were trying to show that these class differences could in some way be suggested even in America. Since the whole epic of industrial capitalism dealt with the upward struggle of the middle classes—the effort described by Dickens in Bleak House and by Balzac in Père Goriot —James and Howells tried to find this in American life, too. It was far more difficult because there was less variety in America. When Howells tried to describe a Boston aristocrat in The Rise of Silas Lapham , he produced an elegant but pretty sterile character.

How did “naturalistic” writers like Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris differ from James and Howells and Twain? Did their work develop logically out of that of the older generation of realists?