A Century Of American Realism

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Crane, Dreiser, and Norris were all born within a few months of each other, and two of them, Norris and Crane, died at a very early age. Crane and Dreiser fascinate me because they were both extremely gifted but nonetheless very different. Dreiser was clumsy and verbose, but he wrote very powerfully. Crane was one of the most amazing geniuses we’ve ever produced. The 1890’s represent the great watershed of American history, not only in fiction but in politics—the beginning of open class struggles, of open polarization in American life. A cocky, disparaging attitude toward the bourgeois experience developed; the ethos of the middle class had been exploded. Many of the younger writers were much more cynical, much less hidebound by genteel conventions. Can you imagine Henry James going as a correspondent to the Greco-Turkish War as Crane did? Or having the kind of experience that Dreiser did when he was taken in by a prostitute in Evansville, Indiana, who happened to be his brother Paul’s mistress? Or having the concern with money that Crane had all his life and that made Dreiser, as a young man, steal from the laundry for which he worked? The writers of the 1890’s represented a tougher, harsher, crueler world. Take Crane’s fascination with war. Everybody knows that he wrote The Red Badge of Courage before he ever saw a battle. Yet many Civil War veterans thought that he had been at Chancellorsville. Crane saw the life of America as war, the life of the world as war.

Crane was the son of a Methodist minister; he grew up in a religious, Christian home. His mother was a pillar of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Yet, coming from this respectable, almost traditional kind of American background, Crane found himself always looking at things with a beady eye—finding objects of derision in American institutions. When he came to New York as a newspaper reporter and began to observe the misery and degradation of slum life, he was intoxicated by the literary possibilities of this kind of world. Compare Crane on New York in the 1890’s with what William Dean Howells was writing about the East Side! Howells was a very decent man. He was a Utopian socialist. He was properly dismayed by the fate of Jewish immigrants living in East Side tenements. But he regarded this as something with which he had no personal relationship. He felt rather disgusted by the slum dwellers, although he rose above his disgust like a true gentleman. Crane, on the contrary, was delighted with the life of the Bowery. He was fascinated by what used to be called “fallen women”; he defended prostitutes who were being shaken down by the police so vigorously that the police wouldn’t give him any peace. Unlike James and Howells, Dreiser and Crane both were seriously concerned with low life.

They also had very strong feelings about religion. Dreiser, the first important American writer who was not a Protestant, reacted bitterly against the Catholic Church in which he was raised. He hated orthodox religion and conventional morality. The literary historians make too much of what is called naturalism as a style. It was wholly a social-human question: these writers were a new class of people; they were at war with middle-class values. Crane lived with an extraordinarily vivid and courageous woman, Cora, who had kept a whorehouse in Jacksonville, Florida. They lived in England because they couldn’t have that kind of relationship in the United States.

I know that Howells appreciated and aided some of the naturalist writers. What about Henry James?

Even Howells didn’t like all of them. He was a very generous critic, a great supporter of all new fiction. But there were severe limitations to his appreciation. He thought Maggie , Stephen Crane’s first book, wonderful, but he did not like The Red Badge of Courage for reasons I’m not sure I understand entirely. I think the fact that in Maggie the young girl becomes a prostitute and eventually commits suicide must have pleased his moral sense. But in The Red Badge of Courage , a masterpiece written in letters of fire, the underlying depiction of the violence of war apparently distressed Howells’ peaceful soul.

Howells didn’t like Dreiser at all. Despite his importance, Dreiser is still one of the most neglected figures in American literature. All sorts of literary professors are still afraid of him. But in his own time Dreiser was treated with the most incredible contempt and hostility by the literary establishment. They always, of course, complained about his bad writing, though they didn’t seem to mind it when they read other things just as bad. In point of fact, it was his attitude toward society that they didn’t like—his conviction that there wasn’t, fundamentally, any real design to life.