A Century Of American Realism


James and Howells, after all, were profoundly ethical writers. At the end of James’s novels there is always a subtle victory for the human conscience. Goodness wins out, as in The Wings of the Dove or in The Golden Bowl . These books are, in a sense, religious allegories. But in Crane, and especially in Dreiser, there is a strong feeling that there is no design, no meaning. They keep themselves separate from anything they are describing. With them the human being is getting more and more difficult to reach and describe intimately; there are nothing like the marvelous close-ups that you get in James’s novels. In Crane and Dreiser the world is pretty much a cold world. People are described as if they are far off. This coldness toward the world, toward human beings, becomes the limiting fact in American fiction later on.

How can this be reconciled with what you said about Crane’s warmth, his reaction to poverty and vice on the Bowery?

I didn’t say he was warm, I said he was interested. When I spoke of distance in the fiction of Crane and Dreiser, I meant their sense that what they were writing about was far removed from them. We can see the same thing in our own lives. We write about politics and power and the people around us, but we feel ourselves to be engulfed by too many people, too many problems, too many pressures. We are more detached; the world’s become more complex, more overwhelming. Crane was interested in writing about the Bowery for literary and artistic reasons. He regarded the people on the Bowery as aesthetic facts. He was fascinated by the new opportunity, the new material he found there. His concern for prostitutes reflected only his rejection of his father’s morality. That’s why he liked being a police reporter. He liked to hobnob with criminals, precisely because it was a way of shocking the people he’d lived with before. Nothing delighted him more than to feel he was a scapegrace, in some way a naughty fellow. But he wasn’t warm. He didn’t care a hang about Dora Clark, the famous prostitute he defended. He just hated the police and was outraged because he thought that they were being mean to her. He had no feeling of closeness to Bowery bums; he felt that these people were all helpless.

As we know from Crane’s most famous story, one of the greatest stories in the world, “The Open Boat,” he was interested in getting at the facts of experience. It is a description of what he went through in a dinghy after the Commodore , the ship he was taking from Florida, blew up in the water. Sitting in this dinghy, freezing and starving and expecting at any moment to be drowned, he observed everything with a cold, clear eye. That shocked readers, too; he was able to write about thing with merciless detachment.

After all, that is what makes the novelist the novelist. No matter how warm he may feel about people, fundamentally he’s a professional. The professional eye is an extraordinary thing in such writers; it gives them a kind of chilling expertise in describing things which would involve other people emotionally.

The difficulty with that statement to me is that it removes the writer from the society he’s a part of .

I guess I didn’t put that very clearly. Professionalism in any field has nothing to do with one’s own emotions. Any historian who’s studying a subject may be personally involved with in terms of memory of or sympathy, but he tries to get at the facts as far as he understands them. No one, to this day, has given us a better picture of the transformation of American life in the 1890’s than Crane did, in Maggie , in George’s Mother , and even in “The Open Boat,” precisely because he saw clearly what was happening. To use a modern example, I happen to admire Norman Mailer’s book on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night , very much. I think it’s best thing that’s been written about the political atmosphere in which we’ve been living since the Vietnam war started. His book seems to me a triumph of detachment and involvement at the same time.

Were all the early realists gifted with this combination of detachment and insight?

I think so. James and Howells in their earlier work show very clearly what a great age of confidence the 1870’s and 1880’s were for the people they were writing about: the northern middle classes who went to Saratoga and Newport and lived in the best of all possible worlds. Then, bit by bit, one sees in their work a growing anxiety. Howells became a socialist; he grew more and more resentful of the crassness of American society, the exploitation of the poor, the brutality of American corporations. James became more and more struck by the corruption of society, in England and this country. His analysis took the form of sexual allegory—the attempt to get money through marriage, or the betrayal of adultery became symbols in his work of the corruption of society as a whole.