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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, May 27, 2005

Keenly Observed

Posted by Daniel Green on 05/27/05 at 02:56 PM

According to Morris Dickstein,

To understand the changes that shook the modern world, my students and colleagues have returned in recent years to long-neglected writers in the American realist tradition, including William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. For readers like me who grew up in the second half of the 20th century on the unsettling innovations of modernism, and who were attuned to its atmosphere of crisis and disillusionment, the firm social compass of these earlier writers has come as a surprise.

Dreiser, Crane, Wharton, and Cather are “long-neglected”? As far as I can tell, the latter two especially have become increasingly popular, both among academics and ordinary readers, over the past two decades. This must be just another anti-modernist rhetorical gesture--surprisingly, from someone who has in the past written insightfully about both modernism and postmodernism. (See his Gates of Eden, actually one of the very best books about American fiction in the 1960s.)

I can’t really see that the “unsettling innovations of modernism” provide a very clear opposition to the “firm social compass” of the writers Dickstein lists. The modernists didn’t lack a social compass, did they? Joyce? Faulkner? They simply weren’t as interested in “social fiction” as Dreiser or Lewis. Their “innovations” were directed elsewhere--to the depiction of consciousness, the fragmentation of form, etc.

Dickstein continues:

Like Henry James before them, they saw themselves less as lonely romantic outposts of individual sensibility than as keen observers of society. They described the rough transition from the small town to the city, from rural life to industrial society, from a more homogeneous but racially divided population to a nation of immigrants. They recorded dramatic alterations in religious beliefs, moral values, social and sexual mores and class patterns. Novels like Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” and Wharton’s “House of Mirth” showed how fiction paradoxically could serve fact and provide a more concrete sense of the real world than any other form of writing.

Were these writers really as immodest as to consider themselves “keen” observers? Is it only literary critics who want to confine such writers to their putative powers of observation in the first place? Did Crane or Dreiser or Wharton believe this was their primary talent as writers? Was mere “observation” all they had to offer?

The rest of Dickstein’s paragraph actually does no service to any of these writers. It makes them sound like journalists or historians, but not like novelists that anybody would voluntarily read. If you want information about “the rough transition from the small town to the city” and “dramatic alterations in religious beliefs, moral values, social and sexual mores and class patterns,” why not go straight to the historians? Why bother with novelists? Just for a little dramatic illustration? Is this any reason why readers interested in literature rather than history or sociology would now turn to these writers? And exactly why do we need a “concrete sense of the real world” from our writers? Don’t our own eyes put us in contact with this world every day? Besides, what other world could novelists be writing about? Where else would their subjects come from?

Dickstein concludes:

This is how most readers have always read novels, not simply for escape, and certainly not mainly for art, but to get a better grasp of the world around them and the world inside them. Now that the overload of theory, like a mental fog, has begun to lift, perhaps professional readers will catch up with them.

How does Dickstein know “how most readers have always read novels”? Exactly how would he have gleaned this information? Professor Dickstein wouldn’t be generalizing from his own reading habits, would he? Or those of other “professional readers”? I’ve known many more people who say they indeed read novels for “escape” rather than something as earnest as “a better grasp of the world around them.” For that matter, if this latter were indeed the reason why most readers turn to fiction, would Lewis, Howells, et. al. be as “neglected” as Dickstein contends? Wouldn’t they be the most beloved writers in the American canon?

How disdainful is that “certainly not mainly for art.” Disdainful of those readers who do seek out “art,” disdainful of the possibilities of fiction as art, implicitly disdainful of “most readers,” who apparently couldn’t appreciate it even if it were present. Unfortunately for Dickstein, it’s precisely the lack of “art” in the work of writers like Howells and Lewis (and sometimes in Dreiser and Cather) that accounts for whatever “neglect” they have suffered. No matter how thoroughly the postmodern fog lifts, they’re not going to be rediscovered as anything other than than the dreary documentarians they were.


From what I remember of Howells, I agree. Very serious-minded, not exciting, have to read him if that’s your area, don’t recommend him to friends unless they like that kind of thing.

He did say one good thing, something like “The poetry of America is business”.

By John Emerson on 05/27/05 at 09:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Besides, what other world could novelists be writing about?”

Another recent post, “The Jurgen of Authenticity”, has a good bit in the comment threads about James Branch Cabell.  You might like reading his book _Beyond Life_.  He was a contemporary of Lewis, Cather etc. who criticized realism at the time.

As I remember it, one of his offhand bits of contemptmanship about realism was that while fantastic literature gave the reader the pleasure of imagining characters that were superior in some way, realistic literature was read because it gave readers the pleasure of feeling superior to the characters.  I don’t mean to make too much of this off-hand remark (not a large part of Cabell’s criticism) but perhaps it does have some explanatory value as to why these writers are less popular now.  We no longer stand in a class relationship to the characters in a Lewis novel, so we can’t feel the same kinds of emotions that Cabell was referring to.

By on 05/28/05 at 09:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I love Howells, even knowing (apart from his extraordinary role as impressario) that he’s not a giant for the ages.  He’s had some more impressive defenders, too--Tony Tanner, Gore Vidal, Adam Gopnick.

I agree with Daniel.  It’s a bizarre list: Howells, Crane, Wharton, Lewis, Cather?  That’s not a tradition; it’s a rumble.

By on 05/29/05 at 11:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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