Welcome to the Department of English at Rutgers University

Course No: 350:524
Index # - 18347
Distribution Requirement: A4, D
Tuesday - 1:10 p.m.
MU 207

On Hating Howells

Brad Evans

While scholarship on European modernism has long recognized the importance of mid-century figures such as Baudelaire, it has been slow to theorize the contribution of American writers’ to this first modernist moment, much less to address the development of modernist aesthetics in the US through the remainder of the nineteenth century. Baudelaire was modern; Edgar Allan Poe, his acknowledged American model, was not; and the generations of American writers who worked after the Civil War have rarely been considered in relation to the legacy of this moment. Using the fiction and criticism of William Dean Howells as its primary example, this course gathers together an account of what was modern, in the technical sense, about art and literature in America long before the famous Armory Show of 1913—the show that is said, incorrectly, to have introduced the country to the avant-garde.

Howells is our test case because no one more fully represents the stylistic and ethical contradictions of American realism. The argument can be made—Howells made it forcefully—that realism was a revolutionary form: that it was aesthetically democratizing, politically progressive, and intellectually tied to the cutting edge of modern representational strategies. Howells was central in distinguishing the American realist novel from both sentimental and idealist fiction. A prolific critic and gatekeeper, holding editorial positions at many of the major literary monthlies of the period, he was a champion of women, African Americans, and the working class; he promoted the careers of Sarah Orne Jewett, Charles Chesnutt, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. His own fiction demonstrates his progressive stands on such subjects as racism, divorce, and labor unrest. He was emphatically engaged with the cutting-edge trends in European fiction; although he blanched at Madame Bovary, he was a staunch devotee of Tolstoy. He even took a stab at writing some symbolist poetry.

Nonetheless, even those who benefitted from his editorial approval considered him hopelessly behind the times, and a prude to boot. Howells was figured as a plodding anchor on American innovation for several generations of writers. Bohemian artists of the 1890s denigrated Howells by calling him a “male blue-stocking” suffering from “intellectual priggishness” and “moral snobbishness.” Naturalists like Frank Norris slammed him for telling stories that amounted to nothing more than “the drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block, the excitement of an afternoon call, the adventure of an invitation to dinner." When Sinclair Lewis gave his Nobel Prize speech in 1930, he was still complaining of Howells as “a pious old maid”: “So strongly did Howells feel this genteel, this New Humanistic philosophy that he was able vastly to influence his contemporaries, down even to 1914 and the turmoil of the Great War.”

This course offers an intensive reading of the fiction and criticism of Howells, and also of his critics, with a revisionary eye to understanding what it might mean to read realism as modernism. We will read three or four of Howells’s novels, his essays for Harper’s Monthly, his travel writing, biographical sketches, and poetry. We will also read the fiction and criticism of his detractors, and critical assessments of his work in the context of larger debates about European realism. These are likely to include well-known figures like Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Kate Chopin, and W. E. B. Du Bois, and lesser-known figures like Stuart Merrill and Carolyn Wells. Our goal, then, will be to situate American realist and modernist fiction rom the late nineteenth century in the larger context of debates about the realist novel from G. Lucáks to F. Jameson—neither of whom, it is worth noting, have anything to say about Howells.

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