358:442 Truth in Fiction: The Politics and Paradoxes of Realism

01  TTH6  CAC  17377  EVANS  MU-107

Truth in Fiction: The Politics and Paradoxes of Realism

Why would authors and artists in the nineteenth century make the improbable decision to organize themselves under the banner of “Realism”? Can a painting or a story ever be real? Does anyone really think there is such thing as truth in fiction? Isn’t the definition of fiction dependent on something like a lie? After all, we are talking about made-up novels and images on a canvas, not journalism, not history, not documentary. What even made artists think, in the first place, that they had something to say about major contemporary social and ethical issues—such as economic, gender and racial inequality—that couldn’t be better said by a statistical measure or a political essay? And why did they think that “realist” art would be the way to say it? Or that their “realism” had a more privileged purchase on the truth than the lyric self-searching of romantic poetry, or the spiritual purchase of a sermon? How do fictional novels and paintings represent the truth? What makes them political? What makes them real? Is it in their style or substance? And how do opinions about truth in fiction change over time? How do they vary by place?

This course offers an intensive study of American realist fiction in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with an eye towards the relations between major American figures and realist movements in England, France and Russia that can push the historical and geographical bounds of traditional accounts of the period. Why has it been that no matter which critical school is producing the reading—modernists in the 1920s, feminists in the 1970s, or new historicists in the 1990s—the canon of American realism gets shrunk; indeed, why, since the early twentieth century, has treating an author seriously meant disentangling him or her from the perceived aesthetic and political limitations of realism? We will explore how shifts within the realist novel in America—from novels of feeling (like Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) to novels of concealment (like James’s The Golden Bowl)—nonetheless continue to engage with what could be framed more expansively as the problem of realism as it was understood internationally; and we will consider what it might mean for the field to bring the “early realists” and the “late realists” back into the fold. Likely authors from around the world will include Dickens, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky; and the American authors Stowe, Howells, James, Wharton, and Fitzgerald.