Howell, Realism And Literature

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Howell, Realism and Literature


The term "realism" in American literature, includes an era from the Civil War to the end of the century in which Rebecca Harding Davis, Mark Twain, Henry James and William Dean Howells wrote fiction dedicated to precise depiction and a study of American livings in a variety of situations. Howells was one the greatest recognized and perhaps the very powerful supporters of realism. As he once said: “Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material”.

William Dean Howells's literary career was remarkable not only for its length and variousness but for its continuous and conscientious productivity. For more than fifty years, extending from the 19th well into the 20th century, Howells appeared in print as a journalist, a poet, a sensitively observant but unsentimental traveler, a novelist, a playwright, a critic and a polemicist in the cause of realism (these last two functions merging in Criticism and Fiction), a publicist and explicator of foreign writers for an ill-informed American public, and the educator of that same public to the greatness of its own writers like James and Twain.


The Real Thing, The Other Two, The Storm, and Law of Life are good models of Howells' idea of realism.


The Real Thing

“The Real Thing” is an extraordinarily subtle work demanding, like much of the work of Henry James, sensitivity and perceptiveness from the reader. The theme, one of James's recurring preoccupations, is the artist's honest struggle with his material, a struggle to render a subject in all of its multifaceted meaning. The Monarchs are the real thing, but their very authenticity, their very perfection is somehow not enough for the artist to capture. As the ideal, they are easily recognizable yet just as elusive. The artist's struggle to paint them ends in failure because, though it is the nature of art to be always striving for perfection, on the human level of the artist, it must always miss — perfection being beyond human attainment. (Crowley, 73)

In this sense, “The Real Thing” is suggestive of a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer whom James admired and about whom he published one of the first critical studies (1879). In that Hawthorne story, “The Artist of the Beautiful,” Owen Warfield — whose name signifies the artist's dilemma, the warfare between ideality and reality — strives for the perfection of his art, but in the struggle destroys his creation. So too, in “The Real Thing,” the artist is unable to capture fully what the Monarchs are and must turn them away, although, as he says, he was happy “to have paid the price — for the memory.”

The Other Two

This comedy of manners satirizes the sensibilities of a New York aristocrat trying to cope with an extremely awkward situation. Until his infatuation with Alice, Waythorn had lived — by choice and temperament — a rather “gray” life. Unhappy with his “womanish sensibility,” which caused him to “suffer so acutely from the grotesque chances of life,” he married ...
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