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From Morris Dickstein’s Introduction to The Rise of Silas Lapham
Readers and critics have often expressed nostalgia for the kind of social novel that went out of fashion with the coming of modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century. The journalist Tom Wolfe, for example, complained about the disappearance of the novelist as social observer and tried to fill the breach first with what he called the New Journalism, using some of the techniques of fiction, then with novels of his own. It’s not hard to understand why social novels gradually lost their hold on the modern imagination, though they long remained a staple of popular fiction. Many serious writers felt that society had grown too complex, too elusive—even too freakish—for any novelist to grasp as a whole. A close observation of manners had once seemed like a key to the social map, including the real distributions of class and power. But by the early twentieth century, the mores of social intercourse, like the relations between the classes, were proving harder to read or were simply breaking down under new egalitarian pressures. Increased education and upward mobility made class lines more porous. Moreover, the wars of the twentieth century, the new weapons of annihilation, the growth of totalitarian dictatorship, and the descent into outright genocide made older techniques for decoding social relations look irrelevant. The darker shadings of the thriller, of existentialism, or of the new Freudian psychology seemed like a better match for the writers’ bleak outlook on the world. Masters of unease like Dostoevsky and Kafka, with their profound sense of blockage and frustration, spoke to twentieth-century readers more deeply than Balzac or Trollope, who were so adept at laying bare the mechanisms of class, power, and personal ambitions in their time.
For American writers these issues played out somewhat differently. Henry James had long argued that the United States, as a relatively new society, lacked the density of institutions and manners to nourish the novelist. He himself left for Europe to seek out such a society but instead found his best material in the clash between the new world and the old, without feeling entirely at home in either one. Another exile, D. H. Lawrence, followed James in the 1920s by arguing that the great American classics were all obsessive myths, metaphysical adventure stories, or boys’ books, and he read them as no one had done before—with a psychological grasp that made them surprisingly compatible with modernism. Certainly Hawthorne’s fables of sin and self-torment, Poe’s Gothic melodramas, and Melville’s wrestling with ultimate questions could be seen as prescient anticipations of the literature of extremity of the twentieth century, just as Whitman and Emerson foreshadowed the radical self-absorption typical of the modern age.
In the footsteps of James and Lawrence, critics like Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, and Richard Chase argued that the romance rather than the novel was central to American fiction; the major American realists and social novelists who had emerged in the decades after the Civil War were at best marginal to that tradition. By the 1940s and 1950s, in the aftermath of war and the Holocaust, when the modernist outlook was at the peak of its influence, the prestige of realist writers like William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris sank to a low ebb, while Howells’s friend and contemporary, Henry James, was rediscovered and lionized as yet another forerunner of modernism.
If James was highly valued where Howells and Dreiser were dismissed, this was partly because of the rigor of James’s writing and his exacting sense of form. The nineteenth-century novel was often a loose construction, a mixture of melodrama, descriptive writing, disguised autobiography, history, and social criticism. For James, such novels were well represented by the “loose baggy monsters” of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, books he saw as ambitious but relatively formless. But both James and Howells were drawn to the “craftsmanship” of French fiction, especially in the work of Flaubert, Daudet, Zola, and Ivan Turgenev, the Russian writer living in Paris. James believed that fiction could be a vehicle of high art, and saw art itself as life-giving. Like Flaubert, James brought a severe aesthetic conscience to fiction. Instead of relying on an omniscient narrator—a puppet master putting characters through their paces—he presented the world through the eyes of the characters themselves. Like a dramatist he set out to show rather than tell, building the action through scene and dialogue instead of summary narration. James’s formal discipline, his commitment to art within a popular genre, strongly appealed to the New Critics, who reached the zenith of their authority in the 1940s and 1950s. James’s links to modernism could be found in his growing emphasis on consciousness over action. Even an early novel like The Portrait of a Lady (1881) turns upon a scene of awareness, of pure motionless seeing, as he later called it, when the heroine, simply reflecting at the fireside, comes to understand her husband’s connection to another woman. By the time of The Ambassadors or The Golden Bowl twenty years later, the tentacles of consciousness had multiplied and expanded; Proust’s long novel about memory has nothing on these books.
William Dean Howells too was influenced by the exacting craftsmanship of the French. Like James he would fail as a playwright yet preferred the give and take of dialogue and the life-like portrayal of character to elaborate plotting. “He hates a ‘story,’” James wrote about him in 1886. “Mr. Howells hates an artificial fable and a dénouement that is pressed into the service; he likes things to occur as they occur in life, where the manner of a great many of them is not to occur at all” (quoted in The Rise of Silas Lapham, edited by Don L. Cook, p. 494; see “For Further Reading”). “The plot is the last thing for which I care,” Howells wrote to his publisher. “In whatever I do I try to make the faithful study of character and the dramatic treatment of incident my hold upon the reader” (quoted in A Modern Instance, edited by William Gibson, p. vii). But Howells’s aesthetic discipline is much more lax than James’s or Flaubert’s; he writes rapidly, with silver-tongued fluency, as attentive to the needs of the market as to the exigencies of art. With the instinct of a canny businessman, he is always mindful of the taste of editors and readers. Howells hates popular fiction for its falsity and sentimentality yet is determined to make his own kind of fiction popular. Though his best books turn on dramatic encounters between genuinely convincing characters, he freely supplies his own commentary on the social history surrounding their lives and the tangled motives underlying their behavior. His books are dotted with trenchant observations about social change. In his first major novel, A Modern Instance (1882), he reports shrewdly on the state of journalism, the transformation of religious feelings, the emotional economy of marriage, and the new independence of the younger generation from parental authority. “I would be ashamed to write a novel that did not distinctly mean something, or that did not show that I had felt strongly about it,” he told his publisher as he was writing the book (quoted in A Modern Instance, p. vii).