Reading for Realism: The History of a U.S. Literary Institution, 1850-1910

Reading for Realism: The History of a U.S. Literary Institution, 1850-1910

by Nancy Glazener

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Overview

Reading for Realism presents a new approach to U.S. literary history that is based on the analysis of dominant reading practices rather than on the production of texts. Nancy Glazener’s focus is the realist novel, the most influential literary form of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—a form she contends was only made possible by changes in the expectations of readers about pleasure and literary value. By tracing readers’ collaboration in the production of literary forms, Reading for Realism turns nineteenth-century controversies about the realist, romance, and sentimental novels into episodes in the history of readership. It also shows how works of fiction by Rebecca Harding Davis, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others participated in the debates about literary classification and reading that, in turn, created and shaped their audiences.
Combining reception theory with a materialist analysis of the social formations in which realist reading practices circulated, Glazener’s study reveals the elitist underpinnings of literary realism. At the book’s center is the Atlantic group of magazines, whose influence was part of the cultural machinery of the Northeastern urban bourgeoisie and crucial to the development of literary realism in America. Glazener shows how the promotion of realism by this group of publications also meant a consolidation of privilege—primarily in terms of class, gender, race, and region—for the audience it served. Thus American realism, so often portrayed as a quintessentially populist form, actually served to enforce existing structures of class and power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822399933
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/10/1997
Series: New Americanists
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 560 KB

About the Author

Nancy Glazener is Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Reading for Realism

The History of a U.S. Literary Institution, 1850â"1910


By Nancy Glazener

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9993-3



CHAPTER 1

High Realism and Other Bourgeois Institutions


In the latter half of the nineteenth century, literacy increased, printing technologies became cheaper and more efficient, and transportation networks (especially after the Civil War) facilitated the distribution of books and periodicals. These developments might have worked to level U.S. print culture so that differences in readerships would be increasingly horizontal, based on differences in interest rather than in cultural competence or status. Instead, just the opposite happened. Books, periodicals, and their publishers became more strictly divided between those for the "classes" and those for the "masses," and forums of high culture developed ever more elaborate criteria by which high and low tastes—or high tastes and low appetites, as they were usually characterized—could be discriminated.

This perverse development makes clear that cultural stratification was actively produced, rather than being merely a side effect of the new nation's lag in establishing all the desirable preconditions for democracy. Cultural stratification refracts and supports capitalist class relations as we know them, and insofar as it is not ensured by class-based differences in purchasing power and access to education, it can be fostered ideologically. Moreover, many features of the stricter cultural hierarchy that developed in the late nineteenth-century United States mark its emergence as an episode in the class consolidation of the bourgeoisie throughout the West. Lacking the sumptuary laws and titles that had fixed the social distinction of the aristocracy, and confronted with the volatility of individual fortunes, the bourgeoisie had to distinguish itself as a leading group by developing new practices of distinction, even its own poetics of distinction. Taste and refinement were central to this poetics, and both concepts fulfill bourgeois desires to provide for their cultural distinction and to conceal this provision.

Because taste metaphorically and in common use references an innate capacity or incapacity, it appears to produce a cultural meritocracy in which individuals scattered throughout society who find themselves possessing this gift properly rise to positions in which they can exercise it, share it, and be honored for it. Yet in practice, what gets legitimated as (good) taste tends to crop up among people with a sense of entitlement based on their family's class privilege or, as often follows from it, their own educational privilege. The idea of refinement is also closely linked to privilege, significantly figuring the ongoing transformation of base materials into something higher. It epitomizes the general (though not uninterrupted) tendency of this era's bourgeois versions of distinction to value abstraction and demonize the physical, whose threatening aspects could be displaced onto those out of power: women, workers, and members of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. The body as a site of involvement in physical processes, including labor, became ever more insistently disciplined, privatized, and hidden under nineteenth-century bourgeois regimes; representation became ever more elaborately figured as a controlling negation of the material world that was supposed to be its referent.

Neither taste nor refinement maps directly onto class position, as cliches about the uncultured nouveau riche and refined but impoverished gentlewomen demonstrate. Moreover, privilege is not a simple hierarchy, but rather functions according to the interaction of various kinds of dominance and social value achieved by people whose identities are constructed through multiple social categories. The evidence of a group's achieving cultural hegemony—though not absolute cultural control—is not that everyone else is excluded from legitimate culture, but rather that the terms of cultural legitimacy provide easiest access to members of the group and delimit the conditions and the likelihood of others' access. Any bourgeois group's project of cultural hegemony is necessarily structured by a profound ambivalence, though. On the one hand, the nature of hegemony demands that any group seeking it must induce other groups to endorse its values and thereby its leadership. On the other hand, a group whose leadership is premised on class stratification needs to keep cultural competency sufficiently rare that it can monopolize legitimate culture, using its members' comfort in the cultural realm they control as a mark of their distinction and a class-consolidating pleasure.

Since capitalism has shaped U.S. culture especially powerfully, it is no wonder that the ambivalence of the bourgeoisie's cultural operatives has been especially pronounced here. During the nineteenth century, it was typical that with one breath they would forecast improvement in the public taste, an improvement that American democracy uniquely fosters; with the next they would warn that only more zealous boundary-patrolling on the part of custodians of culture could prevent the public taste from sinking to the lowest level. This schizophrenia is produced by a classic double bind, the ultimately antagonistic relationship between capitalism and democracy which shapes (or skews) the ways in which people understand what their nation's hierarchy of culture accomplishes.

Realism, whose very name seems to promise a demystifying social vision, and whose affiliation with things popular has so often been praised, would be an unlikely place to look for the operations of bourgeois cultural hegemony, were it not that its loose association with democracy was precisely what made it so useful to bourgeois-identified intellectuals. As the most distinguished U.S. periodicals promoting realism represented their own activity, it amounted to staging a little referendum testing public confidence in the authority of the mainly urban bourgeoisie these magazines served. By "representing" Huck Finn, Silas Lapham, Hugh Wolfe, and a host of other nonelite fictional characters, the magazines effectively set up these characters as voters who endorsed the idea that these magazines and their privileged readers were committed to the well-being of their social inferiors. As is the case with real-world referenda, however, even though the party in power may be able to shape the election and the issues it settles in many respects, the fact that the party must suffer the election at all testifies to its ongoing negotiations with populations who actually or potentially resist it. This analogy suggests that the discourses by which realism was appropriated for the purposes of bourgeois groups were thoroughly dialogic: though not addressed outright to readers who did not occupy social positions of privilege, they were nonetheless shaped by the expectation of being overheard by these readers and finding in their continued existence both occasions for speech and constraints on speech.

The strategies of realism's promoters can be related to the strategies more diffusely attributed to the bourgeoisie across several centuries and national cultures, but such general accounts of bourgeois class-consolidation through the control of culture can only be persuasive if in its particular instances there are links between forms of cultural privilege and broader conditions of bourgeois hegemony. The promotion of realism affords an especially clear linkage, because it began when cultural authority in the United States was intensely localized, concentrated in the Northeast and especially in urban centers such as New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. In particular, because the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly was the cultural leader of literary periodicals during the era when realism was imported to the United States, and because Boston had special cultural authority during and after the Civil War, it is possible to chart a coordination between the construction of realism in the Atlantic and the forms of cultural leadership practiced by the Boston elite around the same time, a coordination which connects the promotion of realism—though not necessarily the practice of individual novels—with the legitimizing reformulation of a particular bourgeois group's hegemony. This chapter will trace the relationship between the treatment of realism in distinguished U.S. periodicals and the practices of cultural custodianship and philanthropy that were developed most fully by Boston's bourgeoisie, but that became a technology diffused nationwide for maintaining cultural stratification.


A Band in Boston

In the wake of numerous literary histories emphasizing that realism opened up literature to populations previously excluded from it, we risk losing sight of the fact that realism could constrain representation as well as liberate it. For instance, late in her life Harriet Prescott Spofford wrote with weary resignation about the effects the promotion of realism had had on her own writing:

You wonder why I did not continue in the vein of "The Amber Gods." I suppose because the public taste changed. With the coming of Mr. Howells as editor of the Atlantic, and his influence, the realistic arrived. I doubt if anything I wrote in those days would be accepted by any magazine now.


"The Amber Gods," published in the Atlantic in 1860, is lushly narrated by a beautiful and narcissistic woman who steals her cousin's lover; it ends with her narrating her soul's departure from her body after her death, which will reunite the original lovers. It is a psychological study whose interest derives largely from the deft ways in which Spofford makes the narrator unwittingly reveal herself, making it a precursor of Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" or Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." and a fitting counterpart—in prose and a female voice—to some of Browning's dramatic monologues. But, indeed, it is hard to imagine the story's having been published in any American magazine with literary aspirations after the early 1860s or before the 1890s, when the ascendancy of realism was challenged on a number of fronts.

Spofford's remarks indicate how forcefully—and narrowly—realism defined the field of literary fiction during the latter half of the nineteenth century. They also remind us that professional writers of the time necessarily imagined their activity in relation to the literary preferences of major magazines. However, her account, like the accounts of many subsequent literary historians, misleadingly condenses a complicated and widespread cultural transformation into the advent of William Dean Howells, the late nineteenth century's most polemical American man of letters. One of my purposes in this chapter is to detach American realism from Howells's person. I want to propose instead that the institution of high realism began as a collaboration between two related entities that were working to redefine and control a sphere of high culture: the belletristic branch of the publishing industry, which was defining its market position by defining an American literary high culture aimed at the bourgeoisie and its aspirants; and Boston's bourgeoisie, which used its sponsorship and consumption of high culture to justify its privileged status.

The Atlantic remains central to my account of realism, though, because it embodies the convergence between belletristic publishing and Boston's bourgeoisie, and because its high-culture credentials are impeccable. Endless accounts make it clear that the Atlantic had greater power to confer literary status on authors and texts than any other U.S. periodical had, at least until about the 1890s, and even then the Atlantic remained influential. The Atlantic was, in Richard Brodhead's apt phrase, a privileged point of "literary access." It was preeminent, but within a group of magazines that mutually authorized each other's status and literary judgment. The editors and contributors of these magazines not only tended to cross-pollinate them—as editors who had trained at one magazine took over another or contributed to others, and as contributors were published during the same period by more than one of these magazines—but also, in many cases, knew each other and shared similar backgrounds. These magazines tended to respond to each other, to a few major newspapers and weekly magazines, to the Revue des Deux Mondes, and to the British literary journals that they emulated and tried to rival, especially Blackwood's Monthly Magazine, the Cornhill Magazine, the Edinburgh Review, and the Westminster Review. The members of this group all took up realism itself and the complex of literary terms and issues that surrounded it, and even though not all of the magazines made exactly the same judgment of realism, it seems clear that the magazines were collectively and dialogically working out the discourses in which their judgments could be uttered. These tasks they also shared with the British magazines I have named, plus others, but it is useful to consider the U.S. magazines as a distinct grouping because they shared the work of adapting realism for U.S. texts and readers.

This group of magazines consisted of the Atlantic (1857–present), together with the Galaxy (1866–1879), which it incorporated; the Critic (1881–1906) and the Forum (1886–1930), both of which consisted of review articles only; Harper's Monthly, hereafter just Harper's (1850–present); Lippincott's (1868–1916); the Nation (1865–present), which published no fiction but was highly respected for its book reviews; the North American Review (1815–1939), the most venerable of American periodicals but one whose reputation was not as literary as the Atlantic's; Putnam's (1853–1857, 1868–1870); Scribner's Monthly (1870–1930), which absorbed the second version of Putnam's in 1870 and which in 1881 became the Century; and Scribner's Magazine (1887–1939), which the Scribner publishing company began after the other Scribner's had ceased to have any connection with the publishing company and had changed its name.

Like Harper's, Lippincott's, Putnam's, and the two Scribner magazines, the Atlantic was the house organ of a major publishing company for most of its first fifty years: of Ticknor & Fields during its formative years, and of Houghton, Mifflin & Company once the magazine was well established. The success of Harper's had first demonstrated how valuable a flagship magazine could be to a publishing house. Setting the pattern for many other magazines in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Harper's promoted Harper Brothers' books in a number of ways: straightforwardly, by advertising them; and indirectly, by serializing or excerpting them and by reviewing them. During its life, Ticknor & Fields was the foremost belletristic publisher in the country and a strong supporter of American authors. Its house magazine gained special attention because being published in the Atlantic increased authors' chances of having their work brought out in book form by Ticknor & Fields, and other magazines owned by major publishing houses carried similar clout.

A magazine like the Atlantic, in turn, was an asset to a publisher not only because of the extra book sales that might be generated by its insider advertising, but more fundamentally because it helped to create a market position for the publisher. A house magazine created a reputation or image for its publishing company, advertising not so much individual titles as the quality of the house's list. Horace Scudder, a leading magazine staffer and house reader for Houghton, Mifflin & Company who later became editor of the Atlantic, wrote in 1873 that a

magazine rarely fails to symbolize the house from which it issues. This is, in fact, its great charm with the publisher. He is always wishing to impress his business upon the public mind, and though he may issue book after book, no single one quite expresses what he conceives to be the character of his house, while a magazine with its flexibility, its power of presenting many sides, and its magisterial function also of accepting, rejecting, and criticizing, becomes a very able exponent. It is indeed much more likely to reflect the character and taste of the house than of its editor, and is most likely to succeed when it is a genuine representative of the concern whose name it carries.


Since reviewers, like fiction writers, were influenced by this sense of the magazine's house voice (and in some cases explicitly charged with conforming to it), and since book reviews remained mainly anonymous even after other kinds of articles began to be signed, most reviews were "authored" as much by magazines as by individuals, if not more so. Even though a magazine might publish conflicting opinions or precepts, the authority that its reviewers brought to such quarrels was not their own personal authority (or the expertise which may have gotten them hired by the magazine or affiliated with it), but the authority of the space in which their work was printed: the magazine's cultural capital and standing.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Reading for Realism by Nancy Glazener. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction 1. High Realism and Other Bourgeois Institutions 2. "The Grand Reservoir of National Prosperity" 3. Addictive Reading and Professional Authorship 4. The Romantic Revival 5. Regional Accents Conclusion: The End of the Atlantic Group, 1900-1910 Appendix: The Atlantic Group Notes Bibliography Index

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