Ideas of Realism of W.D. Howells and H. James

Realism is the global tendency in the life of society that was predominant in the second half of the 19th century. Realism cannot be reduced to one aspect of societal life. On the whole, it can even be defined as the way of thinking of people of the mentioned period. Thus, realism was grounded on the platform of rationalist philosophy, for philosophic views usually lie in the core of every tendency. Besides, realism sprung up as the opposition to romanticism, the consequence of the growing attention and appreciation of the scientific method, and increasing interest in systematization of history. However, realism as a literary technique and tendency is of special interest for us. The main characteristic of realism in literature may be drawn from its name. Realistic literature reflects real picture of world and human society, the representation of the events in it may be considered faithful; verisimilitude is typical of realistic narration. Though the names of many American writers and critics were associated with realism, W.D. Howells made a great impact to this literary movement along with Henry James. Thus, their ideas of realism may be considered of special interest and should be analyzed.

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In the essay “Novel-Writing and Novel-Reading: An Impersonal Explanation”, the author, W.D. Howells, formulates the main principles and rules of a realistic novel, explaining the proper, from his point of view, process of creation and “consumption” of literature. In the essay he is speaking on the part of both: writer and reader, giving his multidimensional vision of “good literature”. Howells main requirement set for a qualitative work of fiction is “beauty” (Howells 913). This is why beauty may be considered the first postulate of realistic literature. However, the definition of “beauty” is needed here to reveal the author’s idea. He says that by beauty he of course means the truth, “it is only the false in art which is ugly, and it is only the false which is immoral” (Howells 913). Consequently, truth is an integral part and the first requirement of a literary work. No matter how indecent this truth may be, it is sure to do good, and it will never deprave a reader. The similar idea may be found in Dreiser’s “True Art Speaks Plainly” (927). Henry James fully supports W.D. Howells on this issue, thus, it can be stated that they agree about the principal postulate or realism, the truth as the basis of the work of a writer. Besides, W.D. Howells considers truth “the prime test of a novel” (Howells 913). The second postulate of realism as literary technique is defined by Howells in the following way: the beauty of the novel is based on its authenticity, on its reflection and precise embodiment of human experience in the literary work.

In order to understand the essence of realistic literature, it is necessary to resort to the criticism of romanticism as it was presented by W.D. Howells in the same essay. Since realism and romanticism are positioned as the opposites of each other, realism should be deprived of the peculiarities of romanticism. If the main task of romantic works is to render beauty by means of the reflection of true human experience, while “the romantic was the cold grave of the beautiful”, as it is stated in “Criticism and Fiction” by W.D. Howells (6). This idea is the central idea of both analyzed works.

One more assertion of W.D. Howells concerning romanticism may be useful for us to conclude a postulate of realism. Is says that romanticism also seeks after portraying of the real life but the means that are chosen by it are false because the presentation of life in romantic novels is done with the help of allegories and figurative tricks that are alien to real life, thus the whole picture of life becomes distorted. This is why those writers who create realistic works of fiction should employ true-to-life literary events and means of characterization of characters.

Both writers, Howells and James, agree on the choice of literary characters and means of their portrayal in a realistic novel. Howells says that if you carry a character form one story to another, he is likely to lose his significance, for it will be difficult for him to be important in both woks. Besides, Howells casts light on the rules of the development of characters in a realistic novel saying that it should be slow, gradual, and it is beyond the writer’s competence to foresee the final image of a hero. James also claims that if a novel is full of movement and incident it is not necessarily a merit of the work (James 919). It is impossible to know the flow of the novel beforehand, though the author is a person who knows the nature of his characters, he is not fully aware of the way they will influence one another. In this relation the author is to a certain extent an observer of the natural flow of the evolution of the characters. Both writers pay special attention to the literary characters and agree that the image of “everlasting man and young woman” should by combated and substituted for the characters that are taken from real live (Howells 917).

As it can be seen, the views of both writers that are analyzed in this work are in great deal similar and coincide in many aspects; especially if we take into consideration their friendly relationship and high appreciation of each other’s work (Howells 913). However, there are certain issues that differentiate then. For instance, let us tackle the question of experience as presented by the authors. Both of them believe that experience should be the basis of a literary work, but they fill the notion of experience with different content. Howells refers to experience in narrower sense, while James says that experience can never be limited and is never complete (920).

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On studying the works of both authors, it is possible to make up the complete picture of realism as a literary trend. A realistic novel may be characterized by the highest level of authenticity. The characters should be taken from life and should represent real people, not common types of people. The development and formation of characters should be a gradual and complex process, and the character instead of the plot should be the in the center of the novel. The events described in the work should be taken from real life and the presentation of the relationship between characters should also be realistic, without any heroic deeds or unrealistic events. However, the novel should remain the work of fiction, not a document, as Howells says in “Criticism and Fiction”: “when realism becomes false to itself, when it heaps up facts merely, and maps life instead of picturing it, realism will perish too” (6-7).

One more thing to mention is that for the deeper understanding of the phenomenon of realism, it is useful to analyze the kindred phenomenon of “naturalism” as it is presented by Jack London (928) and Th. Dreiser (926). Besides, the comparative study of romanticism as an opposing literary trend may be of great use (Norris 921), (Norris 923).

Drawing a conclusion, it should be stated that the works of the two authors analyzed may be considered a code of realism. They present the main postulates of the literary trend justifying their reliability and validity. The points of view of the authors coincide and resemble each other a lot, and they should be studied simultaneously in order to make up a brighter and more distinct picture of realism and realistic novel.

Works Cited

Dreiser, Theodore. True Art Speaks Plainly. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Vol. C: 1865-1914. 7th Edition. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007, 926-928.

Howells, William Dean. Criticism and Fiction. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Howells, William Dean. Novel-Writing and Novel Reading: An Impersonal Explanation. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Vol. C: 1865-1914. 7th Edition. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007, 915-918.

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Howells, William Dean.Henry James, Jr. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Vol. C: 1865-1914. 7th Edition. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007, 913-915.

James, Henry. The Art of Fiction. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Vol. C: 1865-1914. 7th Edition. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007, 918-920.

Norris, Frank. Zola as a Romantic Writer. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Vol. C: 1865-1914. 7th Edition. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007, 921-923.

Norris, Frank. A Plea for Romantic Fiction. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Vol. C: 1865-1914. 7th Edition. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007, 923-926.

London, Jack. What life Means to Me. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Vol. C: 1865-1914. 7th Edition. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007, 928-931.

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