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American Literary Realism, Critical Theory, and Intellectual by Professor Phillip Barrish

By Professor Phillip Barrish

Targeting key works of late-nineteenth and early- twentieth-century American literary realism, Phillip Barrish lines the emergence of recent methods of gaining highbrow prestige—that is, new methods of gaining a point of cultural attractiveness. via prolonged readings of works by means of Henry James, William Dean Howells, Abraham Cahan, and Edith Wharton, Barrish emphasizes the variations among realist modes of cultural authority and people linked to the increase of the social sciences.

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61 Howells depicts, for instance, a virtual industry in art courses taught by European-trained artists and enrolled in by the wives and daughters of economically successful men who wish to transcend mere showiness. As earlier moments in this chapter have pointed out, Howells’s work does indeed still participate in the large-scale project of the late nineteenth century’s upper-middle and upper classes of using canonically defined “high culture” to demarcate lines of cultural distinction. At the same time, however, Howells also presents additional taste strategies for accruing specialized forms of distinction within those upper-middle and upper-class strata.

Later, the narrator tells us that the Coreys’ elegant house looks “bare to the eyes of the Laphams” (it is significant that Penelope, who can appreciate a sophisticated aesthetic of simplicity, is absent from this scene) (p. ). Except for Penelope, the Laphams themselves prefer houses stuffed full of what Howells calls “the costliest and most abominable” of everything, and decorated with “black-walnut finish, high-studding, and cornices” (pp. , ). This “crude taste” that the Laphams have, their unfailing attraction to what the narrator dubs “obstreperous pretentiousness” (pp.

Morrell, and other Howells protagonists of the period must be differentiated from the “flippant gayety” that characterizes vulgar newspaper reporting about social problems. In Boston newspapers such as the Sunrise, as Sewell explains to his wife, such gaiety is “odious” because of how it minimizes the seriousness of urban tragedies. Where news reporters’ tones of flippant gaiety seem of a piece with how their coverage often “rather blinked” the city’s truly “worst cases,” the wry smiles of Sewell, March, and Morrell attest to the clear-eyedness that they bring to hard realities (Novels, –, p.

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