American Literature and Social Change: William Dean Howells by Michael Spindler

By Michael Spindler

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From the agricultural society around him he absorbed the values of democracy and egalitarianism , and from his father, a Swedenborgian, he absorbed a strong moral absolutism . As a result of his father's influence he never lost the conviction that Christian principle and good works save and that self-concern and love of the world damn. ' These two main strands in his make-up clearly determine many of the attitudes embodied in his fiction . The Rise of Silas Lapham , in particular, expresses Howells's nostalgic view of the ante-bellum agrarian era as a morally superior age, as well as his confidence in the power of its characteristic Protestant and democratic values to survive in the face of rapid economic change.

Howells was sufficiently affected by the positivistic assumptions of the period to take the possibility of an accurate perception of objective existence for granted. Like the literary naturalists who came after him, he was committed to the notion that the human eye could see 'real' life as it was in itself and that therefore language could represent it in fiction. One of the main techniques by which this mimesis was to be achieved was the accumulation of realistic detail , providing descriptions with a specificity and a solidity reminiscent of the real objects or scenes.

Dreiser's Cowperwood trilogy, for instance, constitutes almost a textbook of finance capitalism with its detailed descriptions of commercial transactions and the manipulation of stock. The specificity of Cowperwood's business activities is in marked contrast to the vagueness with which Dickens enshrouds the activities and final bankruptcy of his financier, Merdle, in Little Dorrit . To the Naturalists the business affairs themselves were of vital novelistic interest, since, governed by their deterministic philosophy, they were intent upon putting men in the context of the large forces which ruled over their lives.

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