Explores literature's social mission at the turn of the century as defined by William Dean Howells and practiced by him and others.
In a series of influential essays that appeared in Harper’s, W. D. Howells argued for literature as a vehicle for social change. Literature could and should, Howells suggested, mediate across divisions of class and region, fostering cross-cultural sympathies that would lead to comprehensive social and ethical reform.
Paul R. Petrie explores the legacy of Howells’s beliefs as they manifest themselves in Howell’s fiction and in the works of three major American writers--Charles W. Chesnutt, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Willa Cather. Each author struggled to adapt Howells’s social-ethical agenda for literature to his or her own aesthetic goals and to alternative conceptions of literary purpose. Jewett not only embraced Howells’s sense of social mission but also extended it by documenting commonplace cultural realities in a language and vision that was spiritual and transcendent. Chesnutt sought to improve relations between Anglo readers and African Americans, but his work, such as The Conjure Woman, also questions literature’s ability to repair those divides.
Finally, Petrie shows how Cather, as she shifted from journalism to fiction, freed herself from Howells’s influence. Alexander’s Bridge
(1912) and O Pioneers!
(1913) both make reference to social and material realities but only as groundwork for character portrayals that are mythic and heroic. The result of Petrie’s exploration is a refreshing reassessment of Howells’s legacy and its impact on American literature and social history at the turn of the century.
“This work’s originality resides in its resurrection of and careful, well-crafted response to the issue of social ethics and realistic practice in Howells. . . . Its readings are soundly argued, sensible, and convincing; they provide a refreshing look at works rarely considered together."--Donna M. Campbell, author of Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915