The New Narcissism: Sexual Politics in William Dean Howells

  • Sam B. Girgus


William Dean Howells was born in 1837 and gew up in Ohio during a period when America was defined by Whitman as an ‘athletic Democracy’. However, it would be Howells’s destiny as, in Kenneth Lynn’s phrase, ‘a man of modern sensibility’, to lead the new literary movement of realism that documented the transformation of America from a New World Garden to a complex industrial society of cities and new immigrants.1 For several decades his influence, example and leadership as an author, editor and critic helped to establish a new literary ideology that was based in part upon the determination of such European writers as Zola, Turgenev and Tolstoy to record faithfully the ordinary and the real. Howells’s importance to the delineation through literary realism of a changing American society indicates his direct involvement in influencing America’s consciousness of itself. Even as severe a critic of Howells’s aesthetics and style as Henry Nash Smith acknowledges his role as a sort of chief rabbi and prophet of the ‘theology of realism’.2 Of course, the subjects of Howells the realist and social critic, even Howells the socialist sympathizer, have been favorites for generations of Howells scholars.3 Less attention, however, has been given to another aspect of Howells’s prescience of social and cultural change.


Religious Experience Personality Type Moral Authority American Literature Sexual Politics 
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  1. 1.
    see also Kenneth E. Eble, ‘The Western Ideals of William Dean Howells’, Western Humanities Review, 11 (Autumn 1957), pp. 331–8.Google Scholar
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    See for example, Edwin H. Cady, The Road to Realism: The Early Years, 1837–1885, of William Dean Howells (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1956 ) and The Realist at War: The Mature Years, 1885–1920, of William Dean Howells ( Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1958 );Google Scholar
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    See Girgus, The Law of the Heart: Individualism and the Modern Self in American Literature ( Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979 ), p. 66.Google Scholar
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    Freud, ‘Female Sexuality’ in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier, 1963 ), p. 198.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Samuel B. Girgus 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sam B. Girgus
    • 1
  1. 1.University of OregonUK

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