The New Narcissism: Sexual Politics in William Dean Howells

  • Sam B. Girgus

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Burning Dust Europe Assure Nash 

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Notes

  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
  2. 1.
    B. A. Sokoloff, ‘William Dean Howells and the Ohio Village: A Study in Environment and Art’, American Quarterly, 11 (Spring 1959 ), pp. 58–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 1.
    Kenneth Lynn, William Dean Howells: An American Life ( New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970 ), p. 12.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    Henry Nash Smith, ‘William Dean Howells: The Theology of Realism’ in Democracy and the Novel: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1978 ), pp. 75–103.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    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
  6. 3.
    George C. Carrington, Jr, The Immense Complex Drama: The World and Art of the Howells Novel ( Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966 );Google Scholar
  7. 3.
    George N. Bennett, The Realism of William Dean Howells: 1889–1920 ( Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1973 );Google Scholar
  8. 3.
    Everett Carter, Howells and the Age of Realism (Hamden, Conn: Archon, 1966 );Google Scholar
  9. 3.
    William J. McMurray, The Literary Realism of William Dean Howells ( Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967 ).Google Scholar
  10. 4.
    Kermit Vanderbilt, The Achievement of William Dean Howells: A Reinterpretation ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968 ), pp. 192–3.Google Scholar
  11. 6.
    George Arms, ‘The Literary Background of Howells’ Social Criticism’, American Literature, 14 (November 1942), p. 260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 7.
    see also, Girgus, The Law of the Heart: Individualism and the Modern Self in American Literature ( Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979 ), pp. 66–83;Google Scholar
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    Arthur Boardman, ‘Social Point of View in the Novels of William Dean Howells’, American Literature, 39 (March 1967), pp. 42–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 8.
    Howells, ‘Are We a Plutocracy?’ North American Review, 158 (February 1894), p. 194.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    Howells, ‘Who Are Our Brethren?’, Century, 60 (April 1896), p. 935.Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    Vanderbilt, ‘Marcia Gaylord’s Electra Complex: A Footnote to Sex in Howells’, American Literature, 34 (November 1962), p. 374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Elizabeth Stevens Prioleau, The Circle of Eros: Sexuality in the Work of William Dean Howells ( Durham: Duke University Press, 1983 )Google Scholar
  18. 12.
    George Spangler, ‘The Shadow of a Dream: Howells’ Homosexual Tragedy’, American Quarterly, 23 (Spring 1971), pp. 110–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 13.
    William M. Gibson, ‘Introduction’, A Modern Instance (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. v.Google Scholar
  20. 14.
    Edwin H. Cady, The Road to Realism: The Early Years, 1837–1885, of William Dean Howells ( Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1956 ), p. 211.Google Scholar
  21. 15.
    Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged ( New York: Basic Books/Harper Colophon, 1977 ), p. 8.Google Scholar
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    Freud, ‘On Narcissism’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works ( London: Hogarth Press, 1957 ), 14: 100.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    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
  24. 26.
    Freud, ‘Female Sexuality’ in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier, 1963 ), p. 198.Google Scholar
  25. 27.
    Freud, ‘Femininity’ in New Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis trans. James Strachey (1933; rpt. New York: Norton, 1965), pp. 129, 132.Google Scholar
  26. 29.
    Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (1930; rpt. New York: Norton, 1962 ), p. 19.Google Scholar
  27. 33.
    O’Neill, Everyone Was Brave: A History of Feminism in America (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times, 1971), pp. 24–9, 38.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Samuel B. Girgus 1990

Authors and Affiliations

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

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