Monday, March 12, 2007

Howells and Realism

From a review of Alan Trachtenberg's Lincoln's Smile, and Other Enigmas

With or without the aid of photography, writers also re-viewed American cities. Led by William Dean Howells and Jacob Riis, the "realists" tried to make urban spaces transparent and comprehensible and arouse moral indignation against poverty and exploitation. But, Trachtenberg argues, their work was, at bottom, voyeuristic; their readers "did not cross into the inner world of the slums." In an essay, "New York Streets," Howells recognized that while a picture of sidewalks swarming with children was "pleasingly effective," to live in that picture "was to inhale the stenches of the neglected street and to catch that yet fouler and dreadfuler poverty-smell which breed from the open doorways" - a reality that "makes you hasten your pace down to the river." At the turn of the 20th century, with Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Trachtenberg suggests, the city was "naturalized": Data were converted into lived experience, and characters accepted, with neither compassion nor social guilt, as they committed "self-sufficient acts of desire."

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