``Conscience and purpose'': The legacy of Howellsian social commitment in American fiction

Date of Completion

January 1997


Literature, Modern|Black Studies|Philosophy|Literature, American




W. D. Howells's Editor's Study in Harper's magazine (1886-1892) argues for a conception of literature as a public vehicle for mediating across divisions of class and region, fostering cross-cultural sympathies leading to comprehensive ethical reform. Sarah Orne Jewett, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Willa Cather struggle to adjust the Howellsian social-ethical imperative to their own doubts about its viability, to variant aesthetic goals, and to alternative conceptions of literary purpose.^ Howells's insistence on the principle of literature's ethical uses in and for its society leads to apparently irresolvable theoretical contradictions which reinscribe the distinction between art and life which he seeks to remove. Reframing this conundrum within a Howellsian conception of literary "use value" reveals the pragmatic, anti-theoretical unity of the Editor's Study.^ Jewett's works of Maine regionalism adopt Howellsian social-ethical purposes but extend them to make regionalist documentation of commonplace cultural realities evoke a Swedenborgian spiritual realm which transcends and infuses the temporal web of social relationships. Jewett's expanded sense of human commonalty requires reorientation of narrator to readers and subject matter--a project begun in the narratorially bifurcated Deephaven (1877) and completed in the successful fusion of social-ethical with mystical purposes within the reader-participatory aesthetic of The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896).^ Chesnutt undertook a literary career to improve relations between European and African Americans, but his works question literature's ability to achieve such ends. The Conjure Woman (1877-1899) explores the racial limits of Howellsian literary mediation. The Colonel's Dream (1905) constitutes Chesnutt's despairing attempt to use fiction to promote reform, paradoxically asserting his ongoing commitment to reform itself.^ Cather's transitional works from journalism to literature reveal the process by which she freed herself from Howellsian influences. "Behind the Singer Tower" (1912) tries to employ muckraking literary materials as signs of abstract human ideals. Alexander's Bridge (1912) attempts to make social reality express the mythic internal drama of its hero, but founders on the competing exigency of a social understanding of character. O Pioneers! (1913) makes linguistic reference to social and material realities fully express a mythic and heroic conception of character. ^