William Dean Howells and the Making of a Realist Poetics: Literary Form and Social Responsibility in Late Nineteenth-Century America
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The first objective of this dissertation, “William Dean Howells and the Making of a Realist Poetics: Literary Form and Social Responsibility in Late Nineteenth-Century America,” is to show how poetry was part of 1890s realism, which is usually exclusively associated with prose. Even recent studies on late nineteenth-century poetry, such as Elizabeth Renker’s _Realist Poetics in American Culture, 1866-1900_, maintain that there was no formally recognizable realist poetics. I, however, claim that Howells did promote such a movement as a poet and a critic of poetry. This new type of realism is characterized by subject matter (social inequality and stereotypes), social context (an increasing sense of complacency toward democratic fissures), and poetic form (the indirection and defamiliarization of poetic language). My second objective is to ask: how does the study of nineteenth-century realism change by foregrounding Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Madison Cawein, and Stephen Crane as “realist” poets? I argue that poetry redirects the ideological stakes of realism by pushing ethical responsibility for exclusionary practices to new affective depths. Whereas realist prose is the genre of sociality-coming-into-being through an aggregate of perspectives, poetry focuses on how these perspectives themselves are highly subjective. Poetry, the genre of language coming-into-being, shows the process behind interpretative choices that are inherently contingent and plural. In other words, a realist poetics shows how people’s reality is often already a form of complicitous exclusion and puts pressure on the intellectual and sympathetic scope of the other. By highlighting that reality constitutes a relative point of intersection with other alternatives, poetry presents a type of awareness that is viscerally and critically self-reflexive.