By Phillip Barrish
Concentrating on key works of late-nineteenth and early- twentieth-century American literary realism, Phillip Barrish strains the emergence of recent methods of gaining highbrow prestige--that is, new methods of gaining a point of cultural reputation. via prolonged readings of works through Henry James, William Dean Howells, Abraham Cahan, and Edith Wharton, Barrish emphasizes the diversities among realist modes of cultural authority and people linked to the increase of the social sciences.
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Hence, Tom and Pen’s style of realist taste has only a reduced ability, on its own, to distinguish its possessors as having a uniquely discerning aesthetic sensibility. I suggest that the Reverend Sewell’s response to the “enthusiasm” that his friends Bromﬁeld and Bellingham come to display for Lemuel Barker – “all that’s impossible now,” Sewell tells them (p. 57 After yet another frustration, Bromﬁeld Corey confesses that he and Bellingham are utterly nonplussed by the stubborn resistances they keep encountering as they try American Literary Realism to get closer to Barker and his life.
30 Tom’s dry response to Irene’s list of Shakespearean works – “those are the ones they usually play,” he says – indicates Howells’s assumption that realist taste could and should go hand in hand with a high-culture recognition of Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre as literary monument, rather than simple entertainment. Realist taste should be recognized, Howells wants to suggest, as one element in the period’s developing repertoire of culturally prestigious aesthetic preferences. Tom’s quiet indication that he, at least, recognizes a diﬀerence between, in John Quincy Adam’s phrasing, “the true Shakespeare,” whom one read, and that “spurious Shakespeare often exhibited upon the stage,”31 is part of the novel’s insistence that Tom and Penelope, the ﬁgures the novel privileges for their realist taste, are loyal readers of the emergent high-culture canon – the same “standard authors” who are explicitly endorsed by Bromﬁeld Corey (p.
He adds “I ‘took to’ Colonel Lapham from the moment I saw him. He looked as if he ‘meant business,’ and I mean business too” (p. ). The internal quotation marks that Howells puts around the colloquial phrases “took to” and “meant business” indicate that Tom purposefully employs tone and rhythm to set those phrases oﬀ from the rest of his speech. 23 Indeed, the novel will continue to take for granted that, although Tom may join Silas’s ﬁrm, the two men will never “mean” business in the same way.
American literary realism by Phillip Barrish