Realism as Seen in the Works of Whitman, Howells and James
HomeLiterature lies on a continuum between realistic portrayal or believability and fanciful portrayal and incredibility. Sometimes authors seem to sacrifice beauty of words and ideals for the sake of realistic portrayal. At other times, the reverse is true. Romantic writers are sometimes accused of presenting art for art's sake to the detriment of believability. For instance, some find Moby-Dick to be hard to accept because a grudge fight or vendetta between a man or whale would seem unlikely. At the far end of the continuum lies the work of some modern film makers who find it necessary to graphically portray bodily functions in order to maintain a sense of reality. The difference may seem to lie between prettiness and crassness rather than between realistic portrayal and fluffiness. Literary realism, at its best, strikes a balance between these two extremes. It honestly portrays life with its imperfections. The works of Howells, James and Whitman achieve such portrayal while examining or calling into question established sensibilities.
Howells "Editha" tells the story of two people who see the universe very differently. Editha, with a sort of a priori naivete, holds a highly idealized view of reality and of war. She believes the newspaper propaganda that says it is good to invade Cuba and fight the Spanish Empire. These ideas fit comfortably with those she's gotten from her father or read in Lovelace. She does not imagine the human cost in terms of suffering and death that accompany war; she only imagines glory and the Romantic notion of sharing her arms with her fiancÚ should he lose one of his. Unlike Editha, the mother of Editha's fiancÚ has experienced firsthand the suffering caused by war. Her husband did lose an arm in the Civil War; she knows their is nothing glorious or romantic about having a one-armed man on her hands. But Editha's has no first hand experience to challenge her belief system until her fiancÚ, George, is killed in the first battle. Before going of to war, George had asked Editha to check on his mother were he to be killed. She does visit his mother, full of glorious thoughts of beauty. However, George's mother does not share Editha's romantic notions; she is angry wtih Editha for sending him off to war. She is glad not at the gloriousness of his death, but at knowing he died before he could kill some other mother's son. Editha remains unable to comprehend this viewpoint. When she recounts the story of their meeting later, the listener describes the behavior of George's as vulgar. This cements Editha's incomprehension, and she never understands the point of view expressed by George's mother. The lack of a happy ending shows Howells's expertise. George is not miraculously restored whole; similarly, Editha does not become enlightened. Either outcome would stagger belief. Nevertheless, he has shown us truth without showing us graphic horrors. We see no carnage. We do not witness George's final agony. We only receive notice of his death. We only see the realistic response of two different people with different beliefs to the same event
In James's "The Real Thing," the conflict between ideal and realistic portrayal occurs in a single individual who is the narrator of the story. He struggles between wanting to help a couple he admires and his own self-interest. At one point he is, he is overwhelmed by his own meaness and by a sense of responsibility at the other. Yet this struggle is only between different parts of his own unrealistic and selfish outlook. He begins his acquaintance with the Monarchs by seeing them only as a means to his own end as either clients, connections, or as models. Beyond their utilitarian traits, the Monarchs in their straights have a lesson for the painter. They have fallen on hard times and remind the painter of his own peril. As their danger increases, they loom more largely in his life. Finally, they demonstrate a valuable lesson about character: that is is all that remains when everything else has been stripped away. But the story ends in neither romantic sentimentality involving nor in Hardyesque calamity. Slowly the narrator awakens to self knowledge: he must discharge the Monarchs. There is no tidy ending involving sudden inheritances, nor is their a messy ending involving suicide. There are just two people who will struggle together to the end and a painter who has learned about character.
Paradoxically, Whitman's poems romanticize realism. On the one hand, he claims a commonality with the "cheapest," the lowest specimens of American life. On the other, he portrays a nobility and dignity that transcend class or circumstances Just as James's painter sees the Monarchs as a sort of role model, Whitman holds his Leaves of Grass out to us an example of how to live. But he does not hit us over the head with his bible; he expectantly offers it to whoever will read it and build upon its precepts. He does this by declaring his oneness with all of nature and with all of the people living on the continent, even prisoners awaiting hanging and slaves on the run. He shows us almost every aspect of life in unglossed form. But he has also taken a step back into romantic idealism. He expects the reader to join with him, to take these leaves into himself and use them as a sort of Transcendentalist gospel. This was not something many of his readers were prepared to do. He has challenged the inadequacy of all traditional authority and established himself as at least talking about what he knows, a claim he says most religions cannot make. He claims a sort of immortality for himself, saying that he goes on whenever and wherever his leaves are read. He has thus used a realistic portrayal of life to realize a great romantic end- immortality
The works of these authors realistically portray life, good and bad, without being offensively sentimental or vulgar. They lead the us gently to the truths they present without shouting us off the page or so clouding the meaning in sophistries that the meaning becomes lost behind the art. Each teaches in an honest fashion about the need to question our thinking, to embrace life rather than hiding form it and to seek our own commonality with those around us and draw strength from it.