Amy Kaplan’s The Social Construction of American Realism

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Amy Kaplan’s first book makes efforts to form a way of reading that not only takes into account the methods of cultural production, but the social effects and utility of literature in its own time. For realism, this first means of rescuing the genre from its contemporary conceptions as a failed, un-American genre that stands weakly against American romance and sentimentalism. Kaplan argues that “the association of the romance with a uniquely American culture has displaced realizsm as an anomalous and distinctly un-American margin of literary criticism, which has necessarily viewed its literary mode as a failure” (3). However, the romance thesis itself was born out of the New Critics and the unease of World War II which demanded for a more authentic American genre.  Since realism is influenced greatly by European novels, it seemed like European mimicry rather than an authentic reflection of American attitudes.

Kaplan attempts to rethink realism by naming it a social construction, in that the way it has been viewed is itself contingent with historical circumstance and theoretical paradigms. Though many critics have attempted to rethink realism for similar reasons, most dissect realism as responses to social change rather than agents of social change themselves. As she says “the treatment of texts as responses to social change implicitly situates literature outside the arena of social history, looking down and commenting upon it, and thereby reinforces the rigid split between social structures and literary structures” (5). Seeing realist cultural production as determined by history as well as agents of historical change enables a new way of reading realism that finds in its stylistic inconsistencies and problematic endings attempts to shift social relations in their own time. For Kaplan, these inconsistencies do not rupture aesthetic value or style, but identify moments where form is used to actively engage with historical change:

As  [realists] begin to treat literary form as a social practice, these historical approaches reclaim the American novelist’s engagement with society. Realists do more than passively record the world outside; they actively create and criticize the meanings, representations, and ideologies of their own changing nature. (7)

To see literary form as a type of social work, one with its own ethics and demands, gives the realists a unique place in American literature within their own ideological moments. The role of Ideology in Kaplan’s work, which she defines as “those unspoken collective understandings, conventions, stories and cultural practices that uphold systems of power” (6),  is paramount to her way of reading realist texts. She explains that due to the large scale industrialism and expansions of the cities, realist novels attempted to “engage in an enormous act of construction to organize, re-form, and control the social world” and would “attempt to regulate conflict in the narrative construction of common ground among classes both to efface and reinscribe social histories” (10). Realism then is not seen as a failed attempt to dissect and tear apart ideological formations of class in its own time, but rather, as an attempt to construct social forms.

Her chapters on William Dean Howells expand on her argument that Howells’ work should be seen as an attempt to construct new social forms, showing that his work often attempts to resist the advertising and artificial narratives of mass media, while at the same time, to keep from writing in a form for elites. It is the struggle between these two forms that Howells settles on realism as a form that denies popular romance, which “turns literature into a consumer item and reading into an act of consumption” (17), and elitism. For Kaplan, “the major work of the realistic narrative is to construct a homogenous and coherent social reality by conquering the fictional qualities of middle-class life and by controlling the specter of class conflict which threatens to puncture this vision of a unified social totality” (21). Howells creates a “common realm,” where classes and individuals are able to see their conflicts within a bigger picture. In other words, the project of realism for Howells is “to manage social difference through representation” (30). He does this by representing the cityscape as a place attempting to forge “common possession” but cannot deny the dispossession that it enacts onto its citizens, and through his rigorous details of “useless knowledge,” to show how tenuous the boundaries are between class exclusions.

Kaplan’s work on Edith Wharton is perhaps the most illuminating as well as the most contentious. Her argument is that, while Wharton’s work is often seen as the precursor to a type of “Women’s writing” that reflects domesticity and the home, for Kaplan, Wharton’s writing is in fact an “effort to write herself out of the private domestic sphere and to inscribe a public identity in the marketplace” (67). Wharton seeks not a separate sphere, but becomes an apprentice to realism, and rather than just being feminine “women’s writing,” her work “undermines those boundaries between feminine and masculine, private and public” (67). As she despised the elites of New York City for their leisure and fear of work, Wharton saw her own writing as a type of work, and followed a rigorous schedule to keep up with it.  She desired for her authorship to be seen as professional, and constantly had to “grapple with the precedent of women novelists who ventured into the market only to reinforce their place at home” (72). In other words, Wharton struggled with the tradition of women’s writing rather than taking a firm place in it. This shows in Kaplan’s analysis of House of Mirth, which has traditionally been seen as a type of “novel of manners.” Breaking with this tradition, Kaplan shows how House of Mirth not only exposes the corruption and superficiality of the upper class, but defines them in relation to the lower class, since “to legitimate their privilege, the upper class cannot afford to seclude itself in a private sphere, but depends upon displaying itself before the gaping mob” (90). Wharton problematizes the sphere of the home by showing its dependency on being visible by the mob through acts of conspicuous consumption.  By revealing their source of power, Wharton participates in changing forms of class power.

Finally, Kaplan’s section on Theodore Drieser solidifies her argument by identifying Sister Carrie as an engagement with the conspicuous consumption of Wharton,  in an attempt to construct new social forms. Kaplan argues that: “the critical opposition associating sentimentalism with consumption and desire, and realism with work and deprivation, is already generated by the narrative strategies of Sister Carrie, as a way of imagining and managing the contradictions of a burgeoning consumer society” (143).  Conspicuous consumption plays a tragic role in Drieser’s novel, as “the characters seem to be in pursuit of something that commodities promise but never quite deliver, because they seek in things around them an image of themselves” (148). Here the work of the novel seems similar to Wharton’s and Howell’s, in that Drieser’s text not merely comments on consumption, but enables a radical critique of commodities as ways of promising identity and social groups. For Drieser, it is the workplace and work that acts as “the site of those power relations which fuel the desire for change that commodities promise but never fully realize” (151).


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