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The Ethics of American Realism: 1860-1910


For over a century—since its appearance on the American literary scene —realism has presented challenges to those who have attempted to define it as a genre. From realist writers themselves (Howells, James, Norris) to prominent contemporary scholars (Kaplan, Bell, Sundquist), many have debated the boundaries, characteristics, and coherence of American realism. The most crucial questions concerning genre, those of how texts within the genre are both unified and divided, have yet to be resolved. So, for example, no adequate account has been given for how Henry James's delicate eloquence and Upton Sinclair's heavy sermonizing belong to the same genre of fiction. Furthermore, no satisfactory explanation as to the obvious differences between two such texts has been offered. This project, The Ethics of American Realism: 1860-1910 adds to conversations about American realism by working through these particular issues. Specifically, it examines how realist texts are rhetorically deployed in order to explain both the coherence of the genre and its inconsistencies. Chapters of this dissertation include discussions concerning the writings of William Dean Howells, Rebecca Harding Davis, Henry James, Emile Zola, and Frank Norris. Throughout, it argues that the uses to which realist texts are put and the ethics that drive these uses provide a framework through which scholars of American literature can define the genre. Theoretically speaking, The Ethics of American Realism: 1860-1910 situates itself as a bridge between literary critical approaches to realism and rhetorical approaches to literature, re-casting American realist novels as rhetorical acts that have been designed to work in the “real” world and rightly positioning ethics at the center of the realist project. Keywords: realism, naturalism, genre, rhetoric, ethics.

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