Documents of Modern Literary Realism
“Realism” is a boring term now, fit only for textbooks. There are people who still use it with interest. But these are either literary scholars, who are concerned with the history of ideas, the history of forms, the history of a common way of seeing reality (which is what a literary movement represents)—or propagandists for art-with-a-purpose. No intelligent novelist worries about “realism” any more; what it stood for in the 19th century has long since been absorbed into even the most indifferent and machine-produced literary entertainment for the masses. And when “realism” is used to denote a positive ideal, as it is by people more interested in sociology than in literature, it is difficult to repress one’s indignation at the thought of what “realism” in the Soviet Union, where it is not a literary creed but the state religion, has done to honest writers.
Why then bother with “realism” today? Why read and review an anthology of this bulk, laden with thoughts on realism by all those 19th-century writers, Russian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, English, American, for whom “realism” was a lively issue? The answer is that the interest in “realism” has been an interest in the novel. The novel is nothing without “real life”; the novel has always, whether supported by “realistic” doctrine or not, been synonymous with realism; the novel, even in our day, when so many literary minds are expressly against realism as a doctrine, seems to break down whenever there is not vital enough or consistent enough a sense of “reality.” Even the most pretentious and boding epistemological French novelists of the new wave don’t seem to be able to write fiction or even to talk about fiction except in relation to “realism.” For realism and the novel grew out of the same need to describe and indeed to systematize our literary ideas of the external world. Realism and the novel had the same roots in the “modern,” sceptical, thing-concerned instrumentalist world. Works completely “romantic” are not novels, they are romances; no matter how much there is of romance in a novel by Cooper or Scott or Melville, the relationship to the agreed-upon and sensible external world is unmistakable.
It is true, as Professor George Becker says in his comprehensive introduction to realism as a movement, that “realism rarely, if ever, dominated and controlled a whole work before the middle of the 19th century; rather it was controlled and its functioning directed by the official aesthetic doctrine of a given time and place, which was never before realistic.” But the novel with its peculiar openness—to the life of crowds, groups, streets; to erotic detail; to adventures and journeyings; to low life; to thieves and prostitutes; to politics, scandal, war, the stock exchange, the factory, the fields, the labor exchange, the hiring hall—would never have emerged as the great modern form, the almost inevitable destination that prose takes whenever it wants to make things really explicit by dramatizing them, if it had not emerged from the same…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.