Theses Doctoral

Picturing Reality: American Literary Realism and the Model of Painting, 1875-1900

Roberts, Zachary John

Picturing Reality proposes new literary historical and art historical contexts for the development of American literary realism in the late nineteenth century. While studies of American literary realism have tended to emphasize the importance of social, political, and cultural contexts in determining the forms and aims of realist representation, Picturing Reality demonstrates the importance of aesthetic contexts for a realist art of fiction. In particular, this project proposes that painting served as a model for the development of American realist fiction of the late nineteenth century that aspired to achieve the status of art because it offered a compelling model for reconciling the aspirations of prose writing to be artistic with the requirements that it be realistic. Painting served as a creative inspiration, a conceptual template, and a practical example for the development of an art of literary realism at a time when realist writing was more often seen to be anything but a fine art. The development of an art of realist fiction was to a large extent predicated on the degree to which extended narratives in prose could “picture” in order to represent dimensions of reality that had been resistant to representation by traditional narrative forms.
Picturing Reality demonstrates this influence through the writings of four American writers – William Dean Howells, Henry James, Hamlin Garland, and Sarah Orne Jewett – all of whom used painting as a model for understanding themselves as realist artists. The model of painting served each of these writers in unique and idiosyncratic ways, but in all cases the sense that it was the task of the novelist or writer of prose to “picture reality” had a pervasive influence on the form, style, and content of their works. By reading broadly and deeply in their critical and fictional body of work, and by reading reviews and critiques of contemporary critics, as well as the work of other writers and artists who served as both models or obstacles for the development of an art of realism, this project seeks to situate these four writers in their literary historical and art historical contexts. In the first chapter, I show the difficulties William Dean Howells faced as he sought to make an art of realism, and suggest that American Pre-Raphaelitism furnished a model by which realistic representation could satisfy the eye of both the scientist and the artist – a model that could be adapted to the form of the realist novel. In the second chapter, I examine Henry James’s early aesthetic education among writers associated with the art journal The Crayon, as well as among painters such as William Morris Hunt and John La Farge, and look at his early career as an art reviewer in order to demonstrate the depth and breadth of painting’s influence on James’s subsequent art of fiction. In the third chapter I demonstrate the ways in which Impressionist painting informed Hamlin Garland’s theory of local color fiction and served as a model for his sketches and stories. And in the fourth chapter I demonstrate the ways in which Sarah Orne Jewett sought to create a form of local color writing in which vivid description and word-painting would take precedence over plot-driven narrative by showing Jewett’s own complex relationship to painting – particularly watercolors. For all these writers, painting served as a complex – and ultimately ambivalent – model for the development of an art of realist fiction.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Posnock, Ross
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 13, 2018