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Conscience and Purpose, Conscience and Purpose, 0817314849, 0-8173-1484-9, 978-0-8173-1484-2, 9780817314842,

Conscience and Purpose
Fiction and Social Consciousness in Howells, Jewett, Chesnutt, and Cather

Trade Cloth
2005. 232 pp.
978-0-8173-1484-2
Price:  $39.95 s

Explores literature's social mission at the turn of the century as defined by William Dean Howells and practiced by him and others.

In a series of influential essays that appeared in Harper’s, W. D. Howells argued for literature as a vehicle for social change. Literature could and should, Howells suggested, mediate across divisions of class and region, fostering cross-cultural sympathies that would lead to comprehensive social and ethical reform.

Paul R. Petrie explores the legacy of Howells’s beliefs as they manifest themselves in Howell’s fiction and in the works of three major American writers--Charles W. Chesnutt, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Willa Cather. Each author struggled to adapt Howells’s social-ethical agenda for literature to his or her own aesthetic goals and to alternative conceptions of literary purpose. Jewett not only embraced Howells’s sense of social mission but also extended it by documenting commonplace cultural realities in a language and vision that was spiritual and transcendent. Chesnutt sought to improve relations between Anglo readers and African Americans, but his work, such as The Conjure Woman, also questions literature’s ability to repair those divides.

Finally, Petrie shows how Cather, as she shifted from journalism to fiction, freed herself from Howells’s influence. Alexander’s Bridge (1912) and O Pioneers! (1913) both make reference to social and material realities but only as groundwork for character portrayals that are mythic and heroic. The result of Petrie’s exploration is a refreshing reassessment of Howells’s legacy and its impact on American literature and social history at the turn of the century.



Paul R. Petrie is Associate Professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University where he has taught American Literature since 1998.

“This work’s originality resides in its resurrection of and careful, well-crafted response to the issue of social ethics and realistic practice in Howells. . . . Its readings are soundly argued, sensible, and convincing; they provide a refreshing look at works rarely considered together."--Donna M. Campbell, author of Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915

"Informed by postmodern deconstructions of authorial intent and textual referentiality, this book argues for reexamining writers who work to change the attitudes and extra-literary behavior of their readers. Petrie (Southern Connecticut State Univ.) characterizes William Dean Howells as the most influential exponent of a 'social-ethical aesthetic' that employs mimetic social representation to mediate among Americans fractured by capitalism, urbanization, and industrialization, and he examines works that enact, revise, and (in Cather's case) reject this agenda. The author asserts that the formal inconclusiveness of Howells's The Minister's Charge, Annie Kilburn, and The Vacation of the Kelwyns reveals the intractability of class privilege, even among those who have become painfully aware of it. Jewett moves beyond acute yet 'linear' social description of rural Maine to fashion an 'evocative, symbolic reader-participatory reading experience,' in which the 'transcendent' merges with the material. In Conjure Woman, Chesnutt uses the interplay among his narrators to engage his audience in an indirect critique of contemporary American attitudes on race and to show the limits of such mediation. O Pioneers!, however, exemplifies Cather's use of regional material to serve a "mythic-idealistic aesthetic." Though one might quibble with particular emphases, the book is well argued and nicely researched. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty."
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