American Literature and Social Change: William Dean Howells by Michael Spindler

By Michael Spindler

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Extra info for American Literature and Social Change: William Dean Howells to Arthur Miller

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Since, he claimed, 'it needs a complex social machinery to set a writer in motion' , the simple, egalitarian, homogeneous society of the 1840s did not provide an author with sufficient density or variety of experience for him to be a literary realist. 2 By the 1880s and 1900s , however, the relatively thin and even society of Hawthorne's day had given way as a result of capitalistic development to one characterised like European social structures by extreme stratification and the possession of most of those previously absent 'items of high civilisation' , as James termed them.

While Spencer himself argued only for a parallelism between the organic world and the 'su per -organic' world of human society, derivative writers conflated the parallelism into a complete identification. 12 As a part of nature men were under the sway of huge impersonal forces and inexorable laws, and consequently, so the argument went, men in general and businessmen in particular could not be held responsible for the ways of capitalism or the state of society. In The Octopus Shelgrim, the railroad king, expresses this viewpoint in an important speech .

During this period the inner-directed became the dominant character-type since it was particularly suited to a 32 The Production- Oriented Phase society 'characterized by increased personal mobility, by a rapid accumulation of capital (teamed with devastating technological shifts) , and by an almost constant expansion: intensive expansion in the production of goods and people , and extensive expansion in exploration, colonization, and imperialism' . Such a claim for the dominance of a single character-type in the productionoriented phase is a gross generalisation, of course.

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