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Exchanging naivety for doubtfulness

On Wednesday Oct. 25, the English department sponsored a colloquium featuring Rafael Walker, visiting professor of English at UMBC. Walker’s interest in American and African American literature inspires his projects, one of which was the focus of this particular colloquium. Walker shared his intellect on “How American Novelists Remade Literary Realism.”

Literary realism sprouted after the Civil War. Realism, characterized by themes apparent in average reality such as greed, socioeconomic class and/or gender limitations, was entirely a rejection of literary Romanticism. Writers like Henry James and Dean Howells made Realism infamous.

Most believe literary Realism to have faded at the end of the nineteenth century, but Walker argues heavily against this belief. He says the second generation of writers made Realism a “vibrant movement to transform classical traditions,” and so, his speech focused on writers who were less well-known, yet embodied the movement just as skillfully as their predecessors.

Robert Grant’s “Unleavened Bread” is a gem of the Realism movement. The novel follows a woman, Selma White, whose sole mission in life is to develop her soul. Walker described White’s obsession as a “concern for process rather than product.” It is interesting that Grant used a woman to depict this strive for self-development considering that gender roles were extremely strict when the novel was written.

Self-transformation, Walker describes, is motivated by a difference in who a person is and who society wants him/her to be. This means that self-transformation worked to further American society from individualism. Realism confronts this tradition in American culture and sometimes finds mockery in it. For example, Grant wrote Selma to find herself ambitious until her lack of success causes her passion to fade – a common American characteristic.

Walker also touched on Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams. With this novel, Tarkington suggested that other Realistic novelists are naive. This is because some Realistic novelists would accurately depict reality then write their protagonists to overcome these social laws. Tarkington, however, openly made his characters vulnerable to social injustices.

Alice Adams of Tarkington’s novel was described as a social failure. To confirm this, Tarkington described her in association with African Americans who were highly discriminated towards at the time. Alice was written to be draped in black, from her eye color to her dress. Alice’s father had a low-paying job at a factory, so she was subject to many socioeconomic limitations.

Tarkington’s novel, although a considered a Realism piece, paralleled Victorian literature given that it carried a tone of darkness and helplessness. The issues fictional Alice suffered were very common in reality, and the novel reflected a time during which the American Dream was beginning to be questioned, one of Tarkington’s goals in composing the novel.

The aim of Realism is to embody reality so perfectly that it lures the reader’s attention to how imperfect reality truly is, as well as to prompt the reader to doubt their peers, their leaders, their beliefs and their entire reality.

Realistic writers confront these unjust societal laws and criticize their acceptance. They are, in Walker’s terminology, “the liberal individuals of political philosophy.” With their words, their positions surpassed societal beliefs and grew successful: question everything.