Echoes of Emerson: Rethinking Realism in Twain, James, Wharton, and Cather

Echoes of Emerson: Rethinking Realism in Twain, James, Wharton, and Cather

by Diana Hope Polley

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Winner of the 2018 Robert Penn Warren—Cleanth  Brooks Award for Outstanding Literary Scholarship and Criticism” from the Center for Robert Penn Warren Studies at Western Kentucky University

Probes the ways in which two major periods in nineteenth-century American literature—Romanticism and Realism—have come to be understood and defined.

Echoes of Emerson: Rethinking Realism in Twain, James, Wharton, and Cather traces the complex and unexplored relationship between American realism and the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Critics often read American realism as a clear disavowal of earlier American romantic philosophy and as a commitment to recognizing the stark realities of a new postbellum order. Diana Hope Polley’s study complicates these traditional assumptions by reading American realism as an ongoing dialogue with the ideas—often idealisms—of America’s greatest romantic philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In this illuminating work, Polley offers detailed readings of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia—all through the lens of Emersonian philosophy and discourse. This unique contribution to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary studies shows how these texts revisit Emerson’s antebellum “republic of the spirit” philosophy, specifically the trope of the Emersonian hero/heroine navigating the harsh contingencies of the modern world.

Romanticism and realism are often seen as opposing binaries, with romanticism celebrating the individual, self-reliance, and nature and realism emphasizing the weight of socio-historical forces. Realism is often characterized as rejecting the transcendent principles of Emersonian thought. Rather than accept those distinct boundaries between romance and realism, Polley argues that American realists struggled between celebrating Emerson’s core philosophies of individual possibility and acknowledging the stark “realities” of American social and historical life. In short, this study recognizes within realism a divided loyalty between two historical trends and explores how these seemingly contradictory notions—Emerson’s romantic philosophy and later nineteenth-century visions of historical reality—exist, simultaneously, within the literature of the period.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817319564
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 10/17/2017
Series: Amer Lit Realism & Naturalism Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 360.00(d)

About the Author

Diana Hope Polley is professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, University College.

Read an Excerpt


Mark Twain's

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance," Essays


On December 17, 1877, at the Hotel Brunswick in Boston, Mark Twain spoke at a dinner celebration commemorating both the seventieth birthday of John Greenleaf Whittier and the twentieth anniversary of the Atlantic Monthly. Among the sixty guests were three leading American literary figures: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The short speech given by Twain and directed at these three eminent figures would haunt the comic genius for years to come. He would later write in his autobiography: "When I sat down [from speaking] it was with a heart which had long ceased to beat. I shall never be as dead again as I was then. I shall never be as miserable again as I was then" (266).

William Dean Howells had begun by introducing Twain as "a humorist who never makes you blush to have enjoyed his joke" (qtd. in Smith 151). The "humorist" then proceeded to spin a yarn about his encounter with a middle-aged miner thirteen years earlier, during an "inspection tramp through the southern mines of California" (Twain, Autobiography 261). Twain's story may be summarized as follows: the year is 1864, and it is early evening when Twain knocks "at a miner's lonely log cabin in the foot-hills of the Sierras" (261). A weary, barefoot man answers the door and looks particularly depressed when he hears the visitor introduce himself with his nom de plume, "Mark Twain." The frustrated older man informs his young visitor: "You're the fourth ... littery man that's been here in twenty-four hours — I'm a-going to move." The miner continues to explain that three rough and drunken "littery" men by the names of Mr. Emerson, Mr. Longfellow, and Mr. Holmes dropped by the evening before, much as Twain has just done. The miner complains that these men ate his food, drank his liquor, gambled, and stole his boots:

They came here just at dark yesterday evening, and I let them in of course. Said they were going to Yosemite. They were a rough lot. ... Mr. Emerson was a seedy little bit of a chap, red headed. Mr. Holmes was as fat as a balloon. ... Mr. Longfellow was built like a prize fighter. ... They had been drinking; I could see that. And what queer talk they used! Mr. Holmes inspected this cabin, then he took me by the buttonhole, and says he —

"Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings;
Says I, "I can't afford it, Mr. Holmes, and moreover I don't want to." Blamed if I liked it pretty well, either, coming from a stranger, that way. However, I started to get out my bacon and beans, when Mr. Emerson came and looked on a while, and then he takes me aside by the buttonhole and says —

"Give me agates for my meat;
Says I, "Mr. Emerson, if you'll excuse me, this ain't no hotel." ... When I woke at seven, they were leaving, thank goodness, and Mr. Longfellow had my only boots on, and his own under his arm. Says I, "Hold on there, Evangeline, what are you going to do with them?" He says: "Going to make tracks with 'em, because —

Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime;
As I said, Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in twenty-four hours — and I'm a-going to move; I ain't suited to a littery atmosphere.

When Mr. Twain suggests that, perhaps, these men were impostors, the miner pauses and replies: "Ah! impostors, were they? are you?" (261–64).

Despite the comic brilliance of his speech, Twain proved Howells wrong: he later recalled that the faces of those in the audience not only blushed but "turned to a sort of black frost. ... It was the sort of expression that faces would have worn if I had been making these remarks about the Deity and the rest of the Trinity; there is no milder way in which to describe the petrified condition and the ghastly expression of those people" (265–66). As for the honorees, Henry Nash Smith says that "Emerson paid little attention to it. Whittier, Longfellow, and Holmes seemed politely amused, but were slightly baffled and uncomfortable" (155). Newspaper accounts differed as to the extent of the damage, but most agreed that the joke had failed. Twain himself later reported, with his trademark satirical humor: "All Boston shuddered for several days. All gaieties ceased, all festivities; even the funerals were without animation" (Autobiography 267). Twain knew, in the words of Ron Powers, that he had made a "shining ... ass of himself" (409). For the next thirty years, Twain would waver on whether this "unhappy episode" had been caused by bad delivery, poor taste, or an unappreciative audience (Autobiography 264).

While critics often mention this incident in passing, few emphasize the symbolic importance of the speech and its reception. The dinner celebration and the Twain speech that accompanied it, however, represent a pivotal moment of transition between American realism and its romantic literary predecessor. Twain's joke brilliantly reveals, both within the tale itself and within the realm of its delivery and reception, the growing chasm between the burgeoning author and three aging literary sages. Just as the miner is unable to understand the romantic metaphors (the "queer talk") of his rude "littery" guests, so Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes, in their "baffled" response to the joke, cannot seem to make sense of Twain's own "queer talk." By 1877 American literary sensibilities were shifting. Twain's joke reflects this emerging interpretive gap.

In many ways, the miner represents the new philosophy of American realism. First, he symbolizes Howells's idea of the aesthetic of the common. Far from the genteel elite of New England, this working-class miner from the West does not represent "the romantic, the bizarre, the heroic, the distinguished," but rather speaks to Howells's call that the "arts ... become democratic" (Criticism 67); he is a photographic portrait of an expanding, transforming nation. Second, the miner does not understand romantic metaphors, only literal truths. He is tricked because he is incapable of fully understanding the poets' abstruse language. In a sense, Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes have succeeded in using romantic poetry to manipulate the miner — or, in the words of Kimberly W. Benston, to "trope-a-dope" (qtd. in Gates 52). Richard S. Lowry points out that Twain's joke inverts "the vernacular paradigm, in which literary texts commonly highlight the rich strangeness of colloquial speech. Instead, it is poetry that intrudes as fragments of an inscrutable and ultimately irrelevant world" (34). In ways quite similar to his realistic use of vernacular in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain uses the miner's language as the linguistic norm, against which the romantic maxims of Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes appear foreign and alienating. Finally, the miner's central concerns in this tale are those ordinary needs the realists viewed as primary, specifically those of mundane daily concerns. The miner cares little for "stately mansions" or "footprints on the sands of Time," but he does care for the food on his plate, the whiskey in his glass, and the boots on his feet.

Inherent in this linguistic conflict is a clear stab at Emerson and his romantic associates, a stab not only at their language but also at their values. In spite of its seeming light humor, the joke mocks both the poets' arrogance and their distance from the "real" issues of their fellow countrymen. Lawrence Buell maintains that after the Civil War Emerson began to replace Washington Irving as the "father of Anglo-American literature" (142). This claim is supported by early postbellum writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis, who describes Emerson in her autobiography as "the first of living men. He was the modern Moses who had talked with God apart and could interpret Him to us" (42). Twain was ridiculing men who, according to Davis, were not only national heroes but were regarded as divine mediators. His joke implied that these godly writers had forgotten the common man and that their message no longer resonated with many Americans, now ready to embrace that more prosaic and gritty reality. Although Twain may not have intended it, his joke spoke for a new generation of writers, who criticized the romantic bombast of their literary predecessors and expressed a willingness to create a new language, a new literature.

To stop here, however, is to miss the struggle embodied in this literary shift. Twain may have acted as a saboteur that evening, but his actions were conflicted and reluctant at best. One obvious conflict involves Twain's own self-mockery. After all, his jab is not only directed at the three romantic poets but also at the miner and at "Mr. Twain" himself. The poets trick the miner with their romantic language; as such, the miner is presented as simple and naive. Yet, the miner gets the last laugh by suggesting that "Mr. Twain" may be as much an impostor as his three "littery" visitors. The miner's last words implicate Twain in the offenses of the earlier intruders, place him in that same subject position, and deny him the removed literary position that he assumes. Given that Twain and Howells were dining that evening with the so-called "impostors," in mutual celebration, the miner's rhetorical question seems particularly apt. Although realists sought to repudiate romantic forms by embracing the aesthetic of the common, the joke's ending ironically questions the cultural distance between these two "littery" trends.

The irony seeps beyond the level of the story and the outer frame of its reception to the dinner as a whole. Twain's job that night was to celebrate not only Whittier but also the Atlantic Monthly. The celebration thus honored both literary movements: the life of one of America's most important romantic cultural figures and the literary accomplishments of a leading American magazine that — with the introduction of Howells in 1871 as editor — had helped foster the birth of American realism. Twain was simultaneously celebrating a passing and an emerging cultural moment; while he poked fun at those earlier American literary giants, he also revered them.

In fact, the most extreme reactions to the tale came from Howells — who called it "the ghastliest funeral since the Crucifixion"— and from Twain himself, two central representatives of this nascent literary trend (qtd. in Everett Emerson 110). Despite even the cruelest newspaper accounts of the event, such as those by the Republican, Twain's response to his speech seems a bit melodramatic. Later that year, he wrote to Howells: "My sense of disgrace does not abate. It grows. I see that it is going to add itself to my list of permanencies — a list of humiliations that extends back to when I was seven years old. ... I must have been insane when I wrote that speech & saw no harm in it, no disrespect toward those men whom I reverenced so much" (qtd. in Bush, "Mythic" 58). Twain looked back at the Atlantic Monthly dinner as a low point in his literary career. And Howells, even as late as the 1910 publication of My Mark Twain, still called the moment "the amazing mistake, the bewildering blunder, the cruel catastrophe" (51). Clearly, Howells and Twain viewed these romantic poets and New England sages as untouchable, beyond the grasp of such biting humor.

It is difficult to fathom the dialogic extremes involved in the joke and its aftermath. How can one attempt to make sense of the crisp humor of Twain's joke and the elaborate self-abuse that followed? Such a question may seem poised for deconstruction, but this conflict never actually reaches any logical impasse. Instead, the cultural conflict is best understood through the lens of Bakhtin. Here the binary threads of critique and worship, and — on a larger scale — the residual and emerging literary trends of romance and realism, come together to form a "double-voiced discourse." The threads, Bakhtin contends, are "dialogically interrelated ...; it is as if they actually hold a conversation with each other" (324). Such dialogic discourse is what helps to define American realism. As with Twain's celebratory dinner speech, the American realists insist on addressing what David E. Shi labels "the concrete facts and visible realities" of a changing America, but they do so almost reluctantly, not quite willing to let go of the values of an older, more romantic tradition (3).

Huck Finn is an extension of this duality. In particular, the novel represents a troubling late-nineteenth-century conflict between American philosophy and experience. With the introduction of Mathew Brady's photographs of Civil War battlefield casualties, Darwin's new scientific theories, and industrialism's growing claim on Americans' daily lives, it became more and more difficult for literature to avoid the literal, tangible truths that Americans witnessed. Howells's philosophy of American realism emanated from these facts. He argued that it was time for writers to record life not simply according to their ideals but as they saw it: "what is unpretentious and what is true is always beautiful and good, and nothing else is so" (Criticism 9–10). In many ways, Twain's novel is representative of Howells's philosophy. Yet, while the text supports Howells's claims, it also pays tribute to Emerson's earlier transcendental philosophy. As with Twain's joke at the Atlantic Monthly dinner, both historical-literary models exist simultaneously.

Twain offers a fascinating narrative experiment: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn becomes the story of an Emersonian character who sets out to confront the empirical world. Huck Finn is Emerson's self-reliant "little boy" who now struggles to find a home where, "in the midst of the crowd" (Emerson, "Self-Reliance" 261), he can keep "with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude" (263). Huck comes to embody Georg Lukács's notion of "transcendental homelessness," defined as the "inadequacy that is due to the soul's being wider and larger than the destinies which life has to offer it" (112). According to Lukács, it is a "legitimate desire" for writers to "create, by purely artistic means, a reality which corresponds to this ... utopian longing of the soul." He nonetheless calls such a fictional reality "an illusory solution" and questions "whether the ability to imagine a better world can be ethically justified" (115). It is precisely this ethical problem that Huck Finn (and, indeed, all of the realist novels discussed in my book) attempts to address: Twain invents a unique, vibrant, and authentic Emersonian hero but also refuses to "create, by purely artistic means, a reality which corresponds to" his protagonist's spirit.


In Life on the Mississippi, Twain fiercely criticizes Walter Scott, condemning his brand of "girly-girly romance" (303) as "in great measure responsible for the [Civil War]" (304). He defends his hyperbolic assertion by highlighting the ruinous influence Scott's literature had on antebellum Southern culture; he blames Scott for setting "the world in love with dreams and phantoms ... with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote" (303–4). Twain berates Scott's literary sentimentality, which he claims irresponsibly avoids reality in order to construct "fantastic heroes and their grotesque 'chivalry' doings and romantic juvenilities" (270). According to Twain, Scott dangerously filled the minds of antebellum Southerners with false ideas and abandoned empirical fact for the sake of fantasy. Most of all, Twain reinforces the responsibility of writers to tell the truth.

His quips on Scott are complemented by his criticism of James Fenimore Cooper. In his 1895 essay titled "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," Twain claims that Cooper, in his novel The Deerslayer, violates eighteen "rules governing literary art." Among these "rules" are the necessity to "say what he [the author] is proposing to say, not merely come near it," to "use the right word, not its second cousin," and to "employ a simple and straightforward style" (671). In addition to his biting analysis of Cooper's style, Twain incorporates a rather severe attack on Cooper's treatment of nature: "If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature's ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed out the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person's moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases-no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader" (672). Although a brilliant jest on Cooper's literary blunder, Twain's tone is clearly disparaging, and his humor only thinly veils the rather deep offense he takes at Cooper's violation of these "eternal laws of Nature."


Excerpted from "Echoes of Emerson"
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 14

2 Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady 40

3 Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth 79

4 Willa Cather's My Antonia no Epilogue 135

Notes 145

Works Cited 157

Index 169

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