- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003


By Susan Goodman

Johns Hopkins University Press, $40, 198 pages


One of the chief activities of literary historians down through the ages has been the making of categories. How else would we be able to compare “traditionalism” with “modernism,” tell “satire” from “burlesque,” the “baroque” from the “rococo,” or weigh the competing claims of “realism” and “romanticism”? But categories can be misleading, blinding us to the rich and complex qualities of any artistic enterprise.

The term, “a novel of manners,” is a case in point. We may invoke it to indicate the difference between “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Moby Dick.” Or “Vanity Fair” and “The Call of the Wild.” Or even “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre.” And yet, and yet. Although less focused on social nuances than Jane Austen, the outspoken Charlotte Bronte — and even her still more unconventional sister Emily — are also concerned with social codes and the ways in which their characters obey, misread, challenge, or ignore them. Thus, in some sense, it could be said that most novels are novels of manners.

This broader, more inclusive definition of manners and the novel of manners is the working premise of Susan Goodman’s interesting new book, “Civil Wars: American Novelists and Manners, 1880-1940.” A professor of English at the University of Delaware, she begins her study of six American novelists by reminding us that one of them, Edith Wharton, refused even to “recognize a substantive distinction between novels and novelists of manners.”

Ms. Goodman wants to take issue with the prevalent belief, promulgated by “Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century and Lionel Trilling in the twentieth, that the United States has neither the rich past nor the stratification of classes required to produce a novelist of manners.”

On the contrary, Ms. Goodman aims to show the many ways in which American novelists have scrutinized the norms of everyday life for clues about character, history, morality, social change, and national identity.

The historical period covered in her book, 1880-1940, was a time of transformation that had many Americans wondering about their national identity, as their nation emerged from the travails of the Civil War to take its place as a vigorous, yet in many eyes, unformed presence on the world stage.

The novelists she has chosen to examine are, in chronological order, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, and Jessie Fauset, all in some sense realists, but each with distinct ways of perceiving reality and presenting it in their fiction.

A self-educated Midwesterner who came to wield enormous influence in his day as editor of the Atlantic Monthly and later, Harper’s, William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was also a prolific novelist himself, operating “on the principle that nothing was too common or paltry a subject for fiction.”

In Ms. Goodman’s view, Howells understood “the political and commercial significance of manners … He understood that the tipping of a hat brim might betray an entire system of power.” As a champion of a certain kind of social realism, Howells was a prescient observer of some of the larger trends in society and culture.

In novels like “A Modern Instance” (1882), “The Rise of Silas Lapham” (1885), and “A Hazard of New Fortunes” (1890), Howells suggested that institutions like the press actually shape rather than reflect society, foreseeing a time when “people will consult the tabloids to know how they feel and think.” Already he discerned the ways in which the media culture of his day was blurring the line between the “masses” and the “classes.” His hope was that the masses might rise to the level of the classes; his fear was that the classes would sink to the level of the masses.

Examining the case of Henry James (1843-1916), Ms. Goodman focuses on what this longtime expatriate wrote after paying what proved a rather disorienting return visit to his native land in 1904. Published three years later, his account of “The American Scene” reflects his bewildered disapproval of a country where no one seemed to know — or really much care — how to behave, unless in the immediate interest of self-advancement and financial gain. Yet although James deplored the lack of manners, he also seems to have recognized the pointlessness of hastily acquired, inauthentic manners, which could not be a true reflection or distillation of moral and cultural tradition.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) saw beyond national identity to envision a kind of benignly elitist world culture shared by right-thinking, like-minded people of all times and places.

Yet she also saw French culture as the apotheosis of all good things, a position rather at odds with her transnational idealism, as Ms. Goodman rightly notes.

Ms. Goodman characterizes Willa Cather (1873-1947) as a novelist who portrays a world in the continual process of flux, where manners are often a code that protects vested interests, but sometimes are the genuine manifestations of our finer sense of obligation to others. Discussing “Sapphira and the Slave Girl” (1940), Ms. Goodman observes: “The novel raises an interesting question about the relationship of manners and systems of oppression. To be sure, manners work to keep people in their place. They dignify the immorality of slavery,” yet “they make the better-mannered Nancy [the slave girl] Sapphira’s [her jealous mistress] superior.”

Not surprisingly, Ms. Goodman, who is the author of a biography of Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945), is particularly knowledgeable and persuasive when she turns her attention to this fascinating and admirable Virginia writer. A self-proclaimed “historian of manners,” Glasgow pointed out the gap between manners and morality. At a time when the overwhelming majority of Southern writers were painting nostalgic, rose-colored pictures of the Old South and its ongoing legacy of sexism and racism masked as “chivalry,” Glasgow’s socially and psychologically acute novels were exposing the unpleasant truths beneath that false, self-serving, and willfully self-deluding veneer.

One of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Jessie Fauset (1882-1961), served as literary editor of “The Crisis” in the 1920s, where she helped foster the careers of writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston. In the four novels she wrote in the 1920s and early 1930s — “There Is Confusion,” “Plum Bun,” “The Chinaberry Tree,” and “Comedy: American Style”— Fauset dealt with such topics as life among the black middle-classes, racial prejudice, miscegenation, and blacks who opt to “pass” for white.

Often accused of “elitism,” Fauset (like William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton and, indeed, anyone with an ounce of common sense) believed every individual should be free to emulate and pursue “the best.”

Indubitably a novelist of manners (an early reader likened her to Jane Austen), Fauset illuminated some of the central conundrums of racism: In choosing to pass for white, a character like Angela Murray of “Plum Bun” is trying to lead a fuller, freer life. The act of passing, in Ms. Goodman’s words, “protests … the distillation of a hundred selves into one self defined solely by color.” Fauset’s heroine aims to liberate her multiple selves from the single — and misleading — identity imposed from without.

Yet Angela’s fateful decision to pass also serves to confirm the prejudice that whiteness is better than blackness. Ironically and sadly, Angela’s attempt to evade the constraints of racial prejudice is also a tacit acknowledgment of the legitimacy of race as a category. And of course, the ambitious and aspiring Angela pays a price from the very start in cutting herself off from her own people so as not to arouse the suspicions of her new white friends.

Ms. Goodman’s discussions of Howells, Glasgow, and Fauset are particularly cogent. Her chapters on Wharton and Cather are a little too nebulous. In the case of James, her focus is too narrow to take in the complexity of his overall achievement. But her book as a whole succeeds in reminding us of the surprising extent to which questions of manners have preoccupied American novelists and Americans in general.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in California.

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