Dispatches | November 27, 2006

For this and one or two other blogs I’m going to speculate about what might be called the slowly decreasing physicality of the novel.

For its first 150 years, the novel was a humble medium.  Novels were dramatic — often melodramatic — treatments of physical, practical struggles.  Samuel Richardson, author of the first modern novel, was a printer who took time off from preparing a how-to book about letter writing to compose Pamela, (1740-42), an epistolary tale about a servant caught in a tense seduction crisis with her male employer.  The readers of novels — then, as now — proved to be more women than men, and the struggles of women were a natural subject of the new genre.  Jane Austen’s heroines were middle-class girls and women with a tentative grasp on economic respectability, negotiating the hazardous marriage marketplace.

But whether it was Jane Eyre working for a volatile, dangerous employer, David Copperfield pasting labels on bottles in a warehouse, or Emile Zola’s coal miners or department store workers, the classic nineteenth-century protagonist was fighting for survival, respect, and position in the world.  The developing novel’s roots reached downward in the social strata, revealing the lives of the disenfranchised, which was one of the reasons why this form of entertainment had a serious edge and an expanding appeal.

After the Civil War, several of the better American novelists wrote about occupation, class, social values, and money.  Long-time editor of The Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells published the work of other realists, as well as writing his own fact-laden tales of real life.  One of his best-remembered novels, A Hazard of New Fortunes, suggested in its title the classic theme of the early novel in general: the search for some point of congruence between money and morals, fortune and fate, individuality and survival within a flawed society.

There are of course examples from later decades — such as Ellen Glasgow’s 1925 Barren Ground, which is a vigorous, balanced portrait of a rural woman with hard-driving ambition. Novels about the lives of working people were published during the 1930s, when writers identified with the rising labor movement and the causes of the lower class.  Jack Conroy’s 1933 novel The Disinherited followed the lives of Midwestern laborers during the Depression.  John Steinbeck’s 1936 novel In Dubious Battle, concerned a labor strike.  Edward Dahlberg, Mike Gold, and Tom Kromer dealt with those who were at the bottom of the economic heap, lumpenproletarians — new immigrants, people without roots who were lucky to hustle an occasional job. 

Yet during the 1920s, something had happened that marked the beginning of the novel’s shift away from the practical world — which I’ll discuss in my next blog.