The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XI. The Later Novel: Howells

§ 23. The Eighties

Hawthorne and Mrs. Stowe, romance and sentiment, had divided first honours in American fiction during the twenty years 1850–1870; the seventies belonged primarily to the short story of the school of Bret Harte. The novel of that decade, thus a little neglected, profited in at least one respect: it ceased to be the form of fiction on which all beginners tried their pens and passed rather into the hands of men whose eyes looked a little beyond easy conquests and an immediate market. This fact, with the rapid growth of the artistic conscience in the cosmopolitanizing years which followed the Civil War, serves to explain in part the remarkable florescence, the little renaissance of fiction in the eighties. The short story may specially claim Bret Harte, Aldrich, Stockton, Bunner, Rose Terry Cooke, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Cable, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Charles Egbert Craddock, Johnston, Page, and Joel Chandler Harris,—though they all wrote novels of merit,—because their talents were for pungency, fancy, brevity. But to the novel of the decade three of the five major American novelists, Mark Twain, Howells, Henry James, contributed their greatest triumphs; then appeared Ben-Hur, for a good while rivalled in popularity by Judge Albion Winegar Tourgee’s A Fool’s Errand (1879), a fiery document upon Reconstruction in the South; and there were such diverse pieces as Edward Bellamy’s much-read Utopian romance Looking Backward (1888), dainty exotics like Blanche Willis Howard’s Guenn A Wave on the Breton Coast (1884) and Arthur Sherburne Hardy’s Passe Rose (1889), E. W. Howe’s grim The Story of a Country Town (1883), Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884), passionately pleading the cause of the Indians of California, Miss Woolson’s East Angels (1886), just less than a classic, Henry Adams’s Democracy (1880) and John Hay’s The Bread-Winners (1884), excursions into fiction of two men whose largest gifts lay elsewhere, the earlier army novels of General Charles King, and the earlier detective stories of Anna Katharine Green (Rohlfs). As a rule these novels seem more deftly built than the novels of the sixties or seventies, more sophisticated. People talked somewhat less than formerly about “The Great American Novel,” that strange eidolon so clearly descended from the large aspirations of men like Timothy Dwight and Joel Barlow but by 1850 thought of less as an epic which should enshrine the national past than as a great prose performance reflecting the national present.