Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 27. Reactions from Official Realism; Rococo Romance

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

§ 27. Reactions from Official Realism; Rococo Romance

In the eighties realism was the dominant creed in fiction, which in practice followed its creed somewhat closely, with exceptions, of course, among the purely popular novelists like Roe and General Wallace. The same decade, however, saw the beginnings of two movements which became marked in the nineties, both of them natural outcomes of the official realism of Howells and James. One led, by reaction, to the rococo type of historical romance which flourished enormously at the end of the century; and the other to the harsher naturalism which shook off the decorums of the first realists, contended with the historical romancers, first succumbed to them, and then succeeded them in power and favour. The historical tendency, less than the naturalistic a matter of doctrine, came at first from the South and West: from writers who painted the amiable colours of antebellum plantation life—Cable, Page, Joel Chandler Harris; or from California, from writers who tried to catch the charm of old Spanish days—Bret Harte and Helen Hunt Jackson; or from the Mississippi Valley, from writers who, thanks to Parkman, had discovered the richness and variety of the French règime there—Constance Fenimore Woolson and Mary Hartwell Catherwood. Of all these Mrs. Jackson wrote perhaps the best single romance in Ramona (1884), a story aimed to carry forward an indictment, already begun in the same author’s A Century of Dishonor (1881), against the treatment of the Indians by their white conquerors. Ramona, however, and her Temecula husband Alessandro have so little Indian blood that their wrongs seem less those of Indians than the wrongs which all the older Californians, Indian or Spanish, suffered from the predacious vanguard of the Anglo-Saxon conquest. And the romance dominates the problem. For Mrs. Jackson, Spanish California had been a paradise of patriarchal estates set in fertile valleys, steeped in drowsy antiquity, and cherished by fine unworldly priests. Her tragic story derives much of its impressiveness from the pomp of its setting, the strength of its contrasts, its passionate colour and poetry. Mrs. Catherwood wrote graceful and engaging but not quite permanent tales, from The Romance of Dollard (1889) to Lazarre (1901), which added a definite little province to our historical fiction—the French in the interior of the continent.