John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies

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Archives, Field, Positions: Howells and Realism

The talk considers some historical and theoretical conditions of reading the critical writings of William Dean Howells through the conceptual metaphors of the field (Pierre Bourdieu) and the archive (Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault). I argue that both the cultural-historical significance and the contemporary relevance of Howells consists in the shaping and imagining of the literary field by means of its constituents: the objectified positions of authors, critics, editors, publishers, and the economic and medial conditions of publication, all of which are framed by a tension between national-cultural competition and transatlantic artistic alliances. I will explore the imagined positions of the editor, the critic, and the writer: on the one hand, there is a gesture of editorial and critical neutrality, informed by various scientific methodologies, that serves the double function of archiving and cataloging the field and of legitimizing the project of realism as a national-cultural and transatlantic one; on the other hand, there is the notion of the writer as an entrepreneurial craftsman who commands an archival knowledge of the field, of its artistic and literary conventions. Consequently, the imagination of these constituents in Howells do not correspond to the notion of an art for art’s sake, which Bourdieu takes to be constitutive of the emergence of the field in France. Rather than the tracing of an invers relation between economic and symbolic capital, Howells’s critical writings demand a complex negotiation between economic and literary valences which are fraught with political anxieties: the rising nationalism and imperialism at the turn of the century, but also the problematic positioning of African American writers.