Reputation and the Realistic Novel

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7 Responses

  1. Will says:

    So I headed West, eager to escape memories of a keg stand gone awry. But no vehicle known to man could outpace Google, flickr, or Facebook, whose formless tendrils haunted my every move.Report

  2. David Schaengold says:


  3. Aaron says:

    I think there’s another aspect to something that you hit on that I’d like to draw out — these books, and the reverence for the Regency period in general, are taking things wildly out of context. As Austen was the one writing as a contemporary, it might be well to deal with her first: Austen’s books are about country folk. They deal with the mores of one particular set of social circumstances, that would not have been applicable to, say, Irish navvies and mudlarks living (barely) around the Thames docklands, or Lord Byron. By bemoaning a loss of this particular kind of realistic social novel as a kind of jeremiad against the fallen state of our culture is blindness of an extremely odd sort. Austen’s books are set among a very narrow, particular class: petty landed gentry on the make. They hardly represent an accurate portrait of Regency English culture.

    As for George Eliot, well, a glance at her biography should put paid to any notion that she was concerned overly with reputation. Beyond that, her works were written starting in the middle of the Victorian period, Middlemarch itself towards the end of it, but looking back on this Regency period seventy so years earlier. It should absolutely not be taken as representative of the culture of that time. It would be like someone taking a novel written now as an exemplar of Great Depression era culture.

    What Douthat really wants to do is memorialize a kind of social order that he yearns for that never really existed. And anyone who complains that the modern world doesn’t contain enough social opprobrium to support a modern novel just isn’t looking. It’s easy to see the social gears meshing in Austen and Eliot’s novels, because we’re removed from them or they’re consciously using them for that end. We can’t see the ways that our society fights against us because we’re living in the middle of it. Isn’t pointing out the unnoticed obvious one of the things art is supposed to do?Report

    • David Schaengold in reply to Aaron says:

      @Aaron, Those are good points, especially about the particularity of the conventions of the world of Austen’s novels. This is another difference I think is fairly important. Compared to contemporary American society, England at the turn of the 19th century was much less morally homogeneous.

      I think you’re being too harsh on Douthat, though. I do think he gets caught up sometimes in mistaken nostalgia for a time when there was a social order as opposed to the purportedly anarchic present, but I think he can be forgiven for thinking that the content of older social orders were often more humane.Report

      • Aaron in reply to David Schaengold says:

        @David Schaengold, my big problem with Douthat’s overarching social program is that I think it’s entirely based on mistaken nostalgia. He’s elevating to mass culture what was, in fact, a very small minority of people, if it even really existed in the first place. Which is fine, it seems to be in people’s natures to yearn for that mythical golden age. But I do think that it’s important to point out when people start bemoaning its loss that it did not, in fact, really exist — especially when people use that golden age as a stick to beat modern “transgressions” from “traditional” values. If you’re going to argue from tradition, I think it’s best to argue from a tradition that actually existed. Douthat is comparing contemporary mores of which he disapproves to imaginary, early-19th Century mores that didn’t exist in the way he wants to use them. He is certainly welcome to say, “We should behave like this,” but he isn’t welcome to say, “We should behave like this because that’s how people did when things were wonderful.” I expect my grandpa to argue like that, not a thirty-something NY Times columnist.

        Beyond that, that leaves nothing said about how the great mass of humanity lived in England at the time, let alone things like slavery. Rose-tinted glasses hide the real costs of old social orders.Report

  4. Rufus says:

    Good stuff. I can now imagine writing a novel in the vein of Appointment in Samarra in which a drunken Facebook comment soils the main character’s online reputation and drives him to ruin.Report