Getting at the Author: Reimagining Books and Reading in the Age of American Realism

Throughout the 19th century, American readers and reviewers assumed that a book revealed its author's individuality, that the experience of reading was a kind of conversation with the writer. Yet as Barbara Hochman shows in this study, the emergence of literary realism at the turn of the century called such assumptions into question. The realist aesthetic of narrative objectivity challenged the notion that a literary text reflects its author's personality. But reading practices were slow to change; many resisted the effort to reconceptualize the relationship among writers, readers and books. Even the most consistent advocates of impartial narration found it difficult to imagine a book without an author or to dissociate the experience of reading from the idea of a reciprocal human transaction. In analyzing the battle over realism and the gradual shift in conventional reading practices, Hochman draws upon an array of sources, including popular works, advertisements and letters. She combines traditional modes of literary inquiry with methods adapted from the new historicism, cultural studies and book history. By elucidating the realists' ambivalence about their own aesthetic criteria, she shows how a late 19th-century conflict about reading practices reflected pressing tensions in American culture, and how that conflict shaped criteria of literary value for most of the 20th century.