Truth Through Fiction

I am working on a project involving late 19th-century America, so wanted to get a better feel for the thinking and diction of the period.  I remembered a claim by someone (it would be better if I remembered who) that the best way to appreciate an earlier time and place is to read a good novel written during that period.  Better than any other source, the argument goes, fiction will reveal the thought patterns, values, and modes of expression that prevailed.

So I just finished William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas LaphamFor my purposes, it wasn’t quite right in time and place.  It was published in 1883, almost 20 years earlier than the period I am looking at.  And it is based in Boston, while my project is more in the middle Atlantic states.  Back in 1883, I fear, Boston was a good bit different from the rest of the country.  Indeed, Howells had relocated from Ohio to Boston, and makes rather a point of just how unique Boston society was at the time.

Despite these limitations, I was pleased with the experiment of using fiction to gather an understanding of a time and place.  The Rise of Silas Lapham framed the era well for me.  The name character is a self-made man from nowhere, who simultaneously disdains and hankers after social acceptance. 

Howells, himself a provincial who made good to The Hub of the Universe, understood well the wrench of upward social mobility, particularly the potential cost in identity.  He also is an acute and ironic observer of the social mores of the time.  The upper-class artiste who cannot bear the thought of actually earning money comes off far worse than striving, clumsy, yet genuine Silas.

In passing, Howells also gives a telling glimpse at the importance of the Civil War to New England as the century began to ebb.  The war had been a period of extraordinary sacrifice and high self-esteem for New Englanders, who could not help feeling that life was always a bit more pale and less important afterward.

I would like to read a couple of more good American novels from the period 1890-1900.  What would you recommend?


  1. Esther on May 16, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    The Octopus, by Frank Norris, was published in 1901 but it might be interesting for you. I read it years ago and enjoyed it.

  2. Meredith on May 16, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    You might consider Frank Norris’s McTEAGUE (1899) and Theodore Dreiser’s SISTER CARRIE (1900). I’d also recommend taking a spin through THE ATLANTIC’s archives, both for the ads and the articles.

  3. Foxessa on May 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Willa Cather, born in homesteading Nebraska, southern mother. Her Song of the Lark features a protagonist from a small midwestern community who ends up in Chicago training for an international singing career — not sentimental or a romance! Cather is excellent.
    Edith Wharton, though she’s east coast and upper class — but the time period is good — Age of Innocence. Perhaps Twain in The Gilded Age and Innocents Abroad.
    Alas, Sinclair Lewis is probably too late for your time frame.
    But what was considered good writing in that era was quite varied. The extended metaphor remained very useful to writers, particularly those of non-fiction, for instance.
    Love, C.

Leave a Comment