Date of Award




Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of English

Content Description

1 online resource (vi, 157 pages)

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

James D. Lilley

Committee Members

Jennifer Greiman, Erica Fretwell


American fiction, Realism in literature

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Studies


This dissertation uses the concept of the Great American Novel as a strategic framework for understanding the cultural ascendance of realism. Much more than a naïve expression of literary chauvinism, the rise of the idea of the Great American Novel marks a transformative moment in the decades before realism becomes institutionalized as a “new school” in the 1880s. Examining how Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Dean Howells, and Henry James anticipate or respond to the call for the national novel which mediates among regions, Before Realism demonstrates that American literary realism emerged out of its engagement and negotiation with the Great American Novel. Before Realism seeks to make an intervention into debates on transnational and transbellum American literature. Examining a largely unexplored link between the international novels of realist authors and the political project of national reconciliation in postbellum U.S., this study tells a broader story of the rise of literary realism situated in a transatlantic context. At the same time, highlighting the mediating potential of the idea of pan-national novel, I bring the discussion of literary nationalism back to recent academic transnational studies in which the question of nationhood tends to be regarded as problematic. Furthermore, this dissertation is also an attempt at a reperiodization of nineteenth-century American literature which reconsiders the dichotomous understanding of antebellum romance and postbellum realism. Employing a timeline across the Civil War, I trace the story of a divided nation and its reunification manifested both at the thematic and formal levels in the novels from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Portrait of a Lady, along with the historical course of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the end of Reconstruction. The first chapter examines the notions which constitute the concept of the Great American Novel—the romance of reunion and the soul-nation allegory—and offers a reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a transbellum master text of that emergent idea. In chapter two, I elucidate how Stowe’s later New England novels stage dialectical relationships between competing arts of nation formation and how the issue of slavery works as the catalyst of the novel’s nationalizing process. The third chapter focuses on Howells’s early career and excavates the development of Howells’s South-mediated realism characterized by both dependence on and departure from the romance of reunion. The last chapter is devoted to an extensive analysis of James’s The Portrait of a Lady as a novel about the Great American Novel that dramatizes and unsettles the metanarratives of the idea itself.