Getting at the Author
Reimagining Books and Reading in the Age of American Realism
A probing reassessment of the relationship among readers, writers, and books in late-nineteenth-century America
Throughout the nineteenth 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 illuminating 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 on a rich 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 nineteenth century conflict about reading practices reflected pressing tensions in American culture, and how that conflict shaped criteria of literary value for most of the twentieth century.
"Barbara Hochman explores the complex renegotiation of the roles of writer, narrator and reader in American fiction of the later- nineteenth and early-twentieth century. . . .This period was a rough sea in American letters,. . . but Hochman navigates it with confidence and finesse. . . .Getting at the Author is a provocative, insightful, very readable study of a key moment in American literary history."—Alice Petry, American Literary Realism
"In this innovative study of American literary realism Barbara Hochman advances a compelling argument about the realists' ambivalent devotion to objective storytelling. . . .[The study is] a rich cultural history of an overlooked aspect of the debate about realism and a careful reconstruction of nineteenth-century reading practices. Above all Hochman's Getting at the Author is a model for scholars who are engaged in rewriting literary history by applying reader-oriented criticism to specific segments of American print culture."—J. Arthur Bond, SHARP News
"Getting at the Author is an impressive study of American literary realism, as seen from a history of the book perspective. . . . The rise of a mass publishing industry marketing fiction to a large national audience remade the relation between author and reader and spurred the creation of new styles of writing and reading. These innovations are the subject of Hochman's deft analysis."—Robert Gross, College of William and Mary