Our modern science, abandoning the search for the Absolute, has been scrutinizing every atom, to weigh and name it, and to discover its relation with its neighbors. “Relativity” has been the watchword. Science literally knows neither great nor small: it examines the microbe and Sirius with equal interest; it draws no distinction between beauty and ugliness—having no preference for the toadstool or the rose, the sculpin or the trout: it is impartial; it seeks only to know. By observation and experiment, by advancing from the known to the unknown, science has begun to make the first accurate inventory of substances, laws, and properties of the worlds of matter. Its achievements have already been stupendous. Its methods have dominated all other works in our time; it was inevitable that they should encroach on the sphere of art and of literature.
Arguing from analogy, the Realist persuaded himself that the only means for attaining perfect accuracy in fiction must be experiment and observation, which had brought such rich rewards to Science. He disdained anything except an exact reproduction of real life—hence his name, Realist. To him, as to the man of science, there should be, he declared, neither beauty nor ugliness, great nor small, goodness nor evil; he was impartial; he eliminated the personal equation; he would make his mind as unprejudiced as a photographic plate. To Pyrrhonism so thoroughgoing, considerations of interest and charm appealed no more than did considerations of morals or beauty. The Realist frankly announced that the precise record of the humblest mind was just as important as one of Shakespeare’s mind would be. So we have been regaled by our English and American Realists with interminable inspection and introspection of commonplace intellects; and if we have yawned, we have been told that we were still poisoned with Romanticism, and still have a childish desire to read about persons with high titles, moving in the upper circles. Realism, we were assured, was the application of democratic principles to fiction. When, on the other hand, the foreign Realists dealt chiefly in moral filth, we were children for our squeamishness, and informed that, since depravity exists, the Realist is duty bound to make impartial studies of it.
I need not point out that such doctrines reduce literature, art, and morals to anarchy. The “scientific method,” applied in this way, is not the method for portraying human nature. Only the human can understand, and consequently interpret, the human: how, therefore, shall a man who boasts he has dehumanized himself so that is mind is as impartial as that of a photographic plate, enabling him to look on his fellow beings without preferring the good to the bad, the beautiful to the ugly,—how shall he be qualified to speak for the race which does discriminate, does prefer, does feel? The camera sees only the outside; the Realist sees no more, and so it would be more appropriate to call him “Epidermist,” one who investigates only the surface, the cuticle of life,—usually with a preference for very dirty skin.
And, in truth, he deceives himself as to the extent of his scientific impartiality. He, too, has to select; he cannot set down every trivial thought, cannot measure every freckle. His work is fiction—a consideration which he had forgotten. But since he is forced to select, he cannot escape being judged by the same canons as all other artists. Do they not all aim at representing life? Is Silas Lapham, produced by Epidermist methods, more real than Shylock or Hamlet? Will he be thought so three hundred years hence, or will he seem odd and antiquated, a mere fashion like the cut of old garments? Only the human can understand and interpret the human; our Epidermists also will, in time, come to know the heart of man. They have mistaken the dead actual for reality, the show of the moment for the essence, the letter for the spirit.
William R. Thayer, “The New Storytellers and the Death of Realism” Forum (1894) reproduced in The War of the Critics over William Dean Howells(1962) 69-70.
Thayer’s position seems to have softened a bit in his 1919 address to the AHA, which flicks the human from the center of “life” in actuality, but clutches preciously to the role of human judgment outside scientific matters—and history is not, in his estimation, any more scientific than literature.
In the nineteenth century, however, came the revelation, now generally accepted among intelligent peoples, that the earth is not the centre of the universe, and consequently man’s cosmic position has completely changed. His history, at least so far as it concerns ultimates, must be wholly revised. As we look out at the Milky Way on a clear frosty night, we no longer modestly assume that its millions of stars and all the other suns and constellations were created and are whirling forever on their immeasurable circuits for the benefit of us mere men. Not only the scale by which we measure has changed, but the degree and the purpose.
The modern key word for solving the enigma is evolution, development, growth, not special creation according to theological assertions and guesses. After trying this key in every lock during the past sixty or seventy years, we find, as it seems to me, that it has opened to us not the secret of life itself, but the process by which we and all other living things, and all forms of matter, live.
Inevitably, the study of history and its writing felt the change and felt it so imperiously that for the last half-century historical students and writers have sought deliberately to record the process of evolution in human affairs. No doubt, the formula helps us to advance a long way towards truth, and it supersedes all the fantastic and arbitrary formulas which men employed earlier. But the question for us now is, how far should we employ it? Shall we make it so paramount that it obtrudes? Should it not rather be like the skeleton in man and most vertebrate animals, which really determines their form and motions but is concealed beneath a covering of flesh? The turtle, to be sure, wears its skeleton on its outside, but the turtle is, after all, neither the highest nor the most beautiful kind of animal. And may we not be misled by employing too rigidly in the human field formulas which apply best to the domain of matter, to the field of chemistry, for example, or of physics, or of astronomy?
I have long had my doubts as to the accuracy or propriety of calling history a science. We investigate historical material in the same way that a chemist investigates his material, but we must not therefore assume that the two sorts of materials are identical, or that the employment of similar methods by historians and chemists makes history a science in the same sense that chemistry is one. In these matters we are apt to quarrel over the mere words, the names of things, rather than over the things themselves behind the words. But in general I feel that the less an historian has to do with science, the less he deliberately imitates and assumes scientific aims and conclusions, the better.