“What is he?” murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. “A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler! - Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom House” (1850)
Fiction is one of the fine arts, deserving in its turn of all the honors and emoluments that have hitherto been reserved for the successful profession of music, poetry, painting, architecture. It is impossible to insist too much on so important a truth. - Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” (1884)
In any discussion of the novel, one must make it clear whether one is talking about the novel as a form of amusement, or as a form of art. […] Amusement is one thing; enjoyment of art is another. - Willa Cather, “The Novel Démeublé” (1922)
Can fiction be an art? While we may be inclined to say “yes” today, in the nineteenth century the reputation of fiction writing – novels, tales, short stories, and sketches – was by no means so secure. Novelists were more likely to be considered entertainers or “story- tellers” than serious artists, and novels were usually thought of as frivolous at best and immoral at worst, and certainly not worthy of serious scrutiny or consideration. How did the reputation of fiction writing in America develop such that novels could be considered certifiably “artistic?”This course examines the novels, short fiction, and critical writings of three important American writers: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and Willa Cather. While very different in very many ways, these three authors shared a belief that fiction was a serious business, and every bit as much an art as painting, poetry, sculpture, music, or other “fine” arts. They also all shared an interest in representing these various fine arts and the artists that make them in their novels and stories, often using the figure of the painter, the sculptor, the actor, or the singer in order to explore, develop, and justify their own fictional practice. In other words, this class will examine “the art of fiction” in at least two ways: both by looking at the representation of art and artists in the fiction of these three writers, and also by examining how such representations help these writers to make fiction an art in its own right. This course asks: This course asks: What ideas about the “fine arts” led to the exclusion of novels? Are there reliable criteria that can distinguish “artistic” novels from other novels that are designed only to entertain or amuse? How and why do writers deploy the figures of artists in other media? How might these figures both clarify and test the limits of fictional representation, or of the value of art in general?