Edith Wharton's Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction

Hildegard Hoeller

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"In a groundbreaking study of Edith Wharton, Hildegard Hoeller examines the persistent critical bias against sentimentalism. She persuasively argues that for Wharton, ironically, realism silenced the reality of women's voices and stories, whereas the sentimental tradition provided an alternative space for the self-realization of her women characters--and likely for Wharton herself. . . . Hoeller succeeds in validating the much maligned sentimental tradition and calls for a reexamination of the entire American literary canon."--Abby H. P. Werlock, St. Olaf College, and president, Edith Wharton Society

Arguing against the prevailing view of Edith Wharton as a realist writer, Hildegard Hoeller opens up the Wharton canon by finding the "real" Wharton in the writer's sentimental voice and in her critique of realism. With this focus on a blind spot in Wharton criticism, Hoeller demonstrates that the celebrated American writer created a dialogue between the two literary traditions.
Most analyses of Wharton's work describe her early triumph as a realist and then decline in the 1920s into sentimental fiction. Instead, Hoeller examines important sentimental moments in Wharton’s "realist" masterpieces and finds realism in the sentimental "minor" work (including the undervalued 1925 novel, The Mother's Recompense). Hoeller shows that Wharton used the sentimental voice both to express the truth of female desire and to express her critique of male realism. In this, Wharton is shown to be fully in control of her art from the beginning to the end of her career.
Using Wharton as a case study, Hoeller maintains that the ongoing argument about the value of American sentimental fiction could benefit by seriously considering sentimental aesthetics. Only then, she says, will the term sentimental cease to be a label for inferior, female, and popular fiction and become a serious literary concept.
This innovative book will be of interest to scholars of 19th- and 20th-century American fiction as well as feminist scholars and those interested in the ongoing debate about the American literary canon.

Hildegard Hoeller, assistant professor of English at Babson College in Massachusetts, is the author of articles published in American Literary Realism, Studies in American Jewish Literature, American Transcendental Quarterly, and the Edith Wharton Review.

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Choice Outstanding Academic Title - 2000

"Hoeller (Babson College) makes a valuable contribution in this exemplary study of Wharton's fiction and its critics. Notable for its clarity, cogent definitions, and incisive analyses." -Choice

"Edith Wharton's Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction is erudite, investigating the full span of Wharton's career to demonstrate her oeuvre's genre ambivalence and debt to the sentimental tradition." - American Literary Realism
--American Literary Realism

"Will be of value to women's studies scholars. Hoeller thus rightly declares that to take sentimental literature seriously involves ' a reinvention.. of our own critical standards and convictions and a redefinition of the cannon that these critical beliefs create and uphold' In this respect, Hoeller's examination of Wharton's 'dialogue' with realist economy and sentimental excess is both revolutionary and refreshing." - American Literature
--American Literature

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