It seems only yesterday that Lionel Trilling reported that he had created a sensation—in the cafeterias at Columbia University—by assigning to his students the work of William Dean Howells. What could Professor Trilling have conceivably found of interest—his students wanted to know—in this Victorian purveyor of old-fashioned realism in American fiction? Howells seemed too commonplace to be admitted to the company of Lawrence, Joyce, Proust, Mann, Kafka, and the other masters of modernist fiction.

The question was a pertinent one, which Trilling brilliantly answered in “William Dean Howells and the Roots of Modern Taste” (1951). Anyone who takes the trouble to look up that essay—in The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism—will find a remarkable description of Howells’s concern with the quotidian and a defense of his central subject, the actualities of middle-class family...

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