Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





John Brenkman

Subject Categories

American Literature | English Language and Literature | Epistemology | Literature in English, North America


epistemology, modernity, realism, transcription


My dissertation, Common Knowledge: The Epistemology of American Realism, focuses on realist fiction (primarily the novel) at the end of the nineteenth century. Its motivating claim is that the central descriptive and thematic imperative of realism--to depict life "as it is" rather than in some idealized form--emerged in response to crises in the status of knowledge that resulted from an attempt by writers and readers to come to a common understanding of the relationship between private experience and an increasingly fragmented social world. While William Dean Howells's definition of realism as a form of writing that displays "fidelity to experience and probability of motive" assumes a correspondence between writing and the real, my dissertation argues that realism's primary aesthetic achievement was its response to a pervasive sense of epistemological uncertainty. Accordingly, Common Knowledge engages the tensions embodied in interpenetrating depictions of social conflict and shared knowledge. On one hand, much recent scholarship has been devoted to demonstrating realism's commitment to documenting the intensified class conflict characteristic of the last decade of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, much scholarship has also been dedicated to portraying realism as an articulation of bourgeois gentility that remained largely ignorant of the stakes of such conflicts. In studies of the novels of Howells, Henry James, Harold Frederic, and Charles Chesnutt, I attempt to synthesize those two interpretations of American realism, preferring to read oscillations between social concern and reified class privilege as indications of a fundamental ambivalence about the reliability of social knowledge. Common Knowledge entwines readings of fiction with elaborations on the critical, technological, and aesthetic discourses of epistemological uncertainty that emerge from them, documenting how recognitions of socio-economic, racial, and ontological difference both rely on and throw into question the possibility of a shared knowledge of the world.