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date: 18 August 2019

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter begins with William Dean Howells’s 1891 comparison of a realist writer to a naturalist observing a grasshopper. Examining a range of writings that made similar comparisons, the chapter asks how and why scientific observation became such a central framework for both critics and defenders of realist aesthetics. In particular, the chapter provides a context for realist aesthetics by tracing shifts in the biological sciences from a natural history methodology based on careful observation and description to a methodology based on measurement and the statistical analysis of large aggregates of facts. This shifting scientific imaginary allowed realists to reconcile realism’s investments in coherent aesthetic forms, particularly the ideals of totality and organic wholeness, with its descriptive practice of heaping up facts and contingent details.

Keywords: American realism, science, aesthetics, natural history, ecology, statistics

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