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London eyes: William Dean Howells and the shift to instant photography

University of California Press
Publication Date
  • Q323 English Literature By Topic
  • V230 American History
  • Q320 English Literature
  • T700 American Studies
  • Q322 English Literature By Author
  • T720 American Literature Studies
  • Q321 English Literature By Period
  • Literature
  • Philosophy


Toward the end of the nineteenth century, one of William Dean Howells's many avid readers, finally meeting him in the flesh, expressed surprise that the famed writer was not dead. Although he had not actually departed from the world, it was true that by this time the venerable "Dean"was at a low ebb. While younger authors were taking the novel in directions about which he was, at the least, ambivalent, Howells was aware that his own best work was behind him. Yet, throughout his career, he maintained a desire to test different literary approaches. In England in 1904, Howells tested a conceit that would allow him to keep pace with the literary movements of the day. This consisted of an extended photographic metaphor: an association of himself with the Kodak camera. He used this figuration to move beyond the philosophical foundations of his previous work. Criticism has largely overlooked this endeavor, which Howells buried away in the somewhat obscure travelogue London Films (1905). This essay shows how London Films used its photographic metaphor to question positivistic observational assumptions, the way in which this was a response to William James's Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), and, finally, why Howells ultimately went back on his attempt to create a Kodak school in fiction.

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