David E. Shi’s FACING FACTS: REALISM IN AMERICAN THOUGHT AND CULTURE, 1850-1920 is a fascinating study of how realism affected American art, literature, culture, and intellectual life in a period extending roughly from the Civil War until World War I. Expertly blending historical analysis with artistic and literary criticism, Shi provides an important new understanding of how historical events influenced “style” during a critical period of American life.
FACING FACTS contains much that is valuable for the specialist and general reader alike. Lavishly annotated (with footnotes accounting for 67 of its 394 pages), the book provides thorough documentation and suggestions for further study. Yet Shi also writes in an accessible style, supplying so much background information that even those unfamiliar with the topic will find the book an excellent introduction to what is a complicated and rich subject.
The encyclopedic nature of FACING FACTS is at once the book’s most important contribution and its greatest weakness. Shi continually interweaves biographical sketches, historical narratives, and critical analyses to set the stage for each of the individuals and works he describes. All too often, however, a chapter will leave the reader wanting more, at times much more. Darwin is discussed in little more than a page, Matthew Brady in three pages, Frank Norris in eight. A package tour through history, FACING FACTS can result in breathlessness. Shi would have been better advised to make fewer stops along the way, allowing his readers more time to absorb all the wonderful things he is showing them.
Despite this limitation, however, FACING FACTS is important for its discussion of the intellectual roots of the so-called “Gilded Age.” The social factors that guided American realism—the Civil War, the invention of photography, the rise of Darwinism, the Industrial Revolution, World War I—raised serious philosophical doubts about the merits of idealism and classicism as they were embraced by the early republic. FACING FACTS demonstrates that many threads in the American fabric came together to create a style that has left an indelible mark upon modern taste.