Roderick Mengham Special Commissioned Essay on the American Novel of Manners Introduction And History

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Introduction And History

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Roderick Mengham (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Mengham, Roderick. “American Novel of Manners.” In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 130, edited by Scott Darga and Linda Pavlovski. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.

[In the following original essay, Mengham provides an overview of the American Novel of Manners, focusing on its history, representative writers, hallmark works, and critical response.]


In The Writing of Fiction, Edith Wharton praises the French novelist Balzac, whom she greatly admired, for the ability “to draw his dramatic action as much from the relation of his characters to their houses, streets, towns, professions, inherited habits and opinions, as from their fortuitous contacts with each other” (8). She might have applied the same description to her own fiction. She adds that his “viewing each character first of all as a product of particular material and social conditions …” (9) establishes him as breaking new ground for the novel, for he is “continuously aware that the bounds of a personality are not reproducible by a sharp line, but that each of us flows imperceptibly into adjacent people and things” (10). Without actually using the term, Wharton nevertheless provides here a description of the novel of manners.

The novel of manners, which can also be called the social novel, then, differs from the psychological novel, the romantic, or the historical novel, by its emphasis on things, what is called by historians the material culture of the world it portrays. The characters are meant to be understood not only by what they say and how they think and act, but by what they wear, where they live, what they do for a living, or what position they hold in society. These objects and activities, as presented by the novelist of manners, are not morally neutral, but must be read for the values they confer on a character. Lionel Trilling, a literary critic, defines manners as used by these novelists as “the culture's hum and buzz of implication … the whole evanescent context of its explicit statements. It is that part of the culture which is made up of half-uttered or unutterable expressions of value” (145). In other words, the novelist of manners asks us to “read” the markers of culture like an anthropologist, seeking to create meaning not only from the explicit evidence, but also by drawing inferences from what is implicit. Questions of the moral and social value of society emerge from such evidence.

More concretely, the novel of manners examines the class structure of the society it describes; the “manners, special attitudes, gestures, and conventional responses that people make because they belong in a certain stratum of society” (Milne 12). Most familiar are such novels that take as their subject the upper strata of a given society, the rich or aristocratic or upper middle class about which the larger world is curious. For example, many of Edith Wharton's characters belong to the wealthy class of American society in the late-nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, as do the characters in the novels of William Dean Howells and Henry James, where status belongs to old money and family distinction. F. Scott Fitzgerald examines the new social order based not on old family money, but on youth and new money in the Jazz Age, an era in which disdain for the puritanical moral values of the earlier society dominated. The novelist of manners may also select, however, a special social circle such as the clergy, or academics at a particular college, titans of business, or members of a society no longer intact, like antebellum America. Such worlds are portrayed by Booth Tarkington, J. P. Marquand, John O'Hara, J. G. Cozzens, or Ellen Glasgow. While the best known novels of manners, then, are those about the middle and upper classes, about successful professionals, there have also been novels of manners written about “average” citizens from the middle or...

(The entire section is 5,172 words.)