In law, the late nineteenth century is often called the Age of Contract; in literature, the Age of Realism. Brook Thomas's new book brings contract and realism together to offer groundbreaking insights into both while exploring the social and cultural crises that accompanied America's transition from industrial capitalism to the corporate capitalism of the twentieth century.
Thomas argues that, radically conceived, contract promised to generate an equitable social order—one organized around interpersonal exchange rather than conformity to a transcendental standard. But as the idea of contract took center stage in American culture after the Civil War, the law failed to deliver on this promise, instead legitimating hierarchies of race, class, and gender. Moving expertly from legal analysis to social history, to profoundly recontextualized literary critique, Thomas shows how writers like Twain, James, Howells, and Chopin took up contract as a model, formally and thematically, evoking its possibilities and dramatizing its failures.
Thomas investigates a host of issues at the forefront of public debate in the nineteenth century: race and the meaning of equality, miscegenation, marriage, labor unrest, economic transformation, and changes in notions of human agency and subjectivity. Cross-examining a wide range of key literary and legal texts, he rethinks the ways they relate to each other and to their social milieu.
As recent political rhetoric demonstrates, the promise of contract is still very much alive. American Literary Realism and the Failed Promise of Contract challenges conventional critical wisdom and makes a broad, provocative, and nuanced contribution to legal and literary studies, as well as to intellectual and social history. It promises to revise and enrich our understanding of American culture, law, and letters.