This essay explores the concept of liberal guilt in William Dean Howells’s fiction, focusing especially on his 1888 novel Annie Kilburn. Genealogies of liberal guilt rarely mention Howells, and yet no American writer has more painstakingly elaborated the embarrassing predicament of middle-class complicity in social arrangements that entail the widespread suffering of others. I provide a summary of theoretical positions on liberal guilt as a structure of feeling that entails what Richard Rorty calls “doubt about [one’s] own sensitivity to the pain and humiliation of others, doubt that present institutional arrangements are adequate to deal with this pain and humiliation.” Howells felt these doubts profoundly, and yet he understood liberal guilt as a productive emotional and intellectual predicament. Put simply, Howells viewed liberal guilt, like realism itself, as an attitude of resigned acceptance of persistent social injustices but an attitude capable of animating, rather than dissipating, liberal commitments and public agendas.

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