In English and comparative literature, the question of realism has reemerged in the last fifteen years as vital to readers and writers of the global novel. A realist turn, so-called, implies a shift in tastes, canons, and markets; it also entails a heightened form of disciplinary attention to realism freshly unlocked from its subordinate role in a promodernist critical climate. Both shifts—in the practice and in the theory of world realism—can be understood as post–Cold War effects. Surveying the recent rise of realism as a favored object and methodological reference point in novel studies, this essay attempts to trace the lineage of disfavored realism back through the “realism wars” of the late nineteenth century in the United Kingdom and the mid-twentieth century in the United States. In both phases, literary authorities cast realism as a European aesthetic mortmain, somehow alien to the liberal Anglophone West and its expanding frontiers. Realism wars seem to erupt at the sites of struggle between norms of finite social description and dreams of expansive political projection. That tension runs as a fault line between the integrated secular authority and broad universalist myths of both British and American power in their turns. If the eclipse of British hegemony conditioned the realism wars of the 1880s–90s and the rise of US hegemony conditioned the realism wars of the 1950s–60s, is it possible to comprehend our own emergent realist turn—and the debates it has begun to generate—as indexical of larger geopolitical change at the far end of the American Century?
jed esty is Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. The author of A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (2004) and Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development (2012), Esty is currently working on a project titled “Cold War Victorians: How the British Imagination Shaped American Power.”