1. What can be said of Washington’s criticism of African-American ministers?
2. Beginning in the 1960s, Washington was widely criticized as an accommodationist, as a leader favoring humility and individual responsibility and achievement at the expense of racial pride. Based on the excerpts, do you think that Washington’s prose leads to such a view of him?
3. How would you describe the overall strategy of The Souls of Black Folk, the discernment, in the lines of supposedly simple African American spirituals, of complex ideas of selfhood and self-fulfillment? Is this a writerly tour de force, a display of wit, mental agility, and (perhaps) late Victorian sentimentality by one author working in a mainstream tradition? Or does Du Bois make this venture into cultural anthropology ring true and convince us of the deep wisdom within the ordinary and the plain?
4. Does Norris “mean it” when he argues that literary naturalism is not a variant of realism but really a newer kind of romanticism? What is the reasoning behind this declaration—and what do you think of that reasoning? If Howells is writing for a broad audience of magazine readers, or for his constituency of women from the new middle class, people with aspirations to culture and taste as well as moral improvement, whom do Frank Norris and and Theodore Dreiser seem to be writing to and for?
5. If naturalism, as Norris describes it, is virtually coerced into romantic configurations because of certain doctrines about human nature and human possibility, at what point can fiction of this sort become aesthetic— in other words, an exercise in color or sensation or spectacle for their own sake rather than for conveying some sort of moral engagement with the human condition? If a question like this provokes a confused silence, ask your group to ponder what overtly naturalistic films that they have seen—Scorsese’s The Departed or Taxi Driver, for example, or Reservoir Dogs or other films by Quentin Tarantino—are really “about,” if they are about anything at all. If we are supposed to care about Carrie Meeber in Sister Carrie or Maggie in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, are there novels and films of a similar style that induce a moral numbness or a sense that no exploration of human nature is taking place?
6. If the second question provokes a lively debate about the various intentions and effects of literary naturalism, you might close in tighter on differences among the avowed realists, especially James and Howells. Howells takes chances in his description of the focus and subject matter for realistic fiction (you might want to point out that in his prose he often doesn’t play by his own rules!). James is more evasive in talking about issues such as social class and what he means by “truth to life.” Why does he do that, and where do we see a similar abstractness or evasiveness operating in his short fiction?