William Dean Howells, Thing Theory, and the Hazards of Speculative Realism

Craig Carey, University of Southern Mississippi


This essay reconsiders William Dean Howells and his realist novel A Hazard of New Fortunes in light of the recent speculative turn in philosophy. Drawing on developments in thing theory and speculative realism, the essay uses Howells’s novel as a case study to reflect on the fortunes and hazards of speculative realism as a contemporary influence on literary criticism. While skeptical of its break with language and consciousness, it finds in speculative realism a fresh approach to dramatizing how the thingness of literary works often exceeds representation and gives form to speculative thought more hospitable to things and their involvements. Inspired by the speculative turn, the essay works to navigate the contemporary hazards of thinking things, while still preserving what William James once celebrated as the “active element in all consciousness.”