William Dean Howells was committed to determining what would inspire people from different economic, political, and religious backgrounds to imagine each other as respected members of a human community. Scholars have debated whether his realist aesthetic was suited to do that. Some have argued that realism works to contain the lower classes, and others have argued that it portrays a heterogeneous society in which social problems can be solved through human negotiation between the middle classes and others. Scholars have not, however, addressed how Howells performs the necessary shift in his fiction from a space in which characters focus on their own interests to a space in which they seek to enact justice through negotiating with disparate people. This article identifies and names what enacts that necessary shift: the literary device of accident. In Howells's fiction chance meetings, feelings of accidental connection, and injuries during travel force his middle-class characters into understanding labor politics, slum dwellers, and morally compromised millionaires. His use of accident changes over time, from The Undiscovered Country (1880) to Annie Kilburn (1889) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). This essay traces that change in order to reflect on the democratic and antidemocratic implications of Howells's realist aesthetic.
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