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“What is the Value of the Sociological Novel,” c.1910

Date: c.1910

Type: Manuscript

Categories: ,


In “What is the Value of the Sociological Novel”, Emmerton explores what she considers to be the virtues of well-written works of literature. To be a “sociological novel” – one which tries to affect change in a society – Emmerton argues that it must fulfill two qualifications: the novel must be able to inspire change in the public’s hearts, and must provide a path to fulfill such a change. Emmerton uses the works of Wharton, Tolstoy, Sinclair, and others to compare and contrast these two factors in early 20th-century literature.

The manuscript has been transcribed below exactly as it appears on the page.


“What is the Value of the Sociological Novel?”
Transcribed by David Moffat

What is the Value of the Sociological Novel?

In trying to answer this question let us
take it for granted that it is the ethical value
and not the literary value of the novel that we mean.
Our next step will be to consider just what the
sociological novel is.
As I understand it, it is the novel that criticizes
our present form of civilization, the novel that
points out as the novels of the past have failed to do
that something is fundamentally wrong with
the social structure. The novel that makes it clear
that when the rich man succumbs to temptation
it is not his innate vice that is alone to blame,
that the hardships of the poor are not due merely
to improvidence and to intemperance that both
the rich man and the poor man are alike vic-
tims of unfair social conditions, that they are
both demoralized by circumstances beyond their
When Thackeray portrayed the selfishness
of Vanity Fair, he brought his indictment wholly
against the individual, he held up to scorn the
sinful, selfish Becky Sharp and the sinful

[Page Two]
Selfish Marquis of Steyne and the silly selfish
average person, who led away by the glamour
of wealth and rank utters no protest against
the sins of the great.
Thackeray advocated no change in social
Institutions, such as the abolition of the House
of Lords or a fairer distribution of wealth.
He brought his indictment against the
individual alone, he made his plea for
individual rather than collective action.
The sociological novel on the other hand
brings its indictment against social conditions.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, did
not write Uncle Toms Cabin to make kinder
masters but to abolish slavery and “Light
Fingered Gentry” and “The Jungle” were not written
to touch the consciences of insurance co
officials and Beef Trust Magnates but to
rouse the public to make radical changes
in the laws if not in the social order itself.
If we accept this view of the sociological
novel then its value must depend upon
1st How true a picture of life it gives,
2nd How reasonable are the remedies that it suggests,
That these are two quite separate considerations

[Page Three]
can be seen in the case of Tolstoi. Tolstoi is un-
surppassed[sic] in vivid representation of the great
drama of life and in keen insight into human
nature, therefore his novels are of paramount
value not only as literary masterpieces but as
sociological documents. Tolstoi certainly sat-
isfies our first demand. He gives a true picture
of life.
But his response to our second demand that
he should offer a reasonable remedy is in my
opinion anything but satisfactory. His remedy
briefly is this.
Viewing with approbation the simple and
comparatively innocent life of the Russian
peasantry, he would make Russian peasants
of the entire human race. Note real peasants
superstitious and sordid but ideal peasants
who will follow the scripture – according to –
Tolstoi and who will need no government and
no education to keep them in a state of angelic
harmony and Arcadian simplicity.
Granted it were possible to set the human
race back to its infancy could we have any
assurance that it would not grow up into its
present condition again? Would not the same

[Page Four]
Instincts and forces that brought about the
present state develope[sic] it again? Tolstoi’s
whole position would seem most illogical and
his remedies but an ilustions.
Leaving Tolstoi and his dream, which very few
have taken very seriously, let us turn our attention
to the socialistic novels, but first let us con-
sider the socialist idea as contrasted with the
individualist idea which is exemplified by
our present form of government and daily life.
The individualist asks can we reform
society by merely giving a new form of govern-
ment to a lot of selfish and ignorant human
beings. The socialist asks can we make human
beings intelligent and unselfish while social
conditions keep them in ignorance and en-
courage greed.
Which of the two reforms should come first?
It is almost as hard a question to answer as
the time honored question which came first
the hen or the egg.
A study of child sewing work reveals the fact
that many delinquent children are reformed
simply by taking them from evil surroundings
and place them in good homes, this seems to

[Page Five]
back up the socialist theory, but on the other hand
we must remember that a great number of boys and
girls are born and brought up in good homes
and still go wrong.
To this Socialism might reply the children
that respond to their surroundings are the
normal children and they should not be
sacrificed to the abnormal children for
it is surely abnormal not to be elevated
by good surroundings. There are of course
many more arguments on both sides than
time admits of. Personally I believe that
an attempt to influence the individual should
go hand in hand with the bettering of social
conditions and if this takes us in the direction
of socialism we must not be alarmed, when
we have educated and humanized a
substantial proportion of our fellow
citizens I believe that they will be able to work
out some effective way of meeting the chief
argument of the individualists that with
out of present form of competition there
would be no incentive to labor.
After all this argument is merely a theory,
a theory to support the present state of things

[Page Six]
An endeavor to show that socialism is impractical
But what is more impractical than our present
civilization with its appalling waste and its
even more appalling want. We know all about
it from many different sources, from reports
from articles, from statistics, from our own
experience with the poor, but how shall all
these facts be brought before people to whom
facts are dry and cold.
Here we come to the value of the sociological
novel, in it we find life mirrored forth in a
way to appeal to the dullest imagination to
stir the most frivolous heart. If we believe
that Social conditions want mending we
know that cannot be done unless the great
public is aroused and that must be through
touching the heart.
We shall never be able to calculate
mathematically how much Uncle Tom’s Cabin
helped in freeing the slaves but surely it
did help. And the words we have considered
today will help if only in a small measure
in shaping the days to come.
I believe the book that will help the most
are those that simply picture present
conditions “The House of Mirth” gives one set

[Page Seven]
In Light fingered Gentry we see dishonest
methods and in the House of Mirth we see
the result, the piling up of inordinate wealth
and the vice, frivolity, and unhappiness
that comes from the idle lives it fosters, in
The Jungle we see the bitter suffering the
crime and brutality which wants causes,
a true masterpiece.
These novels may be forgotten when the
results that they have helped to bring about
begin to appear I believe that they will,
effice accomplish more than the pleasanter socialistic
novels which try to picture the dawn of a better
civilization such as: Looking Backward
In the Days of the Comet, The Traveller from
Alturia etc Still no doubt these have their
Life developes[sic] at such a rapid rate
rate that it seems futile to try and to forecast
any very definite Utopia, perhaps there never
will be a utopia for the human race at all, my
own belief is that we shall get a great deal nearer
to one than we are at present.