In the mid-19th century, the French writer Stendhal described the novel as "a mirror being carried along a road." And at the height of the realist movement in America, William Dean Howells insisted that novelists should "present life as it is." In the 20th century, though, that concept of the writer began to sound hopelessly naive. Before long, French theorists were telling us that literature couldn't be about anything but language and that the meanings of words were hopelessly shifty and indeterminate.

In a new collection of previously published essays called A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (Princeton Univ., $26.95), Morris Dickstein, a professor of English at the City University of New York, traces this remarkable shift in attitude. After two world wars, he writes, "the conventions of realism no longer seemed adequate to a darkly altered sense of reality. The age demanded new forms that would combine metaphysical anguish and psychological complexity." The old ways of describing life, relying heavily on methods of journalistic description and close social observation, were replaced by "the prism of interior monologue, satire, allegory, or fantasy, not to escape from the real but to convey it more sharply." But Dickstein suggests that this didn't really signal a shattering of the mirror because that image had always been something of an illusion. "The effective realism of individual writers," he says, "can be traced as much to their distortions, their subjective 'visions,' as to the bits and pieces of the world that feed into them." No matter what the author's style, "the process is interpretive, not simply reflective." Moving from Melville to Bellow, from Wharton to Roth, Dickstein follows the novel's progress and the trends of literary theory to show that every period produces a literature that reflects something essential about the age. *

-- Ron Charles