The realist novel has long been understood in terms of its representation of the diffusion of political agency into social and economic practices. This essay claims that realism, at least as it emerged in the work of late-nineteenth-century American writers such as William Dean Howells, does not record this process of diffusion so much as anatomize it, and that novels like A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) participated in a widespread and multivalent effort, in American law and literature alike, to specify the proper boundaries of the state's authority in relation other increasingly visible forms of social and economic coercion.

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