Literary historians often cite George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) as a chronicle of a waning literary scene, but his sentences offer altogether stranger demonstrations of how a threatened form of realism attempts to grasp a radically transformed and transforming social situation. Drawing on recent work on the politics of style, this essay argues that Gissing’s narrative style is best understood in terms of two motivating forces powerfully at work in late nineteenth-century Britain: an ascendant popular culture and the massive expansion of the imperial regime. By focusing less on the rumble and verve of an incipient modernism than on the creaky cadences of a realism not long for the world, we begin to discern tectonic shifts at the level of the sentence within and beyond Gissing’s late novels (and the triple-decker). Such shifts allow us to understand how the residual realism of nineteenth-century social-problem fiction attempts to map the world-system. A discussion of Gissing’s style is thus an opportunity to specify the motivating forces at work in his writing and to speculate more broadly about how novelistic prose registers working-class massification and the internationalization of British economic and social worlds in the late nineteenth century.

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