American literary realism
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American literary realism. “Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.” --William Dean Howells, “Editor’s Study,” Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1889).

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American literary realism

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American literary realism

American literary realism


American literary realism

  • “Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.”

    --William Dean Howells, “Editor’s Study,” Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1889)


American literary realism

  • "Realism, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm."

    --Ambrose Bierce The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


American literary realism

  • "Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. It would apprehend in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature. Beneath the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, it detects and endeavors to trace the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there; to measure the changes in their growth, to watch the symptoms of moral decay or regeneration, to fathom their histories of passionate or intellectual problems. In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worth of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance." -- George Parsons Lathrop, “The Novel and its Future," Atlantic Monthly 34 (September 1874)


American literary realism

  • In American literature, realism encompasses the period from the Civil War to the turn of the century (1860s through 1890s).

  • Some of the great American literary realists writing during this period include William Dean Howells, Rebecca Harding Davis, Henry James, and Mark Twain.

  • Realism is often broadly defined as “the faithful representation of reality” or as “verisimilitude,” and it is a literary technique practiced by many schools of writing.


American literary realism

  • Realism can be seen as a reaction against romanticism. While romantic writers tend to focus on intuition and imagination rather than logic and reason, writers employing realism evince an interest in the scientific method, the systematizing of the study of documentary history, and the influence of rational philosophy.


Realism versus romanticism

Realism versus Romanticism

  • Romanticism was a movement in literature that celebrated the individual. Romantics believed in  humankind's innate goodness and eventual perfectibility. The genre accepted experimentation as an expression of an artist's individuality. For example, Romantic literature discarded the formality of the closed heroic couplet and embraced a lyrical openness of style. In essence, the Romantic view was egalitarian. Equal at birth, inherently good, valued as individuals, all people were encouraged toward self-development.  Romanticism stressed the value of expressing human abilities that were common to all from birth rather than from training. Thus, emotional, intuitive, and sensual elements of artistic, religious, and intellectual expression were counted in some ways more valid than the products of education and reason.  Romanticism embraced nature as a model for harmony in society and art. 

    (The Harper Handbook of Literature)


Realism versus naturalism

Realism versus Naturalism

  • Naturalism was a literary movement of the late nineteenth century that yielded influence on the twentieth.  It was an extension of realism, a reaction against the restrictions inherent in the realistic emphasis on the ordinary, as naturalists insisted that the extraordinary is real, too. In place of the middle-class realities of a George Eliot, or a William Dean Howells, the naturalists wrote about the fringes of society, the criminal, the fallen, the down-and-out, earning as one definition of their work the phrase sordid realism. Naturalism came largely from scientific Determinism.  Darwinism was especially important to the genre, as the naturalists perceived a person's fate as the product of blind external or biological forces (chiefly heredity and environment). But in the typical naturalistic novel, change played a large part as well. 

    (The Harper Handbook of Literature)


American literary realism

  • “Where romanticists transcend the immediate to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual or superficial to find the scientific laws that control its actions, realists center their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequence"

    (A Handbook to Literature, Harmon and Holman)


Human destiny and human will

Human Destiny and Human Will

  • Romantic writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated the ability of human will to triumph over adversity. On the other hand, American realists believed that humanity's freedom of choice was limited by the power of outside forces. At another extreme were naturalists Stephen Crane and Frank Norris who supported the ideas of Emile Zola and the determinism movement.  Naturalists argued that individuals have no choice because a person's life is dictated by heredity and the external environment. 


Historical conditions

Historical Conditions

  • Industrial Revolution of the late 19th Century

    • Movement from rural to urban areas

    • Movement from farming to factory economy

    • Standardization, mass production of goods

  • Scientific Revolution of the late 19th Century

    • Truth and knowledge should be based on empirical data

  • Additional Developments

    • Growth of investigative journalism

    • Fascination with the camera

    • Increasing rates of literacy

    • Expanding population due to immigration

    • Rise in middle-class affluence


Characteristics of realism

Characteristics of Realism

  • Plot and Character

  • Character is more important than action and plot; complex ethical choices are often the subject.

  • Characters appear in the real complexity of temperament and motive; they are in explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past.

  • Humans control their destinies; characters act on their environment rather than simply reacting to it.

  • Renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail.  Selective presentation of reality with an emphasis on verisimilitude, even at the expense of a well-made plot.

  • Events will usually be plausible.  Realistic novels avoid the sensational, dramatic elements of naturalistic novels and romances.

  • Class is important; the novel has traditionally served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent middle class.


Characteristics of realism1

Characteristics of Realism

  • Structure of Prose

  • Diction is the natural vernacular, not heightened or poetic; tone may be comic, satiric, or matter-of-fact.

  • The use of symbolism is controlled and limited; the realists depend more on the use of images.

  • Objectivity in presentation becomes increasingly important: overt authorial comments or intrusions diminish as the century progresses.


Characteristics of realism2

Characteristics of Realism

  • Complexity and Multiplicity

  • Complexity refers to the interwoven, entangled density of experience

  • Multiplicity indicates the simultaneous existence of different levels of reality or of many truths, equally "true" from some point of view


Characteristics of realism3

Characteristics of Realism

  • Interpretation and Analysis

  • Realism is viewed as a realization of democracy.

  • The morality of Realism is intrinsic, integral, relativistic – relations between people and society are explored.

  • Realists were pragmatic, relativistic, democratic and experimental.  The purpose of writing is to instruct and to entertain.


American literary realism

  • American realists built their plots and characters around people's ordinary, everyday lives. Additionally, their works contained regional dialects and extensive dialogue which connected well with the public. As a result, readers were attracted to the realists because they saw their own struggles in print. Conversely, the public had little patience for the slow paced narratives, allegory and symbolism of the romantic writers. America was shifting into higher gear and readers wanted writers who clearly communicated the complexities of their human experiences.


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