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The American Nightmare: Realist Literature. “Richard Corey” by Edward Arlington Robinson.

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richard corey by edward arlington robinson
“Richard Corey” by Edward Arlington Robinson
  • Whenever Richard Cory went down town,We people on the pavement looked at him:He was a gentleman from sole to crown,Clean favored, and imperially slim.And he was always quietly arrayed,And he was always human when he talked; But still he fluttered pulses when he said,'Good-morning,' and he glittered when he walked.And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -And admirably schooled in every grace:In fine, we thought that he was everythingTo make us wish that we were in his place.So on we worked, and waited for the light,And went without the meat, and cursed the bread; And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,Went home and put a bullet through his head.
what is america
“What is America?”
  • For the Puritans(17th century), America was the work of God. Americans’ job was to glorify their Creator through commitment, sacrifice, hard work, and trust.

Buzzword: FAITH

For the Age of Reason folks(18thcentury), America was the work of man’s ingenuity, a land that could be organized, measured, and bound. Americans’ job was to better their communities using science, math, and reason.


For the Romantics (early 19th century), America was the work of man’s imagination, a land of wonder and prospects. Americans’ job was to celebrate themselves using the power of insight.


what is america1
“What is America?”
  • Forthe Realists (late 19th-early 20th century), America represented the absence of God and the failure of man’s ingenuity and imagination; America became a land of unequal opportunities and grim realities.


Realist Period:

Civil War through Great Depression

the divine presence
The Divine Presence
  • Puritans: believed in a personal God with a providential plan; they might have said, “That can be scary!”
  • Age of Reason folks: believed in an impersonal God that did not intervene in human affairs; they might have said, “That can be empowering!”
  • Romantics: believed in a Nature with which we commune; they might have said, “That can be scary and empowering!”
  • Realists: Remember The Great Gatsby?
  • Wilson says, “God sees everything.”
  • His neighbor says, “That’s just an advertisement.”
what is the american dream2
What is the American Dream?

“. . . the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

-James Adams 1931

Is this really possible?

american dream or american nightmare
American Dream, or American Nightmare?

Since the country’s earliest colonists, Americans have believed in the “dream” of a good, prosperous life of freedom and happiness.

But generation after generation has found this dream to be unreachable.

i historical context
I. Historical Context
  • Begins in 1865 with the Civil War
  • End date subject to debate – generally viewed as the end of the Great Depression
  • Encompasses a time of great turmoil and change in America

Timeline of Literary Eras

(so far)



Age of Reason








evolution of realist literature
Evolution of Realist Literature:

1925, 1937:

Life is Awful; Then You Die


Life is Awful, But There’s Hope


II. Principles

  • The American Dream is dead.
  • Life is cruel, violent, and disappointing.
  • Humanity is insignificant in the universe.
  • There is no God, or, if there is, he does not care about humanity.
  • Realism rejects Romanticism’s dream of infinite possibility.
  • Its literature aimed at representing and interpreting the actualities of life as it is (=verisimilitude).
iii style of literature
III. Style of Literature
  • Genre: Primarily fiction.
  • Style: Use of “everyday” language (like the contractions, coined terms, and conversational expressions in Huck Finn, the nicknames in The Great Gatsby,or the profanities in of Mice and Men).
  • Characterization/Plot: Often the protagonists fail in the pursuit of their dreams and/or are coldly killed.
  • Characterization/Setting: Man is not in communion with Nature. Nature is often presented as far-away and impersonal—and therefore merciless.
christmas bells by longfellow
“Christmas Bells” by Longfellow

And in despair I bowed my head“There is no peace on earth,” I said,“For hate is strong and mocks the songOf peace on earth, good will to men.”…Then from each black, accursed mouthThe cannon thundered in the South,And with the sound the carols drownedOf peace on earth good will to men.It was as if an earthquake rentThe hearth-stones of a continent,And made forlorn, the households bornOf peace on earth, good will to men.

karma by edwin arlington robinson
“Karma” by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Christmas was in the air and all was well

With him, but for a few confusing flaws

In divers of God's images. Because

A friend of his would neither buy nor sell,

Was he to answer for the axe that fell?

He pondered; and the reason for it was,

Partly, a slowly freezing Santa Claus

Upon the corner, with his beard and bell.

Acknowledging an improvident surprise,

He magnified a fancy that he wished

The friend whom he had wrecked were here again.

Not sure of that, he found a compromise;

And from the fullness of his heart he fished

A dime for Jesus who had died for men.