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REALISM AND NATURALISM
The period 1865-1914 was the Age of Realism in American literature, and now stands as one of the most
important and durable moments in American literary history. It has continued to exert an enormous influence in
the work of major writers and the expectations of modern readers.
Few realists claimed that they had their right answers for what American society has been faced with. In a time
of great American anxiety and uncertainty, “serious” literature was expected to offer an engagement with the
real world rather than an escape from it. The engagement of Realism meant examining many of the issues that
perplexed Americans then and continue to do so now: the implications of scientific advances and
modernization; the growth of cities; the struggle for women writers; tensions arising from immigration and race
relations; and the painful transformation of family life.
What critics and historians agree on is the fact that the struggles and sacrifices necessary to end slavery and
unify the nation radically transformed America’s views of themselves, its society, and the world at large.
Romanticism and sentimentality could no longer adequately communicate the new challenges confronting the
nation.
Modernism reconfigured Realism for its own purposes, and Realism never truly lost its hold on twentieth-
century American literature. The movement itself raises various and important questions: how to reconcile the
work of Henry James with that of Mark Twain, or whether Naturalism can be viewed as a literary genre
fundamentally aligned to the principles of Realism, or as a distinct literary phenomenon. The relative lack of a
coherent philosophy and unity among the Realists can be explained by the fact that definitions of American
Realism were time-bound by the decades between the Civil War and WWI, rather than framed by a clear
philosophy.
Representing the “real” meant that American life and language had to be incorporated into a novel: realist
characters reflected the growing interest in psychology, and the recognition that individuals were complex and
often driven by contradictory motives. Characters became so fundamental in determining the plot of a novel,
and worked with setting and plot together so closely to reproduce in fiction the tensions of American society.
This led to the perception of Realism as a radical and sometimes scandalous literary practice.
Common life and the ordinary characters on which the realist depended are not so common and ordinary:
runaway slaves, millionaires, revolutionary suicides, and princesses are somewhat exceptional. However, the
realists also came to conventional conclusions about the qualities men and women must have in dealing with
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each other: honesty, justice, mercy, love. The Civil War was the pivotal event: there is no question that America
was significantly altered by this cataclysmic conflict.
The postwar era known as a Reconstruction was an attempt to impose northern social, economic, and political
models on the nation as a whole. National unity became more important that states’ rights. American Realists
examined the economic and psychological effect of the Civil War and the changes introduces in the decades
that followed, but the first generation of Realists rarely dealt with the war itself. The Civil War changed
American social and economic life in significant and lasting ways. It was the age of inventions and staggering
productivity; an enormously wealthy class of industrialists who had grown rich on war contracts was created;
and with the end of the war, this class moved to extend corrupt business practices into the peacetime economy.
The realists were deeply engaged in recording the contradictions and cruelties of an age in which money
defined personality and social behavior.
America’s preoccupation with the frontier, and literature about it during the Gilded Age was evident in many
genres: popular writings followed the successive openings of the American frontier. Mark Twain, the greatest
single voice Western American literature produces, was a product of the period. The bestsellers created an
impression of a wild, sometimes violent and lawless West. The rise of the role of cities in national life
perplexed the many Americans from the predominantly agricultural society that characterized the country until
the Civil War. Like the nation itself, the realist responses to the specter of the city ranged from awe and
amazement to fascination and horror. The major consequence of this demographic shift from farm to city was
that rural areas were driven into sustained period of economic depression and decline in the 1880s and 1890s.
This led to deep and lasting divisions between cities and poverty-stricken rural areas: farmers suffered immense
and lasting hardships. The tragic impact of modernization and the new culture of money and rampant
speculation and rural values were illustrated in the novels and short stories of Hamlin Garland.
The 1890 census revealed that the total population of the United States had risen to 63 million, of which the
foreign-born portion was nine-million. The frontier was closed, a new era for America just started. The era
generated a moral panic and eventually repressive, anti-immigration legislation among native whites because
the new immigrants tended to move in the cities as cheap labor and were of different ethnic background from
earlier immigrant generations. In American cities, conflicts between capital and labor, and a hardened class
structure especially fascinated the Realists, and later the Naturalists. Three classic works of early American
naturalism, Stephen Crane’s Maggie, Frank Norris’ Mc Teague, and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carry, all take
the city as their setting.
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Realists wanted to portray human thoughts and interaction in a recognizable style, and within a credible moral
and emotional framework, life in all its complex and often ambiguous forms. W.D. Howells, Mark Twain and
other Realists believed sentimentalism created a false and damaging view of life, and in both their fiction and
critical essays sought to expose its falsehood. All these writers of this period responded to the drastic economic
and social alternations occurring in America by turning from romance to realism, and then later, to naturalism.
As a high point of American Realism, these decades were dominated by the fiction and criticism of W.D.
Howells, Mark Twain and Henry James. These writers constitute the core of the first generation of American
Realism.
Naturalism
By the end of 1890s, a younger generation of writers offered a more radical vision and explanation for the
changes in America. Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris, considered Howellsian Realism to be
too soft, too accommodating to middle class aspirations, and therefore not realistic enough. Drawing on the
ideas of Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, and Emile Zola, the philosophy of American literary naturalism was
born. Naturalist fiction has often been accused of being overly programmatic, rigidly conforming to a
deterministic view of the world, in which individuals become victims of either their primitive desires, or social
forces beyond their control.
The writers of American Naturalism can be divides into two groups. The first emphasized the biological nature
of humans and showed them attempting how to use their instincts to survive in a hostile natural world belong to
the first group. The second, more common, kind of Naturalism was less programmatic in its approach to
characters and action; it is more concerned with humans in their social environment as products of
socioeconomic forces, against which they struggle. Naturalism was views as a starting point for novel rather
than a rigid form into that characters and action had to be fitted. This kind of Naturalism was widely adopted
and endured well into the twentieth century. Writers such as Upton Sinclair also created a Naturalistic
framework within which the injustices of society could be questioned and explored. Naturalistic writers created
sympathy for oppressed characters and their struggles against an unjust and powerful society, influencing their
readers to agitate for social change.