Realism in 19th Century American Fiction

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Last updated: June 16, 2019

The 19th century is considered to mark the origin of realism as a literary movement in the United States. American writers following the era of change in American life, moved steadily from Romanticism towards Realism, which was to lead the next step of Naturalism. The process was gradual, reflecting the periodic fluctuations in the history of American society. In this process, the Civil War provided a dramatic point of cleavage.

In 1865 at the end of the Civil War many of the authors who had been famous or influential before the war were dead or had lost their influence.Dead were Washington Irving, James F. Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. After the war in the 1880’s, it was not possible to deal with genteel literature. There was distaste for a polite literature characterized by idealizing sentiment and genteel affectation. The writers fought the Victorian element which was represented among others in false emotions and sentimentalism.

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There was an urge to depict the less rosy side in the society at the end of the 19th century.Thus, a growing feeling for a truly original literature was emerging as realism came as a reaction against Romanticism. Realism –which has been described as either a literary school, a literary movement or period, a way of looking at literature and life – aims at reproducing the material of everyday life (the actual life) as truthfully and as accurately as possible: “Realism in nothing more and nothing less than the truthful presentation of material” (Howells).

Realism meant representing real life, life as it is with truth and accuracy.It involved verisimilitude, i. e. the appearance of truth, which is derived from observation and documentation. Realism urged at pragmatism in facing reality.

It is thus to write about environment one knew, with strict regard to its actual properties as speech, behavior, scene. The adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain The realists believed that the central issues of life tend to be ethical – i. e.

, issues of conduct. Fiction therefore should concern itself with such issues and present these issues accurately as they affect us in actual situations.Furthermore, the democratic attitudes of realists tended to make them value the individual very highly and to praise characterization as the centre of the novel. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, realism became psychological perception of character. In the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton it is inner life and human relationships which are scrutinized. The realistic writer has to be an objective writer (absence of authorial judgment) who gives concrete details and interprets life.For this, the novel has remained the chief genre for realism in modern literature, but realism was not limited to anyone form. THE CAUSES WHICH LED TO THE RISE OF REALISM IN AMERICAN FICTION 1.

The Westward movement: i. e. the Frontier, provided new themes. The stories brought back by the pioneers, the Gold Rush – in 1848-49 gold was discovered in California – gave impetus to realistic fiction. 2. The rise of industrialism: brought about a new way of life with the emergence of big cities and the flow of inhabitants from the country to the city.The rural exodus led to the development of vices, crimes, urban problems. There was a disruption of values which was to be accounted for in fiction.

3. The impact of science: new scientific discoveries led to a spirit of inquiry. People were to face the problems under the angle of reality, not from the spiritual or supernatural angle. 4. The influence of foreign writers: Realism occurred earlier in Europe than in America, from late 1850’s to late 1880’s. American writers were stimulated by French and British models.Writers such as Balzac and Flaubert considered that the novel was not simply escapist fantasy but it should record man’s social life in minute and particular detail.

There should be no polish, no hiding or anything. Moreover, the influence of Russian realists like Dostoevski and Tolstoi was also important. 5.

The spirit of democracy: some American writers decided to express the concerns and realities of the average American man. For them everything is literary and every human being can be made the subject of interesting and important fiction.THE EMERGENCE OF REALISTIC FICTION IN THE U. S. IN THE 19th century As new regions of the U.

S. were opened to settlement after the War, so new frontiers of literature open too. Writers depicted their own local landscapes in realistic detail. Thus realism started to emerge in local color fiction. In local color fiction literature one finds the dual influence of romanticism and realism, since the author frequently looks away from ordinary life to distant lands, strange customs, or exotic scenes, but retains through minute details a sense of fidelity and accuracy of description.

After the war, between 1867-1872, since it was an age of transition, some writers were caught between the ideals of the older world and those of a new age. Many writers among the pioneers of realism retained a touch of nostalgia such as the early regionalists (Bret Harte (California), G/ W. Cable (Louisiana Creole culture) and Joel C. Harris). Moreover, women writers from the south contributed to the local color movement.

C. f. ate Chopin. After the War during the years from 1867-1872, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Henry James, W. D. Hawells, and W. D.

Forrest were the freat figures of the realistic movement. Mark Twain belonged to southwest humor. Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn evolved from his interest in humor and local color.

Hawells, who was called the dean of American letters during this period was a literary mentor to Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, Henry James and Stephen Crane. He was for decency, for “the smiling aspects of life”. There was in him a Victorian reluctance to depict vulgarity mixed with realism. He describes only what he knows – the shortcomings of the Middle Class.

He did not know about the vices of the lower classes


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