© Paul P. Reuben
Chapter 5: American Realism - A Brief Introduction
Outside Link: | Making of America | Wright American Fiction, 1851-1875 |
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October 26, 2011
"Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material." - William Dean Howells
The Local Color Movement (1865-1880)
The second half of the 19th c. saw America becoming increasingly self-conscious at the very time regional writers began to write about its various aspects. American wanted to know what their country looked like, and how the varied races which made up their growing population lived and talked. It was the age of the first mappings and surveyings of the West; it was the age of the in which the rails of of the first transcontinental railroad had bound East and West.
The East asked what kinds of people leading what kinds of life are at the end of those bands of iron?
The Western regionalists answered: Men and women like yourselves, but dressed differently, speaking differently, with different social ways: fantastic deserts, mile deep canyons, mountains high enough to bear snow the year round, forests with trees as wide as man can stretch and wider, villages where the only woman was the town whore, camps where the only currency was gold-dust.
Writers of the South told of swamps where the cypress grew out the green-scummed water and the moss grew down into it, and of the cities where the obsessive blood-consciousness of its inhabitants testified to the mingling of the races.
Mid-western authors narrated the tales of the plains where a man could be lost in the dust or ruined by hailstorm; of cities where where fortunes were made or lost in a day's trading on the beef or grain exchanges.
The literary map of America, so long a small corner of light in the east, with a glimmer on the southern coast, began to be totally illuminated.
Bret Harte and Mark Twain brought in California, Nevada, and Missouri; Edward Eggleston the hills of Indiana; George W. Cable and William Harben the Delta county and North Georgia; Mary Noailles Murfree the mountains of Tennessee; Sarah O. Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins freeman the back country of New England; Harold Frederick the upstate valleys of New York; E. W. Howe the village life of Kansas; Hamlin Garland the towns and plains of the Dakotas and Wisconsin; Henry Blake Fuller the cement cliffs of Chicago; Henry Harland the tenements of Manhattan.
"At its most compelling, American local-color realism points towards an imaginative sociology that is at once objective and visionary. The images it yields up compose the fragments of a book of the people, an essential history of their lives' common conditioning. Paradoxically, at this level of realization, the particular local circumstances begin to appear incidental. The same stories are told, in more or less detail, on all sides." (Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism; American Literature, 1884-1919. NY: Free P 1965. PS214 .B4, page 100)
| Top | Principles Of Realism
Identifying Characteristics Of Realistic Writing
Realistic 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.
There is the belief among the Realists that humans control their destinies; characters act on their environment rather than simply reacting to it. Character is superior to circumstance.
The Use Of Symbolism And Imagery
The Realists generally reject the kind of symbolism suggested by Emerson when he said "Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact." Their use of symbolism is controlled and limited; they depend more on the use of images.
| Top | Study Questions
1. Compare and contrast uses of humor in Clemens's "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," Harte's "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," and Freeman's "The Revolt of "Mother.""
2. Writers following the Civil War introduced a new strain of pessimism and despair into American literature. Compare and contrast evidence of this mood in Bierce's Chickamauga and Stephen Crane's An Episode of War.
3. Although frequently grouped together as local color writers, Bret Harte and Hamlin Garland reflect quite different concerns in their work than do Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman. Examine the use of point of view in a male and a female writer from this group. Does the narrator look at or with the characters? What characters are excluded from sharing the point of view? What effect does this have on the fiction?
4. Choosing specific characters on which to base your analysis, discuss differences in the portrayal of women characters and women's experience in local color writers Harte and Garland and regionalist writers Freeman, Jewett, Chopin, and Austin.
5. In each of the following stories, the female character behaves in an unconventional way: Freeman's A New England Nun, James's Daisy Miller, and Dreiser's Old Rogaum and His Theresa. Analyze the female characters in such a way as to explain some of the similarities and differences between regionalism, realism, and naturalism.
6. Unlike many of their early nineteenth-century predecessors, writers following the Civil War depicted people and places that might have been real by means of referential language. Others continued to use dream imagery in their work. Analyze Bierce's Chickamauga, Jewett's A White Heron, Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, and even Wovoka's vision of the Messiah, focusing on how the use of dream, vision, or altered perception affects the realism of the fiction.
7. Many late-nineteenth-century writers wrote in response to social conditions. Present a composite picture of their concerns by discussing the following group of texts: Clemens's "Letter IV," Charlot's [He has filled graves with our bones], Garland's Under the Lion's Paw, and Washington's "The Atlanta Exposition Address."
8. Discuss one of the following groups of works, with the goal of explaining differences between regionalist, realist, and naturalist writers: (a) Freeman's A New England Nun, James's Daisy Miller, and Dreiser's Old Rogaum and His Theresa; (b) Jewett's The Foreigner, Wharton's Ethan Frome, and Crane's The Blue Hotel; and (c) Austin's The Walking Woman, Howell's Editha, and Crane's The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.
9. Reexamine the poems of Whitman or Dickinson in light of the focus on fiction by most post-1865 writers. Choose any single lyric poem and consider its patterns of language or symbolism in light of similar patterns in fiction by local color, regionalist, or realist writers.
10. Research literary history of the post-1865 period and find other poets besides Whitman, Dickinson, and Crane. Write an essay analyzing individual poems and describing the larger context of work by a white woman such as Lydia Huntley Sigourney or a black woman such as Frances E. W. Harper.
11. Examine political writing by Cochise, Charlot, Washington, and Du Bois in the context of political writing in earlier periods of American literature. Does it share the same form? Does it innovate within the form? Does it combine forms? To what extent does it comment, implicitly or explicitly, on other literary genres of the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries?
12. Read literary historians (Fred Lewis Pattee, V. L. Parrington, Robert Spillers) for their discussions of local color and regional writing. Analyze any story in the text by Jewett, Chopin, Freeman, Austin, Chesnutt, Harte, Garland, or Oskison in light of the historical commentary.
13. Research a regional writer from your home state or region. Write an essay analyzing one of the sketches or stories by this writer.
14. Reread Howells's Novel-Writing and Novel-Reading and James's The Art of Fiction and construct the theory of realism that is possible using only these two texts.
15. Turn-of-the-century critics used the phrase new realists to describe the work of naturalists Crane, Dreiser, Norris, and London. Choose a work of fiction by any of these writers and consider the accuracy of the phrase. Based on your analysis, would you identify naturalism as a new genre or a derivative one (a "new" realism)? (Students interested in French literature may do a comparative essay on a novel by Zola and any of the American realist or naturalist texts, or might research some of Zola's own literary statements and evaluate those in light of statements and prefaces by Howells and James. Or read a novel by Flaubert and focus on connections between Flaubert and James.)
16. Whether in anticipation of or in the general climate of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), sexuality concerns several writers of the 1865&endash;1914 period. Analyze sexual imagery or attitudes toward sexuality in several of the following works: Howells's Editha; James's The Turn of the Screw; Jewett's A White Heron; Chopin's The Awakening, At the 'Cadian Ball, or The Storm; Freeman's A New England Nun; and Wharton's Ethan Frome.
MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 5: Late Nineteenth Century - American Realism - A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap5/5intro.html (provide page date or date of your login).
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