The Style of Realism in Literature Focuses on

The Style of Realism in Literature Focuses on

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Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890

For a much more than all-encompassing description than appears on this cursory page, see the works listed in the realism  bibliography and the bibliographies on William Dean Howells.


Broadly defined as “the faithful representation of reality” or “verisimilitude,” realism is a literary technique practiced by many schools of writing. Although strictly speaking, realism is a technique, information technology also denotes a particular kind of subject matter, especially the representation of middle-class life. A reaction against romanticism, an interest in scientific method, the systematizing of the study of documentary history, and the influence of rational philosophy all afflicted the rise of realism. According to William Harmon and Hugh Holman, “Where romanticists transcend the firsthand to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual or superficial to discover the scientific laws that control its deportment, realists middle their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable effect” (A Handbook to Literature

Many critics accept suggested that there is no clear stardom between realism and its related late nineteenth-century motility, naturalism. As Donald Pizer notes in his introduction to
The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London, the term “realism” is difficult to define, in function because it is used differently in European contexts than in American literature. Pizer suggests that “whatsoever was being produced in fiction during the 1870s and 1880s that was new, interesting, and roughly similar in a number of ways tin be designated every bit
realism, and that an as new, interesting, and roughly similar body of writing produced at the turn of the century can be designated equally
naturalism” (5). Put rather besides simplistically, ane rough distinction made by critics is that realism espousing a deterministic philosophy and focusing on the lower classes is considered naturalism.

In American literature, the term “realism” encompasses the catamenia of time from the Civil War to the plow of the century during which William Dean Howells, Rebecca Harding Davis, Henry James, Mark Twain, and others wrote fiction devoted to accurate representation and an exploration of American lives in various contexts. As the United States grew rapidly after the Civil War, the increasing rates of commonwealth and literacy, the rapid growth in industrialism and urbanization, an expanding population base due to clearing, and a relative rise in middle-class abundance provided a fertile literary environment for readers interested in understanding these rapid shifts in civilization. In drawing attention to this connectedness, Amy Kaplan has called realism a “strategy for imagining and managing the threats of social change” (Social Construction of American Realism

Realism was a motion that encompassed the entire country, or at least the Midwest and South, although many of the writers and critics associated with realism (notably Due west. D. Howells) were based in New England. Amid the Midwestern writers considered realists would be Joseph Kirkland, E. Westward. Howe, and Hamlin Garland; the Southern author John Westward. DeForest’southward
Miss Ravenal’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty
is ofttimes considered a realist novel, as well.


(from Richard Chase,
The American Novel and Its Tradition)

  • Renders reality closely and in comprehensive particular. Selective presentation of reality with an emphasis on verisimilitude, fifty-fifty at the expense of a well-made plot
  • Character is more important than action and plot; circuitous upstanding choices are ofttimes the subject area.
  • Characters appear in their real complication of temperament and motive; they are in explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past.
  • Form is important; the novel has traditionally served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent middle class. (See Ian Watt,
    The Ascension of the Novel)
  • Events will usually exist plausible. Realistic novels avoid the sensational, dramatic elements of naturalistic novels and romances.
  • Diction is natural vernacular, non heightened or poetic; tone may exist comic, satiric, or matter-of-fact.
  • Objectivity in presentation becomes increasingly important: overt authorial comments or intrusions diminish as the century progresses.
  • Interior or psychological realism a variant class.
  • In
    Black and White Strangers, Kenneth Warren suggests that a bones difference between realism and sentimentalism is that in realism, “the redemption of the private lay within the social globe,” merely in sentimental fiction, “the redemption of the social world lay with the individual” (75-76).
  • The realism of James and Twain was critically acclaimed in twentieth century; Howellsian realism fell into disfavor as function of early on twentieth century rebellion against the “genteel tradition.”


    Other Views of Realism

    “The basic axiom of the realistic view of morality was that there could be no moralizing in the novel [ . . . ] The morality of the realists, then, was built upon what appears a paradox–morality with an abhorrence of moralizing. Their upstanding behavior called, beginning of all, for a rejection of scheme of moral beliefs imposed, from without, upon the characters of fiction and their actions. Even so Howells always claimed for his works a deep moral purpose. What was it? It was based upon 3 propositions: that life, social life as lived in the globe Howells knew, was valuable, and was permeated with morality; that its continued wellness depended upon the utilize of homo reason to overcome the anarchic selfishness of human passions; that an objective portrayal of man life, by art, will illustrate the superior value of social, civilized man, of human reason over animal passion and primitive ignorance” (157). Everett Carter,
    Howells and the Age of Realism
    (Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1954).

    “Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the well-nigh ordinary and uninteresting, in order to excerpt from these their full value and truthful meaning. Information technology would auscultate in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the boggling, 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 in that location; tho mensurate the changes in their growth, to watch the symptoms of moral decay or regeneration, to fathom their histories of passionate or intellectual problems. In curt, realism reveals. Where we thought zilch worth of discover, it shows everything to exist rife with significance.”

    — George Parsons Lathrop, ‘The Novel and its Future,”
    Atlantic Monthly
    34 (September 1874):313 24.

    “Realism is nil more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of fabric.” –William Dean Howells, “Editor’s Study,”
    Harper’s New Monthly Mag
    (Nov 1889), p. 966.

    “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

    Context and Controversy

    In its ain fourth dimension, realism was the bailiwick of controversy; debates over the suitability of realism equally a mode of representation led to a critical substitution known equally the realism war.
    (Click here for a cursory overview.)

    The realism of James and Twain was critically acclaimed in the twentieth century. Howellsian realism fell into aversion, yet, equally part of early twentieth century rebellion against the “genteel tradition.” For an business relationship of these and other issues, see the realism bibliography and essays by Pizer, Michael Anesko, Richard Lehan, and Louis J. Budd, amid others, in the
    Cambridge Guide to Realism and Naturalism.

    © 1997-2013. Donna M. Campbell. Some data adjusted from
    Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915
    (Athens: Ohio Academy Press, 1997).

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    Campbell, Donna M. “Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890.”
    Literary Movements. Dept. of English language, Washington State University. Date of publication or most contempo update (listed above as the “last modified” date; you don’t need to betoken the time). Web. Date you accessed the folio.

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