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American Literary Realism

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Ashley Squires

on 15 April 2013

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Transcript of American Literary Realism

American Literary Realism Jack London What is Realism? A problem of definitions Historical Label vs. Coherent Style or Genre:

"The great collective event in American letters during the 1880s and 1890s was the securing of 'realism' as the dominant standard of value." -Warner Berthoff (1965)

"It is hard to see Howells, Twain, and James--not to mention such successors as Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser--as constituting any single literary tradition or 'school' of literature; the differences among their characteristic modes are far more striking than their similarities. It is also virtually impossible to extract from their novels and manifestos any consistent definition of 'realism' (or of 'naturalism' as a specific kind of literary representation." -Michael Davitt Bell (1993) When we talk about realism in this class, it is inevitably going to look different depending on which author we're talking about. Therefore, one of the central questions we must ask of each text is what standards of realism the author sets up for him or herself. Where does realism come from? And what does it want? Response to the Civil War The Civil War, with its unprecedented levels of carnage, demanded new cultural responses to the problems of contingency and mortality: "This was more than jut a loss of faith; it was an issue of both epistemology and sensibility, of how we know the world and how we envision our relationship to it."

"One product of the Civil War was the proliferation of irony, of a posture of distance and doubt in relation to experience."

"[Ambrose] Bierce crafted unromanticized depictions of battle that reflected his fundamental approach to both writing and life: 'Cultivate a taste for distasteful truths. And ... most important of all, endeavor to see thing as they are, not as they ought to be."
-Drew Gilpin Faust (2008) Rejection of the Sentimental
and Romantic Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852 Response to industrialization and urbanization` Rise of the middle class
Growth of technology, telecommunications, and railways (flow of information and goods)
Population growth and immigration
Concentration of political and economic power in cities rather than rural areas
Rising concerns about social justice, economic inequality, and labor conditions The Industrial Revolution made available a new set of objects for literary representation. Many practitioners of realism and naturalism saw their literature as a social responsibility to represent aspects of human experience that weren't conventionally considered "literary." William Dean Howells Henry James Mark Twain Frank Norris Charles Chesnutt Sarah Orne Jewett Kate Chopin Edith Wharton "So I make truth the prime test of a novel. If I do not find that it is like life, then it does not exist for me as art; it is ugly, it is ludicrous, it is impossible. I do not expect a novel to be wholly true. I have never read one that seemed to me so except Tolstoy's novels: but I expect it to be a constant endeavor for the truth, and I perceive beauty in it so far as it fulfills this endeavor." -Howells, Novel Writing and Novel Reading Biography Born in Ohio in 1837
Went to New England in 1860 to meet Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and other major literaryfigures.
Holmes to Lowell: "Well, James, this is something like the apostolic succession; this is the laying on of hands."
Became chief editor of the Atlantic Monthly in 1871; retired in 1881 to write fiction.
Discovered and published most of the authors on this syllabus. Often referred to as the Dean of American Letters.
Major Works: A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, A Hazard of New Fortunes
Represents the epitome of the white male New England literary establishment and the intersection of art and commerce, and therefore served as a punching bag for subsequent generations Art in the service of "Truth"
Representation of everyday people and events
Devaluation of literary "style."
Fiction in the service of morality and social justice Sinclair Lewis: "Victorian and Howellsian timidity and gentility in American fiction" vs. "honesty and boldness and passion of life" (Nobel speech) Horace Scudder: "There is . . . in Mr. Howells's creed an assumption that literary art is of necessity false; that art is a foe to the best fiction.It is true that he understands by art something that is derivative and not in itself original, but there is throughout his book a latent distrust of any art of fiction." (The Atlantic) Henry James: "The style of the novel is part of the execution of a work of art; the execution of a work of art is part of its very essence, and that, it seems to me, must have mattered in all ages in exactly the same degree, and be destined always to do so." Frank Norris: "[Howellsian] Realism is minute, it is the drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block, the excitement of an afternoon call, the adventure of an invitation to dinner." Michael Davitt Bell, The Problem of American Realism, Ch. 1

Might we not reasonably infer from this that Howells needed to dissociate his identity as a writer from its "artistic" implications and that this dissociation was an important, perhaps a crucial component of the realism to which he turned in the 1880s? Such an approach might help us understand why so naive a notion as realism appealed to a man as intelligent as Howells--a man, moreover, with a friend as intelligent and as intelligently critical of Howellsian realism, as Henry James. It also might help us understand why this sort of realism has appealed to so many others, both American writers and American critics.

In this light let us return to the contention, in Criticism and Fiction, that critics have brought into books a "literary consciousness ...unfelt in the early masterpieces." Such consciousness, Howells claims, is "unfelt now only in the books of men whose lives have been passed in activities, who have been used to employing language as they would have employed any implement, to effect an object, who have regarded in such books "there is not a moment wasted in preening and prettifying, after the fashion of literary men. On the one side is the artist, overwhelmed and enervated by "literary consciousness," metaphorically feminized by his concern with "preening and prettifying," with "fashion." On the other side are "real" men, "men whose lives have been passed in activities," men who handle language as a burly carpenter hefts his tools. Howells's entire literary career was an effort to reconcile these divergent images of his potential identity as a writer, an effort undertaken long before he turned to the open advocacy of realism in the 1880s. "The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implications of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it - this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe." -James, The Art of Fiction Let us recall... "Howellsian realism, we have seen, is less a theoretical idea than an ideological construct. At its center stands two fundamental, and fundamentally related ideas. First of all, the task of literature is defined almost wholly in moral terms; the proper role of the writer (which is what, most basically, Howellsian realism is about) is understood almost entirely in terms of his responsibility to society. ... The second essential component of Howellsian realism grows directly out of the first: the realist exercises social responsibility, first of all, by discrediting what is irresponsible--the "romantic," the "literary," the "artificial," the merely "artistic." -Michael Davitt Bell To what degree is Twain a Howellsian Realist? Use of the vernacular and hostility to romantic or sentimental literature Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner-- or Southron, according to Sir Walter`s starchier way of phrasing it-- would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.
~Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi If Cooper had been an observer, his inventive faculty would have worked better, not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations" suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting gift. Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little everyday matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a "situation." -"James Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offences Biography Son of wealthy public intellectual Henry James, Sr. and brother of psychologist and philosopher William James
William James is known for being one of the first people to bring the study of psychology from Europe to the US -- author of The Varieties of Religious Experience
Left Harvard Law School to become a writer
Like Howells, James sought to become a literary professional but did not see "art" and "truth" as necessarily incompatible
Spent a good portion of his life in England and Europe
Became a British citizen in 1915 "James came to cast Howells into something like the role he would always assign to his brother William: the necessary foil to his own supposedly single-minded pursuit of 'the aesthetic dream." ~Michael Davitt Bell Jamesian "Realism" Narrative Perspective: I hardly know whether it was the analogies or the differences that were uppermost in the mind of a young American, who, two or three years ago, sat in the garden of the "Trois Couronnes," looking about him, rather idly, at some of the graceful objects I have mentioned. It was a beautiful summer morning, and in whatever fashion the young American looked at things, they must have seemed to him charming. He had come from Geneva the day before by the little steamer, to see his aunt, who was staying at the hotel--Geneva having been for a long time his place of residence. But his aunt had a headache-- his aunt had almost always a headache--and now she was shut up in her room, smelling camphor, so that he was at liberty to wander about. He was some seven-and-twenty years of age; when his friends spoke of him, they usually said that he was at Geneva "studying." When his enemies spoke of him, they said--but, after all, he had no enemies; he was an extremely amiable fellow, and universally liked. What I should say is, simply, that when certain persons spoke of him they affirmed that the reason of his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there--a foreign lady--a person older than himself. Very few Americans--indeed, I think none--had ever seen this lady, about whom there were some singular stories. But Winterbourne had an old attachment for the little metropolis of Calvinism; he had been put to school there as a boy, and he had afterward gone to college there--circumstances which had led to his forming a great many youthful friendships. Many of these he had kept, and they were a source of great satisfaction to him.
-James, Daisy Miller, A Study Psychological studies: Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably active. It had been her fortune to possess a finer mind than most of the persons among whom her lot was cast; to have a larger perception of surrounding facts and to care for knowledge that was tinged with the unfamiliar. It is true that among her contemporaries she passed for a young woman of extraordinary profundity; for these excellent people never withheld their admiration from a reach of intellect of which they themselves were not conscious, and spoke of Isabel as a prodigy of learning, a creature reported to have read the classic authors--in translations. Her paternal aunt, Mrs. Varian, once spread the rumour tha Isabel was writing a book--Mrs. Varian having a reverence for books, and averred that the girl would distinguish herself in print. Mrs. Varian thought highly of literature, for which she entertained that esteem that is connected with a sense of privation. her own large house, remarkable for its assortment of mosaic tables and decorated ceilings, was unfurnished with a library, and in the way of printed volumes contained nothing but half a dozen novels in paper on a shelf in the apartment of one of the Miss Varians. Practically, Mrs. Varian's acquaintance with literature was confined to The New York Interviewer; as she very justly said, after you had read the Interviewer you had lost all faith in culture. -James, The Portrait of a Lady, Ch. VI Biography Born in Florida, Missouri in 1835
Moved to Hannibal, which served as the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, at age 4
Worked as a typesetter and contributed humorous sketches to the Hannibal Journal as a teenager
Worked on riverboats, eventually as a pilot, from 1857-1861
Headed out west after the outbreak of the Civil War, eventually made his reputation as a journalist and travel writer
Married Olivia Langdon, daughter of wealthy social reformers, and through her met Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and William Dean Howells
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885 The naturalist takes no note of common people, common in so far as their interests, their lives, and the things that occur in them are common, are ordinary. Terrible things must happen to the characters of the naturalistic tale. They must be twisted from the ordinary, wrenched out from the quiet, uneventful round of every-day life, and flung into the throes of a vast and terrible drama that works itself out in unleashed passions, in blood, and in sudden death.
These great, terrible dramas no longer happen among the personnel of a feudal and Renaissance nobility, those who are in the fore-front of the marching world, but among the lower--almost the lowest classes; those who have been thrust or wrenched from the ranks, who are falling by the roadway. This is not romanticism--this drama of the people, working itself out in blood and ordure. It is not realism. It is a school by itself, unique, somber, powerful beyond words. It is naturalism.
- Frank Norris This is the real Realism. It is the smaller details of everyday life, things that are likely to happen between lunch and supper, small passions, restricted emotions, dramas of the reception-room, tragedies of an afternoon call, crises involving cups of tea.
~Norris, Zola as Romantic Writer Human beings subject to inescapable biological forces
Influenced by evolutionary science, particularly the writings of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer
More concerned with the working class (Howells and James tended to write about the middle and upper classes)
Set in places where human beings must confront the elements, hunger, privation, human depravity, and mortality - the battlefield, city slums, the frontier Naturalism Biography Born in Chicago in 1870, moved to San Francisco in 1884
Educated in Paris as a teenager, where he became interested in the novels of Emile Zola.
Attended UC Berkeley from 1890-1894, where he was exposed to the evolutionary theories of Darwin and Spencer.
Became a war correspondent for the San Francisco Wave and McClure's Magazine, which was at the vanguard of the muckraking movement.
His work tended to be socially conscious and journalistic, in the vein of Upton Sinclair.
His other widely read novel, The Octopus, depicts the working conditions on the Pacific and Southwest Railroad.
Interested in the animalistic tendencies of man. "The return to nature, the naturalistic evolution which marks the century, drives little by little all the manifestation of human intelligence into the same scientific path" -Emile Zola, "The Experimental Novel It is true that the rallying cry of the critics against so-called immoral literature is that the mental virtue of the reader must be preserved; but this has become a house of refuge to which every form of social injustice hurries for protection. The influence of intellectual ignorance and physical and moral greed upon personal virtue produces the chief tragedies of the age, and yet the objection to the discussion of the sex question is so great as to almost prevent the handling of the theme entirely.
-Dreiser, "True Art Speaks Plainly" Biography Born in Cleveland, OH to two "free persons of color." His paternal grandfather was a slaveholder.
Due to his appearance, he could "pass" as a white man but self-identified as African American.
Began writing short stories in 1887 for magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly and published his first collection in 1899. Wilmington Massacre of 1898 Wilmington, NC was majority black prior to and in the decades following the Civil War
After the war, Republicans made major inroads in state offices as a result of coalitions formed among newly enfranchised freedmen and whites who were supportive of emancipation and reconstruction.
KKK chapters and other white supremacist groups (the Red Shirts) were formed to suppress the black vote, and white Democrats came to dominate state politics in the 1880s and 1890s.
In 1898, the city elected a biracial government. 1/3 of the aldermen were black.
White supremacists organized a secret committee with the explicit purpose of replacing the government with white Democrats.
The secret coalition demanded that the Committee of Colored Citizens run Alexander Manly, owner of the only black-owned newspaper in the state, out of town.
When their demands were not met, they formed an armed mob and burned down the newspaper building. By that point, the white leaders lost control of the group, and whites began attacking black citizens at random.
Fatality numbers remain unclear (possibly as high as 100), but the effect of the violence was to force 2100 black citizens out of town, eviscerating the black community and making Wilmington majority white.
The biracial government of Wilmington was effectively overthrown, and the usurpers passed the first Jim Crow laws for North Carolina. On Dialect... The short stories in Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman play with and subvert the tropes of fictional depictions of the ante-bellum South, epitomized by the stories of Joel Chandler Harris, famous for the Uncle Remus character. We can observe Chesnutt working with black archetypes and the conventions of dialect fiction with characters like Jane and Sandy. Birth of a Nation, 1915
Epitomizes the conflation of black political power with the alleged threat of black male sexuality to white women White rioters stand in front of the charred remains of Alexander Manly's newspaper building. Competing models of African American protest W.E.B. DuBois Radical view of racial progress
Philosopher, insisted that freedmen needed access to high culture and intellectual pursuits in addition to technical expertise and business acumen
Thought institutional racism needed to be eradicated regardless of how white people felt about it Booker T. Washington Accommodationist view of racial progress
Focused on technical education and business as the path to enfranchisement (founded the Tuskeegee Institute in 1881)
Predominantly concerned with personal over institutional racism Biography Born in 1876 in San Francisco to a working class family
Began working factory jobs at the young age of 13 and as a teenager did stints as a sailor, a manual laborer, and a tramp.
Eventually enrolled in UC Berkeley thanks to the kindness of an Oakland Bar Owner, who lent him the tuition money, but left after a year due to financial circumstances.
Joined the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, which provided the inspiration for many of his most successful stories.
Became interested in social justice and looked to writing as a way to get out of poverty.
Achieved considerable wealth and fame through his writing, though he maintained his radical political stance throughout his life. Naturalism and Masculinity "[A] literary genre typically seen as the most hypermasculine in American literary history, and part and parcel of a broader cultural moment considered wholly its equal in clamorous 'virility.'" "Naturalism is seen as either fatalistic or nostalgic in the face of modern life. If fatalistic, it depicts modern individuals bereft of agency or vitality, dwarfed by a cityscape of soulless mechanical dynamos, spiraling steadily downward in 'plots of decline'; to the extent that 'nature' survives here, it does so in the distorted form of traits linked to decadence or atavism. If nostalgic, the reverse is true: naturalism goes along with a renewal of what Roosevelt called 'the strenuous life,' returning masculine power and adventure to a vitiated modernity by rediscovering the freedoms and struggles associated with a still wide-open, untarnished natural landscape."

- Jennifer Fleissner- Women, Compulsion, Modernity London is most frequently identified with the brand of naturalism that depicts men and beasts struggling for survival against implacable natural forces. He is also deeply concerned with nature vs. nurture, animal instinct vs. free will Biography "Howells, we recall, sought to dissociate realism from 'preening and prettifying, after the fashion of literary men'--to associate it, instead, with 'the world of men's activities.' In this respect, American local color fiction produced by such women as Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Rose Terry Cooke, and others--is the very antithesis of Howellsian realism. For if realism sought to ally itself with 'the world of men's activities,' the characteristic world of New England local color fiction is distinguished above all by the absence of men and masculine activity. The young and fit have fled this world for a reality which is always elsewhere, in the West or in the city, while those who remain, mostly women, maintain old proprieties and rituals whose function, like the men, seems long since to have vanished."
~Michael Davitt Bell Regionalism/Local Color "[Regionalism] requires a setting outside the world of modern development, a zone of backwardness where locally variant folkways still prevail. Its characters are ethnologically colorful, personifications of the different humanity produced in such non-modern cultural settings. Above all, this fiction features an extensive written simulation of regional vernacular, a conspicuous effort to catch the nuances of local speech"
-Richard Brodhead, Cultures of Letters "Economic or political power can itself be seen to be definitive of a realist aesthetic, in that those in power (say, white urban males) have been more often judged 'realists,' while those removed from the seats of power (say, Midwesterners, blacks, immigrants, or women) have been categorized as regionalists"
-Eric Sundquist Along with the work of the Main-born Sarah Orne Jewett, Freeman's regionalist short stories have more recently formed a major site for feminist recoveries of a view of domestic life that honors its seriousness and relation to artistic strivings. Such arguments have very specifically targeted a sense that these female regionalists' small, daily concerns were rendered obsolete, in the 1890s, by the red-blooded adventure writing of the up-and-coming male naturalists, which left regionalism's stifling drawing rooms behind for the wide-open wilderness and the urban street. Seen in retrospect through this modernizing lens, figures such as Freeman's Louisa Ellis, heroine of her story "A New England Nun," appeared to evince an attachment to the genteel, domestic virtues of order and cleanliness seen as bordering on the obsessional. It was this pathologizing view of regionalism's housebound women to which feminism, unsurprisingly, took strong objection. - Jennifer Fleissner Born in 1849 to a Maine doctor
Remained in Maine for most of her life, though she would journey to Boston to visit influential literary figures, including James T. Fields (who preceded Howells as the editor of the Atlantic Monthly and was a partner at the publishing house of Ticknor and Fields)
Served as the influence for many other regionalist writers, including Willa Cather Like Jewett and many other lesser known female writers, Kate Chopin has been the subject of feminist recovery projects beginning in the 1970s. Her work was not widely appreciated during her own time but has later been included in anthologies and celebrated for its proto-feminist depictions of women, her frank portrayal of sexuality, and her stylistic accomplishments. Biography Born in 1850 in St. Louis, Missouri to an Irish immigrant father and a French Canadian mother.
Married Oscar Chopin in 1870 and moved to New Orleans.
Regularly vacationed at Grand Isle, where the first part of The Awakening is set.
Oscar Chopin died in 1882, leaving his wife to provide for six children on her own.
Began publishing her writing in 1889. She wrote two novels and about 100 short stories, most of them focused on the Acadian/Cajun culture of Louisiana, often featuring female protagonists struggling to reconcile their innermost desires with the self they must present to the world.
The Awakening was widely condemned as vulgar at the time of its publication in 1899.
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