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Transcript of American Realism
Realism dominated the period immediately following the Civil War (1865/70 to 1900/10)
Corresponds to the rise of capitalism, industrialism, and urbanism
Corresponds to the rise of photography
Realism gave way to modernism in the early 20th c., but it still continues today
Reaction to Romanticism:
Romanticists transcend the immediate to find the ideal
Realists focus on the immediate, specific state
Reject the idealism, unlikely plot twists, Gothic or exotic settings of Romance
Attempt to make a snapshot of reality
“In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worthy of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance.” –George Parsons Lathrop (1874)
“Realism is nothing more and nothing less than truthful treatment of the material.” –William Dean Howells (1889)
“Truthful treatment” places verisimilitude as the highest virtue
Close attention to detail and specifics (“snapshot”)
Focus on details that ring true to the reader
Choice of plots that mirror reality of readers’ lives
What do Realists focus on?
Middle class life and manners
Here and now
Actions and consequences
Ethical issues (issues of conduct)
Individuals (rather than the ideal), exploring the psychology of characters
“Let fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know; let it not put on fine literary airs; let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know—the language of unaffected people everywhere—and there can be no doubt of an unlimited future, not only of delightfulness but of usefulness, for it.” –William Dean Howells (1889)
What do we mean by “truthful”?
What do we mean by “material”?
What do Realists believe in?
Interest in the effect of their work on its audience and life
“What does fiction do?”
Focus on common experience, the everyday
Focus on the middle classes
Corresponds to rise in middle class readership
Life lacks symmetry and structure; thus, fiction should not impose symmetry on experience.
Artificial plot structures
Straightforward prose (vernacular, dialect)
Sometimes satiric or humorous
Differs from Romanticism in
its focus on the common individual rather than the ideal,
its rejection of unlikely plot twists and exotic settings, and
its straightforward rather than overwrought language.
Differs from Naturalism primarily in its optimism and its belief that individuals, not social forces, control destiny.
William Dean Howells
Charles W. Chesnutt
Sarah Orne Jewett
When was it written?
What is its subject?
How does it treat that subject?
What is its style?
What is its tone?
Realism was controversial
Some people thought it was boring
"We read the Bostonians and The Rise of Silas Lapham with a due appreciation of their minute perfections, but we go to bed quite cheerfully at our usual hour, and are content to wait an interval of leisure to resume them." --Agnes Repplier, writing of Howells' novels
Others thought it was depressing
"It is too unhappily true to life to be tolerable reading for anyone past youth who knows what trouble is, who does not need and does not wish to have the woe of life thrust upon his notice and pressed down into his soul more than it already and inevitably is." --Letter to the Atlantic Monthly about a realist novel.
Others thought it was dangerous
"[I]ts tendency to blight germs of spirituality is hardly less harmful to character than is the corrupting influence of novels which describe the base or vicious sides of life. No one is the better for its trivial worldly wisdom, while the young and impressionable are apt to be the worse." --Critic in The Nation on a realist novel.
"the world is tired of Kodak pictures of the dreary commonplaces of life" --editorial in The Literary World
"She is not a nice girl. She talks too much, and talks in a slangy, jerky way that odiously vulgar. She is frank, too frank, on every subject and occasion. She is contemptuous of authority, even of parental authority, and behaves in a high-handed way about her love affairs. She is alas! something of a freethinker. She rides a bicycle, and plays tennis, and rows a boat. She laughs loudly, and dresses in manly fashion, and acts altogether in accord with an epoch that travels its sixty miles in an hour." --Amelia E. Barr on the typical heroine of realism
These quotes are excerpted from "Howells and the Controversy over Realism in American Fiction," by Herbert Edwards.