Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The period between the Civil War (1861-1865) and the First World War (1914-1918) witnessed tremendous changes in the United States, as we have seen. From a small, young agricultural country, it was transformed into a huge, modern, industrial nation, with all sorts of problems, like immigration and social struggle. All these changes, together with the birth of realism in Europe as a reaction against Romanticism (with writers like Stendhal, Flaubert or Balzac in France) brought about this new literary period in the United States.

The champion of Realism in the USA was WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS (1837-1920), who defended its principles as a critic, an editor and a novelist. Realism for him was an attack against a romanticized vision of life, an attempt to write about ‘real life’, and to criticize the new industrialized society with its associated poverty, inequality and the rise of materialism. Frequently a moral attitude runs together with the literary principles. Howells’s best novel is The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), the story of an ordinary businessman who becomes rich and tries to join Boston’s ‘high society’.

HENRY JAMES (1843-1916) practiced a different kind of realism. He was an observer of the mind rather than a recorder of the times. So, he was more interested in psychological realism and tried to show the process of thought that his brother William termed ‘stream of consciousness’. He also wrote about the difficulty of reflecting real life through literature (the importance of appearances and perception, the relationships between fact and fiction). In this aspect, he was a precursor of modernism. He spent most of his life in Europe and many of his novels deal with Americans trying to adapt themselves to European civilization: Daisy Miller (1879), The Ambassadors (1903) or The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Americans tend to be naive characters defeated by the stiff, traditional values of Europe. Quite interesting too are his short stories, like the ghost story “The Turn of the Screw” (1898) and “The Real Thing” (1893), about the relationship between art and reality.

EDITH WHARTON (1862-1937) is frequently associated with James as a ‘Cosmopolitan novelist’ because she also spent a large part of her life in Europe and made the contrast between Americans and Europeans a recurrent theme in her novels. In Ethan Frome (1911) and The Age of Innocence (1920) she shows the contrast between the natural instincts of people and a hypocritical society.

Another manifestation of realism is Regionalism (also known as ‘Local Color’), a diffuse movement of writers who mixed the qualities of realism with a strong feeling for a particular area in the USA. New England was the setting of the stories and novels of SARAH ORNE JEWETT (1849-1909, “The White Heron”, 1896) and HARRIET BEECHER STOWE (1811-1896, who also wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The West provided the setting and character for the writings of BRET HARTE (1836-1902, “The Luck of Roaring Camp”, 1868, a romantic vision of the frontier), and WILLA CATHER (1873-1947, My Antonia, 1918, about pioneers settling in Nebraska). The South as a setting plays an important role in the works of another group of writers: The stories and novels of GEORGE WASHINGTON CABLE (1844-1925) and KATE CHOPIN (1851-1904, The Awakening, 1899) take place in Louisiana. ELLEN GLASGOW (1874-1945) often dealt with the history of Virginia.

Not really belonging to any of these groups, but still worth mentioning is AMBROSE BIERCE (1842-1914?), a journalist and short story writer best remembered by his Devil’s Dictionary (1881-1906), a collection of satirical definitions that reflect a bitter and bright mind.[1]

MARK TWAIN (1835-1910) belongs to the regionalist tradition, and the area he described was the Mississippi River at a time when steamboats where the main means of transport in the US. He wrote about them in Life on the Mississippi, and later on in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “the best book” in American Literature according to Ernest Hemingway. Its colloquial narrative voice, its superb use of humor, and the development of themes like slavery and death set it apart from children’s books and turn it into one of the indispensable books of American Literature. In fact, in Huckleberry Finn we can already find a number of features that have become a feature of American literature as a whole: the use of colloquial speech as a literary language (with origins in Whitman), books based on the real experience of the writer (like Melville’s, Hemingway’s or London’s), the search for freedom in movement (origin of ‘road novels’ and ‘road movies’, from On the Road to Thelma and Louise), the portrayal of a male group surrounded by nature and escaping from a female-dominated civilization (Cooper, Melville, westerns) and even the opposition between American innocence and European sophistication (further developed by James and Wharton). Twain also wrote very good short stories (inspired by life on the frontier) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

► See Book Presentation Guide 5.3. “Huckleberry Finn”, p. 128.

In the 1890s many realists became NATURALISTS, a movement that started in France with Zola, influenced by Darwinism, the philosophy of Nietzsche and determinism. The world is perceived as a heartless machine where the individual has no freedom. In their novels the fate of characters is written right from the start, and society is shown as a place of depravity, hypocrisy and corruption. HENRY ADAMS (1838-1918) was also an important figure in the development of Naturalism, although not as a novelist but as a historian and thinker (The Education of Henry Adams, 1907). STEPHEN CRANE (1871-1900) is the first American naturalist. Maggie (1893) is the sad story of a poor girl who becomes a prostitute and in the end kills herself despite several attempts to change her life. The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is set in the Civil War and shows the war as a meaningless effort where good and bad, being a hero or a coward is just a matter of chance. Crane was also a journalist and a poet.

JACK LONDON (1876-1916) was deeply influenced by Darwin’s ideas of constant struggle in nature and ‘the survival of the fittest’. Not surprisingly, the heroes of some of his stories are animals, as in Call of the Wild (1903) or White Fang (1906), set in Alaska like the short story “To Build a Fire” (1910). The Sea-Wolf (1904) is about the captain of a ship who tries to be a master of nature but is in the end defeated by it.

► See Classroom Activity # 17 “Twentieth-Century Short Stories”, p. 176.

Also related with Naturalism is a journalistic and political movement called the ‘Muckraking movement’, which tried to expose the political corruption, ‘dirty business’ and social injustice that was taking place in the America of the beginning of the century. Some of the journalists also wrote novels, like LINCOLN STEFFENS (1866-1936) and his Shame of the Cities (1904) or UPTON SINCLAIR (1878-1968) and his The Jungle (1906).

Naturalism continued in the USA well into the 20th century. THEODORE DREISER (1871-1945) wrote Sister Carrie in 1900 but it was suppressed until 1912. Its main theme is the purposelessness of life. An American Tragedy (1925) explores the dangers of the American Dream, telling the story of a man who tries to reach success but ends up executed for murder

[1] Two examples are probably enough. Peace: “a period of cheating between two periods of fighting”; Marriage: “the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all two”.

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