Please describe the characteristics of the 19th century American Novel.

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Dean Howells, although they wrote very different types of novels. approached novel writing as an exercise in the objective analysis of uniquely American events and characters.  Mark Twain, for example, is best known for documenting the western American experience, using realistic dialogue and characters to depict the "new American," independent, democratic, profane, and self-reliant.  Henry James' novels, usually with characters from the "leisure" class,  often feature a minute analysis of his characters' psychological underpinnings, as well as the clash of the American and European character.  W. D. Howells managed to create a hybrid form of European and American realism but focused his analysis on the uniquely American character.

After the Civil War (1861-1865), however, perhaps because Americans wanted to escape from too much of the "real world" during the war, novelists began adapting romanticism to their novels, infusing their novels with an idealistic belief that mankind in progressing both morally and spiritually.  This idealistic view gave us Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), America's first and most widely-read utopian novel.  Lew Wallace, a major general during the Civil War, wrote one of world literature's most well-known biblical romances, Ben-Hur (1880), still a popular novel.


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