How does Nancy Glazener justify her view that American Realism was a justification of class and cultural hierarchy and a symptom of the Gilded Age?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Glazener suggests that there is a direct correlation between a class based cultural hierarchy and American Realism.  She makes the argument that this is a reflection of the Gilded Age.  In order to understand this, Glazener suggests an examination must be undertaken as to how literature was produced in the time period: 

Books, periodicals, and their publishers became more strictly divided between those for the “classes” and those for the “masses,” and forums of high culture developed ever more elaborate criteria by which high and low tastes- or high tastes and low appetites, as they were usually characterize- could be discriminated.

As a result, “cultural stratification” was “actively produced" and reflected “capitalist class relations.” Such a reality reflects the Gilded Age, a setting where power rested in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.  It also confirms that class and cultural hierarchy were symptoms of the Gilded Age that were mirrored in Realism.

Initially, Glazener suggests that narrative representation is reinforced the superior/inferior dynamic:  “By ‘representing’ Huck Finn, Silas Lapham, Hugh Wolfe, and a host of other nonelite fictional characters, the magazines effectively set up these characters as voters who endorsed the idea that these magazines and their privileged readers were committed to the well-being of their social inferiors.” American Realism became a means through which power rested in the hands of the “superiors” and was depicted as something that would eventually trickle down to those at the bottom. In this light, American Realism’s construction of the dynamics of power supported the reality of the Gilded Age.  Class and cultural hierarchy are symptoms of the Gilded Age and aspects that Glazener sees as justifying American Realism.  Glazener points to how transformative idealism was not the norm in this construction.  Rather, it was American Realism that was used as a means of protecting entrenched interests of power.  

Glazener suggests that one of the critical aspects of Realism was its fundamental placement of literature.  The literature of American Realism was something to be seen as residing in the “upper” echelons of social rank and status. Glazener argues that periodicals like the Atlantic were producing the literature of American Realism.  They were doing so with a direct intent of targeting a particular audience. Realist literature was aimed at specific strata of society, such as the Boston Brahmins and wealthy philanthropists.  That intellectualism and literacy circulated at solely the highest of domains is symptomatic of the Gilded Age because of its replication of class structure and cultural hierarchy.

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