American Realism Essay - Critical Essays

American Realism


American Realism

American Realism was a late nineteenth-century literary movement that began as a reaction against romanticism and the sentimental tradition associated primarily with women writers. Chief among the authors writing in this genre were William Dean Howells, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, and Stephen Crane. Although the realist aesthetic influenced European as well as American literature, the American tradition emerged somewhat later in the century and employed slightly different conventions than its continental counterpart. American Realism was most commonly a feature of narrative fiction, although authors occasionally applied its themes and literary techniques to poetry and drama as well. Further, the critical debate surrounding the proper definition and literary validity of realism spawned a considerable number of essays—often by the same authors who were writing realistic novels and short stories—in the literary journals of the day.

To many writers and critics of the late nineteenth century, realism was synonymous with the works of the French novelist Emile Zola, whose works emphasized sexuality, immorality, and the lives of the lower classes. America, still under the influence of Puritanism, resisted such themes as inappropriate for literature and continued to cling to the optimism and idealism associated with the romantic movement. The pessimism that followed European industrialism and the population shift from country to city arrived in America more slowly, perhaps as late as the 1880s, although some scholars insist that the realist movement actually began shortly after the Civil War. Warner Berthoff (1965) has made a case for the former, claiming that “[the] great collective event in American letters during the 1880s and 1890s was the securing of ‘realism’ as the dominant standard of value.” Jane Benardete (1972) has chosen a slightly earlier date, claiming that realism “flourished in the last three decades of the [nineteenth] century,” and the majority of literary historians tend to agree with her.

As Berthoff's quotation marks around the term “realism” suggest, the definition of what he calls a “dominant standard” varies, and the works that are included under its umbrella are diverse in both form and theme. For Berthoff, realism is committed to “capturing the special immediate air of American reality in the familiar American dialect.” However, he does question whether realism was “anything more than a name, a borrowed label which happened to come so strongly into fashion … that no one could avoid deferring to it.” For Benardete, realism is “the record of life, the real, the true,” although she has conceded that her definition “only opens new difficulties.” Donald Pizer (1984) has modified a commonly accepted definition of realism based on three criteria—verisimilitude, representativeness, and objectivity—to include a much wider range of human experience than is normally considered typical or representative, and to include the humanistic colorings of “ethical idealism” or “pragmatic realism.”

For some, it is easier to define realism in terms of what it is not—which is primarily romanticism. After the Civil War, American authors and scholars turned against the irrationality and vanity of contemporary literature. According to Benardete, some even blamed the conventions of romanticism—idealism, chivalry, heroism, absolute moral stances—for fostering a national vision which inevitably led to war, causing Americans “to fight when they might have negotiated, to seek empty glory though it cost them their lives.” Alfred Habegger (1982) has suggested that realism was more specifically opposed to women's fiction, to which it “bore in part an adversary or corrective relation.” Women's fiction presented idealized models of marriage and female roles; realism offered “detailed verisimilitude, close social notation, analysis of motives, and unhappy endings [which] were all part of a strategy of argument, an adversary polemic.”

Many authors and critics, including those involved in the contemporary debate, have asserted that realist literature must fulfill a social function or a moral purpose in an age and in a country where no official religion or state church existed to guide citizens on moral and ethical issues. The era's increasing levels of class division and labor unrest prompted some authors, such as Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1887), to offer possibilities for change in the form of “utopian realism.” David E. Shi (1995) has explained the apparent contradiction: “Although usually considered pure fantasies, most of the era's utopian novels reflected the impact of literary realism and the reform impulse. In their efforts to use an ideal future to shed light on the evils and excesses of the present, utopian authors, most of whom were practicing journalists, included meticulously detailed descriptions of current social conditions.” Other journalists, popularly known as “muckrakers,” reported on the human cost of industrialization and urbanization in fact-based non-fictional works. The most famous of these was Jacob Riis, whose 1890 collection of stories and photographs, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, became one of the most influential books of the late nineteenth century. According to Shi, Riis's attempt to make the suffering of the poor of the Lower East Side visible to the middle and upper classes “remains a classic example of the genre, and his career epitomizes the fact-worshiping strand of reformist realism.” If Riis served as the spokesman for the urban poor, Hamlin Garland was his counterpart in the countryside. His collections of stories published in the early 1890s exposed the plight of the rural poor on Midwestern farms, creating a sub-genre known as prairie realism.

Closely associated with prairie realism was the local color literary movement, which emphasized specific, detailed descriptions of actual places and reproduced regional dialects in the characters' dialogue. Scholars have been divided on whether local color literature qualifies as part of the realist tradition given that it does not necessarily address contemporary social and ethical issues; nevertheless, many critics have included local color as a subset of realism based on its utilization of similar literary techniques. For his part, Berthoff has maintained that a major element of American Realism is “a haunting sense of loss, as at some irreversible falling away from a golden time,” and claims that local color literature is most especially associated with this loss. Josephine Donovan (1983) has argued that women's local color literature can be firmly situated within the anti-romantic tradition of women's realism, which sought to represent the actual conditions of women's lives, no matter how grim. Habegger, however, has claimed that while realism and local color “were born together and remained in close touch … the difference—local color's adherence to old times rather than the passing scene—cannot be too much emphasized.” Habegger insists that local color should be treated as a separate aesthetic since it fails to deal with contemporary realities.

Commentators have generally maintained that William Dean Howells and Henry James were the foremost practitioners of American Realism, although many have included Mark Twain as part of the “great authorial triumvirate” of the realist movement, as Benardete has put it. An advocate for realism in his fictional works and as editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly, Howells equated romanticism with the Old World aristocracy and therefore considered realism to be the appropriate aesthetic for the emerging institution of American literature. Further, he believed that American Realism should concentrate on common life experiences which could instruct and inform readers rather than on the gross, immoral subject matter and pessimistic tone of European Realist literature. Howells's works include A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). James was perhaps the most technically refined novelist and short story writer of the American Realist movement. He has been admired by many scholars as a true student of the craft, creating highly sophisticated narratives and inventing psychologically complex characters. For James, an artist did not need to gather information and employ factual events and situations to produce realistic literature; rather, an artist only needed to rely on the limitless imagination to recreate realistic characters, scenes, and circumstances. Some of James's most significant contributions to realism were The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and What Maisie Knew (1897). Twain had been widely regarded as the most celebrated late nineteenth-century American author to contribute to the realist movement. While some critics have taken exception to including Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) within the opus of American Realism, others have pointed out that this tour de force addresses many of the same nineteenth-century social and ethical issues as other realist writers but with less pessimism and more of Twain's trademark caustic humor and acerbic wit.

Representative Works

Edward Bellamy
Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (novel) 1887

George Washington Cable
The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life (novel) 1880

Alice Cary
The Poetical Works of Alice and Phoebe Cary (poetry) 1880

Kate Chopin
The Awakening (novel) 1899

Stephen Crane
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (novel) 1893
The Red Badge of Courage (novel) 1895

Theodore Dreiser
Sister Carrie (novel) 1900

Harold Frederic
Seth's Brother's Wife (novel) 1887
The Damnation of Theron Ware (novel) 1896

Mary Wilkins Freeman
Pembroke (novel) 1894

Henry Blake Fuller
The Cliff-Dwellers (novel) 1893
With the Procession (novel) 1895

Hamlin Garland
Main-Travelled Roads (short stories) 1891
Prairie Folks (short stories) 1893
Crumbling Idols (essays) 1894

William Dean Howells
A Modern Instance (novel) 1882
The Rise of Silas Lapham (novel) 1885
Annie Kilburn (novel) 1888
A Hazard of New Fortunes (novel) 1890
Criticism and Fiction (criticism) 1891
An Imperative Duty (novel) 1892
Letters of an Alturian Traveler (novel) 1894

Henry James
The Portrait of a Lady (novel) 1881
What Maisie Knew (novel) 1897

Sarah Orne Jewett
A Country Doctor (novel) 1884
“A White Heron” (short story) 1886
The Country of the Pointed Firs (novel) 1896

Lucy Larcom
The Poetical Works of Lucy Larcom (poetry) 1884

Jacob Riis
How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (journalism) 1890

Albion Tourgée
A Fool's Errand (novel) 1879

Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (novel) 1884
The Mysterious Stranger (novel) 1916

Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth (novel) 1905

Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass (poetry) 1855
Democratic Vistas (poetry) 1871

Constance Fenimore Woolson
For the Major (novel) 1883

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

William Dean Howells (essay date 1891)

SOURCE: Howells, William Dean. “Realism and the American Novel (1892).” In American Critical Essays: XIXth and XXth Centuries, edited by Norman Foerster, pp. 137-54. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.

[In the following essay, originally published in Criticism and Fiction in 1891, Howells discusses the merits of realism and praises English and American novelists for omitting the details of love and eroticism included by many European Romantic authors.]

‘As for those called critics,’ the author [Burke] says, ‘they have generally sought the rule of the arts in the wrong place; they have sought among poems, pictures, engravings, statues, and buildings;...

(The entire section is 5111 words.)

Warner Berthoff (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Berthoff, Warner. “American Realism: A Grammar of Motives.” In The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884-1919, pp. 1-47. New York: The Free Press, 1965.

[In the following essay, Berthoff discusses the establishment of realism as the dominant mode of literary expression of the 1880s and 1890s and attempts to categorize the elements that comprise a realist work.]


The great collective event in American letters during the 1880s and 1890s was the securing of “realism” as the dominant standard of value. But, as the postulations preceding this chapter suggest, it was a peculiarly indefinite...

(The entire section is 14820 words.)

Criticism: Background And Sources

Robert P. Falk (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Falk, Robert P. “The Rise of Realism 1871-1891.” In Transitions in American Literary History, edited by Harry Hayden Clark, pp. 381-442. New York: Octagon Books, 1967.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1954, Falk traces the emergence of the realist aesthetic from the end of the Civil War to the 1890s.]


Following the Civil War, in the late 1860's, the twilight of romantic idealism became fused with early indications of a new and different literary and intellectual atmosphere. During the seventies and eighties the new tendencies slowly coalesced into a complex relationship of philosophical ideas, critical principles,...

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Louis J. Budd (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Budd, Louis J. “The American Background.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London, edited by Donald Pizer, pp. 21-46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Budd examines the intellectual and historical background of realism and naturalism in America.]


Although realism and naturalism could have sprung up independently in the United States, the historical fact is that they flourished earlier in the European countries all the way eastward to Russia and that American writers were especially stimulated by British and French models. On the other hand,...

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Phillip Barrish (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Barrish, Phillip. “William Dean Howells and the Roots of Realist Taste.” In American Literary Realism, Critical Theory, and Intellectual Prestige, 1880-1995, pp. 16-47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Barrish discusses the manner in which Howells's fiction contributed to the development of the realist aesthetic.]


In the course of well-known critic James Cox's contribution to a 1991 collection of New Essays on The Rise of Silas Lapham, he makes a more-or-less parenthetic remark about the vernacular aspect of the book's protagonist: “Indeed there has...

(The entire section is 17253 words.)

Criticism: Social Issues

Edwin H. Cady (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Cady, Edwin H. “Howells and Crane: Violence, Decorum and Reality.” In The Light of Common Day: Realism in American Fiction, pp. 161-81. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.

[In the following excerpt, Cady examines representations of violence in the fiction of William Dean Howells and Stephen Crane.]

The currently popular assertion that violence is somehow distinctively or peculiarly American is easy to refute by historical, etiological reference. In the springtime of the Jamestown Colony, for instance, they punished one of the lads by escorting him out into the forest and nailing his hand with a dagger so firmly to a tree that whenever he should...

(The entire section is 6486 words.)

Kenneth W. Warren (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Warren, Kenneth W. “The Persistence of Uncle Tom and the Problem of Critical Distinction.” In Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism, pp. 71-108. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Warren examines the enduring influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin on realist representations of racial inequality.]


Central to understanding the troubles besetting the project of realistic critical definition is an awareness of the persistent influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin during these decades. From its publication in 1852 through the end...

(The entire section is 16986 words.)

David E. Shi (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Shi, David E. “Realism and the Social Question.” In Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture, 1850-1920, pp. 181-211. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Shi discusses the treatment of social and economic issues in American Realist fiction.]

Signs of social strain pervaded the end of the nineteenth century. Popular theories of racial superiority and fears of foreign radicalism and social degeneration gave rise to a virulent strain of Anglo-Saxon nativism. In the South a vicious new tide of racism spilled over the region as states passed Jim Crow laws and white mobs lynched blacks in record numbers. Meanwhile, in New...

(The entire section is 15485 words.)

Donald Pizer (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Pizer, Donald. “‘True Art Speaks Plainly’: Theodore Dreiser and the Late Nineteenth-Century American Debate over Realism and Naturalism.” Nineteenth-Century Prose 23, no. 2 (fall 1996): 76-89.

[In the following essay, Pizer addresses ethical aspects in the nineteenth-century debate regarding realism and uses Dreiser's arguments to present realism as a means for social progress and change.]

Theodore Dreiser wrote little literary criticism, and what he did write is both little known and not highly rated. Throughout his career, Dreiser published book reviews and philosophical essays, but seldom exhibited in either form an interest in or capacity for...

(The entire section is 5686 words.)

Criticism: Women And Realism

Louise Duus (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Duus, Louise. “Neither Saint Nor Sinner: Women in Late Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” American Literary Realism 7, no. 3 (summer 1974): 276-78.

[In the following essay, Duus suggests that realist fiction of the late nineteenth century allowed for more variety in the representation of women than previously possible.]

In “Seduced and Abandoned in the New World,” Wendy Martin argues that American heroines, the daughters of Eve, “are destined to lives of dependency and servitude as well as to painful and sorrowful childbirth because, like their predecessor, they have dared to disregard authority or tradition in the search for wisdom or...

(The entire section is 1531 words.)

Alfred Habegger (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Habegger, Alfred. “Realism.” In Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature, pp. 103-12. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Habegger discusses American Realism not as an independent form, but as a reaction against women's fiction of the mid-nineteenth century.]

What was realism, exactly? Up to this point I've assumed that we share a rough sense of what it was. If the reader has followed my contentions without any uneasiness over what I understand by realism, then all is well; there is communality. But if there is only uneasiness, then it is high time I admit that I have adhered all along to René Wellek's...

(The entire section is 5872 words.)

Josephine Donovan (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Donovan, Josephine. “Toward the Local Colorists: Early American Women's Traditions.” In New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition, pp. 25-37. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983.

[In the following essay, Donovan discusses the origins of women's literary realism in America and the place of the women local colorists within that tradition.]

Three novels which are representative of early and divergent traditions in American women's literature are Susanna Rowson's Charlotte, A Tale of Truth (first published in this country in 1794, and better known as Charlotte Temple); Tabitha Tenney's Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the...

(The entire section is 5349 words.)

Cheryl Walker (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Walker, Cheryl. “Nineteenth-Century Women Poets and Realism.” American Literary Realism 23, no. 3 (spring 1991): 25-41.

[In the following essay, Walker assesses the works of nineteenth-century female poets as part of the realist tradition.]

Since the 1940s, poetry has been virtually excluded from most discussions of realism. One argument against including poetry as a vital element in realism asserts that realism usually involves a type of content and an attitude toward that content, whereas poetry is preeminently a matter of form. “No other kind of writing holds its own words up to the light as poetry does,” states Jan Montefiore,1 and it is...

(The entire section is 5975 words.)

Further Reading


Benardete, Jane. American Realism. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972, 414 p.

Provides introductions to literary selections from eight major figures of realism and naturalism (Whitman, Howells, Twain, James, Garland, Norris, Dreiser, and Steinbeck).

Borus, Daniel H. Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989, 259 p.

Explores the production of realist literature as a commodity subject to the demands of the marketplace.

Glazener, Nancy. Reading for Realism: The History of a U.S. Literary Institution,...

(The entire section is 463 words.)