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.