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American Realism

The Civil War tore the country apart. Once America was reunited in 1865, there was a lot of healing that needed to take place to correct the wounds Americans had suffered at the hands of their kin. In these years there were still a lot of questions to answer and still a lot of truth to be found out about the nation itself. The questions of the place of African-Americans, white Americans, political Americans and every other kind of American out there was a source for constant frustration and violence. This is the background and the huge dust storm that American Realism rose out of.

Prior to the Civil War, America was knee deep in the Romantic Movement which included writers such as Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, Poe and Whitman. Their writings focused on the puritan aspects of their ancestors or of the dark romance and psychological perspectives writers such as Poe and Melville used. However, after the war, this movement began to fade and Realism increased as the choice reading of the people. This was due to multiple events and changes in culture that led to Americans looking for something better to relate to. The first event was the end of the Civil War. The Civil War showed the violent intentions men had towards each other and also showed the vulnerability of men and the nation and how ungodly man actually was. However, Realism did not begin immediately after the Civil War but rather took off in the 1880’s. So what happened in the 1880’s then? The 1880’s saw the major migration of the typical American from the country to the city due to the rise of the industrial revolution and the increase in jobs in manufacturing and more efficient distribution methods. The migration to the city led to a new culture of Americans whose hard work days with long hours left little room for the desire for imagination and symbolism as American Romanticism had provided. Rather, the working man wanted to read something that he could easier relate to and find...

What Is Realism?
In American literature, the term "realism" encompasses the period of time from the Civil War (1860's) to the turn of the century (1890-1900) during which authors such as Kate Chopin (The Awakening), Stephen Crane (Red Badge of Courage), Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth), Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer), and others wrote fiction devoted to accurate representation and an exploration of American lives in various contexts. As the United States grew rapidly after the Civil War, the increasing rates of democracy and literacy, the rapid growth in industrialism and urbanization, an expanding population base due to immigration, and a relative rise in middle-class affluence provided a fertile literary environment for readers interested in understanding these rapid shifts in culture.
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 Romantic literature. In fact, some authors and critics 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.”
Realism was a literary movement directly opposed to the previous movement of Romanticism. The Romantics believed in following one's heart or gut to lead to life's truths, particularly in using Nature as the catalyst. For example, Melville's Moby Dickis an escape novel; Ishmael escapes from the confining environment of Manhattan to go to sea aboard a whaling ship. To Romantic writers, things like intuition, nature, and the supernatural were important. Most of these characters were loners, like Melville's Ishmael or Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown. Romantics strongly believe in the power of human goodness.
In contrast, the Realists had too much of Romanticism. They stressed the need to belong to the "real world." Events that occur in these stories will be plausible, unlike the unrealistic events characteristic of Romantic texts such as falling asleep for twenty years or being visited by those from beyond the grave. The Realists portrayed subjects not previously portrayed in literature, such as slums of larger cities, the grim realities of life, the new urban poor, or portraying any location realistically known as “local color.” They felt the need to look at the world as it currently existed and without all the sentimentality of the Romantics. Realism may have never existed without Romanticism directly before it. Of course, Romanticism may have never existed without The Age of Reason before it. All these movements are absolutely essential for understanding the progression of not just American literature but American life in general. These were movements of literature but also movements of thought and art and everything else that was going on this country.
Even though there are rumblings of it in earlier decades (Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, for instance, published in 1850), realism doesn't become the dominant literary style in the U.S. till the 1870s.
So how can you tell "realist" literature when you see it? There are a few ways.
1. Realism tries hard (just like its name suggests) to present the world as it really is -- the way, for instance, a photograph might capture it. Howells writes that "realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material." Since it tries so hard to be truthful, realist literature, unlike much of the "romantic" writing that preceded it, never feels overblown, the way a fairy tale or a parable or a dream might. And it's rarely sentimental or emotional. It just reads like a plain and sensible account of whatever action it's describing.
2. This concern with delivering plain and simple truth leads realists to fill their works with details drawn from everyday life, or "facts," we might as well call them. They can be facts about domestic life, about families and genealogies, about history, about politics, about business and finance, about geographical places.... Whatever. But to make us believe in the reality of the worlds they show us, realists fill their literature with facts to bolster the reader's feeling that, yes, this place I'm reading about is just like the everyday world I live in.
3. And the "everyday" is probably another important concept in realist works. Realists, generally speaking, don't write about extraordinary people in fantastic situations. They write about plain, normal, everyday folks dealing with the trials and travails of plain, normal, everyday life. Melville's Moby Dick(1851), which pretty much defines the romantic literary period that came before realism, is about a crazed sea captain (Ahab) obsessed with killing the biggest, fiercest whale in the world -- notan everyday person in an everyday situation. Realist literature, on the other hand, might often leave you saying, "That one character totally reminds me of my aunt." Again, everyday folks doing everyday things.
4. Since writers are most likely to be factual and convey a sense of the "everyday" when dealing with things they know intimately, many realists write specifically about places where they lived or grew up. There's a whole subcategory of American realism, in fact, called "local color," which tries hard to convey the reality of particular places in the U.S. It's interesting to note, too, that a whole lot of this local-color realism is set in different parts of the Midwest. Up until the realists' time, most American literature is about the East (New England especially). But the fact that the American West is becoming increasingly settled late in the 19th century --and that Americans at this time are fascinated with the notion of "manifest destiny" -- leads to a boom in literature about the nation's newer territories.
5. Setting their works in specific places leads realist writers to make use of specific dialects, or ways of talking that are particular to certain locales. Before the realists' time, most characters in American literature are simply expected to speak the Queen's English, like good gentlemen and ladies. In the realist period, though, writers make a conscious effort to let American characters speak various types of American English. A white man in rural Missouri doesn't, of course, speak like an English gentleman, so it wouldn't be factual and "truthful" to make him sound that way. Similarly, a black man in rural Missouri doesn't talk like a white man from the same place, so it wouldn't be factual and truthful to make him speak in anything other thanhis dialect. Realists have to have an excellent ear to make their characters sound like real Americans. And by representing different American dialects, these writers help create a genuinely American body of literature -- that is, a set of works distinguishable from the European lit most Americans of that time have grown up reading.
6. Realism generally celebrates the individual. Most realist works feature a central character who has to deal with some moral struggle, hopefully to arrive at an important moral victory or realization before the story's over. And this, relatedly, often means that much of the "action" in realist lit is internalaction: We hear a lot about what's going on in the central character's head; we learn a lot about his or her psychology. Since realist characters live in the "everyday" world, interesting external things aren't always happening -- thus the "internal" stuff has to take up the slack. One way or the other, though, realist writers are fascinated by individuals: they love the idea that single human beings must learn about, grow within, and change their worlds -- or be held responsible fornot doing these things.
7. One last thing: realist works are generally plot driven, even if only subtly. This means they pivot around conflicts we as readers want to see resolved. A realist work, then, will typically have at least one protagonist (a main character -- not necessarily a likeable person or a "hero") and one antagonist (another character or a force that will try to prevent the protagonist from getting what s/he wants), and readers will wait to see, as they watch a sequence of increasingly dramatic events, which of them prevails. This is how any standard story works, but it's important to note that realism does these things, too, because the modernist stuff we'll look at later often refuses plot, going in for a more fragmented or "stream of consciousness" style instead.

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