American Realism in Literature: Guide to Historical Context, Key Themes, and Prominent Authors

  • Grace Angelique
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  • June 14, 2024
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  • 7 minute read
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American Realism in Literature: Guide to Historical Context, Key Themes, and Prominent Authors

American realism in literature focuses on portraying everyday life and societal changes in a detailed and accurate manner.

This guide explores the historical context, key themes, and prominent authors who shaped this literary movement from the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

Key Takeaways
  • American Realism focuses on ordinary people and their real-life struggles.
  • These stories explore important societal issues that remain relevant today.
  • Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James are prominent figures in this literary movement.

The Historical and Social Context of Realism

During the period from 1860 to 1914, America underwent significant changes that deeply influenced its society and literature. The Civil War, industrialization, and urbanization were key factors that shaped this era.

  • Impact of the Civil War: The Civil War (1861-1865) profoundly impacted American society. It ended slavery and led to the Reconstruction era, where the nation struggled to integrate formerly enslaved people into society and rebuild the South. The war also shifted the economic balance from the agrarian South to the industrial North, accelerating industrial growth and urbanization.
  • Industrialization: Post-Civil War America saw rapid industrialization. The period known as the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914) was marked by the expansion of industries such as steel, oil, and railroads. Technological innovations like the telegraph, telephone, and electric light transformed daily life and economic activities. This industrial boom created a new class of wealthy industrialists, a growing middle class, and a vast working class facing difficult conditions​​.
  • Urbanization: As industries grew, so did cities. Between 1870 and 1920, millions of people moved from rural areas to urban centers, and many immigrants arrived from Europe. This urbanization changed the social fabric of America, creating diverse communities and new social challenges. Cities became hubs of economic activity, culture, and social change, influencing the themes and settings of literary works.

Key Characteristics of Realism in American Literature

Realism in American literature focused on representing everyday life and the complexities of human experience. Here are the main features of realism:

  • Detailed Settings: Realist writers aimed to portray settings with great detail and accuracy, often depicting urban environments, rural landscapes, and specific regions authentically. This attention to detail helped readers visualize the world as it was​​.
  • Complex Characters: Character development was central to realist literature. Characters were depicted in their full complexity, with realistic motivations, flaws, and ethical dilemmas. Realist writers explored characters’ interactions with their social environment, emphasizing how class, upbringing, and personal history shaped their lives.
  • Plausible Events: Realist novels focused on plausible events and everyday occurrences rather than sensational or dramatic plots. This approach made the stories relatable and credible, reflecting the true nature of life and society.
  • Middle-Class Life and Social Issues: Realism often highlights the lives and struggles of the middle class. Social mobility, economic hardship, and moral dilemmas were common themes. Realist writers used their works to comment on social issues and encourage readers to reflect on the changes and challenges of contemporary society.

Prominent Authors of American Realism Literature

1. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)

Mark Twain is one of the most famous writers of American realism. Known for his humor and sharp social observations, Twain often critically examined human nature and society.

His book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is incredibly well-known, telling the story of a boy and a runaway slave traveling along the Mississippi River.

This novel is famous for its realistic use of regional speech and its honest look at issues like race and freedom.

2. William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells, often called the Dean of American Letters, promotes realism in American literature.

He was the editor of The Atlantic Monthly and later Harper’s Magazine, where he supported realistic writing.

Some of his important works include The Rise of Silas Lapham, which deals with a self-made businessman’s moral and social challenges, and A Modern Instance, which looks at the real-life issues of a failing marriage without romanticizing them.

3. Henry James

Henry James is known for his focus on the psychological aspects of his characters and their complex relationships.

His writing style explores the subtle details of human thoughts and social interactions.

One of his most praised novels, The Portrait of a Lady, follows Isabel Archer, a young American woman who inherits a large sum of money and faces the challenges of independence and the influence of those around her.

10 Popular American Realism Books

Here are ten popular American Realism books that capture the essence of the period, offering a window into the lives, struggles, and societal conditions of the time.

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: This classic novel follows the adventures of Huck Finn and a runaway slave named Jim as they travel down the Mississippi River. The book is known for its rich depiction of Southern society and its critique of racism and pretense.
  2. The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells: Highlighting the moral and social challenges of the American middle class during the late 19th century, this novel explores the rise and fall of a self-made businessman, Silas Lapham.
  3. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: This story focuses on Isabel Archer, a young American woman who inherits a large fortune and travels to Europe. The novel delves into her personal growth and the complex social dynamics she navigates.
  4. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser: Narrating the story of a young woman, Carrie Meeber, who moves to the city in search of a better life, this novel portrays the harsh realities of urban life and the pursuit of the American Dream.
  5. The Call of the Wild by Jack London: Set during the Klondike Gold Rush, this story follows a dog named Buck who is stolen from his home and sold into the harsh life of an Alaskan sled dog. The story highlights themes of survival and the call of the wild.
  6. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton: This novel is set in a fictional New England town and tells the tragic story of Ethan Frome, his sickly wife, and her cousin. It explores themes of desire, duty, and the oppressive nature of rural life.
  7. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane: This novella provides a grim depiction of slum life in New York City, following the downward spiral of a young girl named Maggie. It addresses issues of poverty and the brutal realities of urban existence.
  8. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair: Although more aligned with naturalism, this book is often associated with realism for its unflinching portrayal of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. It highlights the struggles of immigrant workers and led to significant reforms in food safety laws.
  9. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis: This novel critiques the narrow-mindedness and conformity of small-town America through the eyes of Carol Kennicott, a young woman who moves to the town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.
  10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: Lastly, we have a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that depicts the hardships faced by the Joad family as they migrated from the Dust Bowl to California during the Great Depression. It highlights themes of social injustice and human dignity.

Discover the Exciting World of American Realism Literature!

Explore the rich world of American Realism to see how writers like Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James captured real life in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

These stories show ordinary people’s everyday lives and struggles, touching on important topics like class, race, and gender that are still relevant today.

Reading these classic works helps you better understand American life and history.

Start your journey into American Realism today and experience the powerful stories that have influenced our literary heritage.

Grace Angelique

Grace Angelique

An accomplished Art News Journalist with a decade of experience, Grace has covered global art events, exhibitions, and emerging trends. Her work has graced major publications, offering readers a fresh perspective on contemporary art and its evolving landscape.

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