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Realism in American Literature Essay

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Updated: Sep 13th, 2021


In literature, realism is applied to the school of fiction writers describing life with utmost fidelity to fact and detail in opposition to romanticism or classicism. This tendency towards realism is common in modern writing and at different periods, but it became a definite school primarily due to French influence in the later part of the 19th century. This close analysis and stress on characterization is evident in Balzac and Stendahl, however it was Flaubert who surpassed them in “Madame Bovary”, his masterpiece. Flaubert’s achievement gave rise to works written by Goncourts, J.K. Huymans, de Maupassant, Zola and others. A heated controversy came up regarding the tendency of realistic writing to overstress what is corrupt and sordid; however their influence in the novel has become apparent and their detailed descriptions have lessened.


English realism has been tempered by moderation. Representing periods of its growth are George Eliot, Meredith, George Moore, Hardy, Wells and Bennett. This change is evidenced in the importance put on detailed psychological analysis, as in the novels of James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, Gorky, Cheknov, Strindberg, Sundermann, Couperons and Hamsum, typifying their respective countries. Corresponding tendencies in the drama are shown in the writings of Ibsen, Hamptman and Galsworthy. “In the United States, Wolfe, Hemingway and Faulkner are among the leading representatives of the modern school of realism.” (Groiler Encyclopedia, 1961: 279). This paper, hopefully will prove Howells, Twain, James, Crane and Norris, respectively prove how five American writers have been categorized as realists.

William Dean Howells

Our first realist, William Dean Howells (1837 – 1920) was an American man of letters born at Martin’s Ferry, Ohio on March 1, 1837. He was the son of William Cooper Howells, a newspaper proprietor. A compositor at his father’s printing office, he turned journalist with definite literary aims. He became consul at Venice, Editor of the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine. He also worked for the New York Times and the Cosmopolitan Magazine.

In 1862, he wed Elinor G. Mead and died May 11, 1920 in New York. He served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters from the time it was founded until he died. His 70 works consist of poems, travel books, essays, plays and criticism. His first book was a campaign life of Lincoln and of his books Venetian Life and Italian Journeys are delightful transcripts of personal experience, which cannot otherwise be authentic. He was chosen Leader of the Realistic School in American Literature. His novels reflect analytically the life of his time, realistically, but in proper perspective. “He was a successful short-story (as adjudged by Editha), a penetrating critic and some of his poems reflect the qualities of his prose, which is consistently clear, compact, exact and felicitous. Several successful faces agreeably reflect his sweet and quiet humor.” (Groiler Encyclopedia, 1961: 30).

We now venture into Howell’s short story, Editha, which was first published in Harper’s Monthly in January of 1905. We hope to glean from it such qualities as will categorize it as realistic writing. To begin with, the setting of the story is the period circa the First World War, which occurred during Howells’ lifetime and Howells makes the reader believe the story actually happened, not just to the characters in the story, but also to many others. It is very clear even in the first paragraph how Howells’ pays attention to detail in his description of the setting. “The air was thick with the war feeling, like the electricity of a storm which had not yet burst. Editha sat looking out into the hot spring afternoon, with her lips parted, and panting with the intensity of the question whether she could let him go”

Lastly, the ending of the story isn’t what most romantics expect and desire. It ends with the sordidness of war. George gets killed and Editha fulfills her promise to him by going to visit his mother who fails to receive her with warmth. This is understandable and realistic since George’s mother cannot come to terms with the war as she and George’s father suffered greatly earlier war. But all’s well that ends well and the realistic approach is for the girl to pick up the pieces of her life and begin to live life again.

Mark Twain

Our next American writer of realism is Samuel Clemens more popularly known as Mark Twain. Born in Florida, Missouri, November 30, 1835, Clemens claimed descent on his mother’s side from the Lambtons of Durham, England and on his father’s side, from men who were pirates and slavers. He started life as a compositor. In 1851, he became a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. From this life was derived his pen name “Mark Twain”, a leadsman’s cry meaning two fathoms. He started his writing career as a compositor. After working as a reporter in Virginia City, Nevada, he tried mining and journalism in San Francisco and visited the Sandwich Islands.

Paying great attention to detail but without exaggeration is part of Twains’ realistic style of writing. “Mart Twain loved the little town of Hannibal. It was tranquilly content, content as slave towns are in general. He remembered it as the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer morning… the great Mississippi, the magnificent Mississippi rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun, the dense forest away on the other side.” (Paine, 1912: n.p.). His book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is the story of an adventurous boyhood along the Mississippi. The realism here is that the account is much like the author’s own. The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a highly dramatic reflection of river life, and by common consent ranked as the author’s masterpiece. In 1907, Oxford University conferred on him the honorary degree, Doctor of Literature.

Still another proof of realism in Twain’s writing is this vivid representation of scenes in a letter to Will Bowen, a childhood friend: “The old life has swept before me like a panorama, the old life trooped by in their old glory again, the old faces have looked out of the mists of the past, old footsteps have sounded in my listening ears, old hands have clasped mine, old voices have greeted me and the songs I loved ages and ages ago have been wailing down the centuries.”(Cox, 1966: 78).

Henry James

Henry James (1843 – 1916) comes next. He was an Anglo-American novelist, born in New York. He was the son of Henry James, a well-known Swedenborgian. His older brother was William James. He studied law at Harvard, but early turned his attention to literature, at first in the form of short stories and contributions to periodicals.

James first sent Daisy Miller to the Philadelphia magazine Lippincotts, which rejected it on the basis of their belief that the portrayal of Daisy was “an outrage on American girlhood.” After extensive revisions, he succeeded in burying the unassuming simplicity of his early style under the mannerisms of the Master. The novelette was a great success. His fellow realist, William Dean Howells wrote to James Russell Lowell: “There has been a vast discussion in which nobody felt very deeply, and everybody talked very loudly. The thing went so far that society divided itself into Daily Millerites and anti-Daisy Millerites. I was glad for it for I hoped that in making James so thoroughly known, it would call attention to the beautiful work he had been doing for very few readers.” (Moore 1878: n.p.).

Moore’s introduction to the Penguin edition draws parallels between Daisy and Huck Finn written by fellow realist Mark Twain and Emerson’s concept of self-reliance. Moore says, “For us, the readers, it is Daisy who is on the side of the angels, and I am sure that James meant it to be so, despite the fact that he invoked poetic justice in consigning her to her doom for being such a wicked flouter of convention. If there is one abiding theme which runs through the American experience it is that men and women must have the courage to go it alone, setting their faces resolutely against what they see as arbitrary and outmoded rules and regulations. The relating of this experience is definitely part of James being a realist.

Moore concluded by saying that in Daisy Miller, there is the seed of what we are to find in full bloom at the end of James’ career… the pitting of values of America against those of Europe. The reason Daisy has nothing in common with her fellow Americans in Rome is because they subscribe to the European way of looking at life, a way which so many of James’ novels reveal to be shallow, superficial and cynical. Daisy is honest, fresh and open.

The consensus of opinion regarding naturalism is that it is a sub-genre of realism. All naturalists are also realists; but not all realists are naturalists. The naturalists we shall touch upon are Frank Norris and Stephen Crane. Naturalism has been defined as “the doctrine that there is no interference of any supernatural power in the universe.” (Haddock, n.d.).

Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane (1871 – 1900), American writer was born in Newark, N.J. In 1890 he moved to New York City to do intermittent reporting for the Herald and Tribune. His first book, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, picturing life in the slums, was hailed as the first naturalistic novel of the U.S. In 1895 appeared, The Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s great realistic study of ordinary men amidst the storm and tumult of war. It was an instant success.

“Attention turned to Maggie and Crane’s reputation was established. In 1896, from experiences gained when he suffered shipwreck, he wrote The Open Boat, best know short stories. In 1899, he went to live in England where he died in 1900.”(Groiler Encyclopedia, 1961: 203)

Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat is characteristically realistic writing since it endeavors to describe life as it actually happened. It is also naturalism in that it involves the characters’ singular experience in their struggle against nature. The Open Boat is a fictionalized account of a very traumatic personal experience in Crane’s life: a ship on which he was a passenger sank off the coast of Florida, and he found himself one of four men in a tiny open dinghy, struggling to make it through a narrow strip of rough sea and pounding surf that separated them from dry land.

Many sailors or those who travel sea have, at one time or another, undergone a shipwreck experience, but what makes Crane’s narrative naturalist writing is that it accentuates the gulf between an objective journalistic rendering of going down with a ship and the only way to convey the full horror of this experience. In addition to vivid language, Crane uses carefully chosen anecdotes to make the situation seem harrowing.

Frank Norris

Frank Norris (1870 – 1902), an American novelist was born in Chicago and educated in Paris, at Harvard and at the University of California. He was war correspondent in South Africa for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1896. He was editor of the San Francisco Wave in 1807. “The powerful realistic Mc. Teague, 1899, was his first novel to attract attention. His uncompleted trilogy, The Epic of the Wheat is generally considered his greatest work. In some ways, his writing seems to have been influenced by the French author, Alphonse Daudet.” (Groiler Encyclopedia, 1961: 73).

A Deal in Wheat by Norris has its protagonist in Sam Lewiston. The setting of the story is factual – a ranch in southwestern Kansas. Lewiston and his wife were two of a vast population of farmers, wheat growers who at that moment were passing through a crisis – a crisis that at any moment might culminate in tragedy. Unable to conduct his farm upon a paying basis at the time when Truslow, the “Great Bear” had sent the price of grain down to sixty-two cents a bushel, Lewiston had turned over his entire property to his creditors and left Kansas for good.

Norris’ account is the singular one – the only one of all the men who has struggled up to the surface again. How many others had gone down in the great ebb? Grim question, he dared not think how many. There were countless ones like Sam who were victims of a great wheat operation – a battle between Bear and Bull. What makes the story an exercise in naturalism is that although there were many who suffered just like Sam, it was only he who made it – who survived, perhaps by hard work or a streak of good luck.


After an extended analysis of the above-mentioned authors known to be American realists, it is not easy to come up with an original definition of American realism. Realism in American literature is a style of fiction writing influenced by the French in which life is described with strict fidelity to fact and detail. Naturalism, on the other hand is a sub-genre of American which involves the character/ characters’ singular struggle against the forces of war, nature and the like. Although there are a lot of similarities between American realism and European realism, from which it originated, the former puts a stress on that which is optimistic and aesthetic, reflecting the American way of viewing life.


Barnhart, C.E. (ed) (1959) The American College Encyclopedic Dictionary (Vols I and II). Chicago: Spencer Press Inc.

Cox, J. (1966) Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Groiler Encyclopedia. (1961) New York: Groiler International.

Haddock, P. (Pub) (n.d.) The Concise English Dictionary. USSR: Blackie and Son.

Moore, G. in James, H. (1878) Daisy Miller, A Study in Two Parts. New York: Harper and Brothers. 2007. Web.

Paine, A.B. (1912) Mark Twain, A Biography. New York: Harper and Brothers.

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