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Realism
American History Through Literature 1870-1920. Ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst. Vol. 3. Detroit, MI: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006. p943-953.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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Page 943

REALISM

The era of American realism is most commonly defined as the period from the end of the Civil War to about 1900. Within this, the somewhat shorter span of 1870–1890 can be delineated as the time when realism was clearly the dominant literary idea in the United States. Yet even during this shorter period its dominance was more as a topic of critical debate than as a pervasive practice. Theorists such as William Dean Howells (1837–1920), Thomas Sergeant Perry (1845–1928), and Henry James (1843–1916) laid out the tenets of realism in the 1870s and 1880s—emphasizing the near-at-hand as opposed to the remote, the probable rather than the extraordinary, the ethically complex in preference to the idealized. They believed that literature should portray people such as one might meet, in situations that those people might actually encounter. Realism concerned itself almost entirely with fiction, although the work of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen was influential, especially in the movement's later stages, and the work of the period's two major American poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, was to some degree compatible with realist theories. Howells, James, and Mark Twain (1835–1910) are often specified as the great trio of American realistic novelists—though it might be more accurate to say that Twain and James are great novelists who can be identified with realism, while Howells is a great realist who (among other things) wrote novels.

THE ORIGINS OF AMERICAN REALISM

The literary mode known as realism began not in the United States but in France and Russia. Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert were early exemplars in France, and Émile Zola became one of the most controversial figures in the American critical debate. Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy were the most influential Russian figures. Among British novelists, Howells pointed to Jane Austen as exemplary for her uncompromisingly hardheaded portrayals of the conflicts that arise in ordinary life, and both Howells and James saw George Eliot (though in James's case with some reservations) as a positive force among their contemporaries. In the United States the pre–Civil War vogue for regional fiction—like that of Washington Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Washington Harris, and Thomas Bangs Thorpe—moved toward an interest in the distinctive characteristics of individuals and cultural settings, though there was little attention to the nuances of psychological experience. In poetry, Whitman's description of actual people in ordinary situations and his broadly democratic embrace of those people were important realistic elements, and his Drum-Taps poems explored the gritty actuality of suffering in the Civil War, while Dickinson's poetry turned inward to explore the landscape of individual psychology in moments of joy, perplexity, and pain.

Realism also had its origin in a repudiation of romanticism, with novelists Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) as favorite targets. Scott was criticized for his interest in distant times and places, especially the medieval, and for the lack of subtlety in his characterizations. His Page 944  |  Top of Article
William Dean Howells in 1896. THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK

William Dean Howells in 1896. THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK
novels were seen to promote a kind of exaggerated notion of aristocracy, both false in its depiction of humankind and antithetical to the democratic ideals that Americans revere. A truer depiction of humanity would focus on the natural dignity and innate equality of all human beings without elevating a few individuals to heroic status. As for Cooper, he was attacked for inattention to detail in plot construction, stereotyping of characters, improbability of events, and stylistic imprecision. In "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895), Twain states that "Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly" (p. 1244). From the point of view of the realists, the most important failing of Romantics like Cooper and Scott was sentimentality—seeming emotion that was not, in fact, true to the ways in which actual human beings respond to events and situations. The realists wanted to set this matter right. In an oftenquoted definition, Howells called realism "nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material" ("Editor's Study," p. 966). Realists tried to present the truth of human experience without the distortions of sentimentality.

THE TENETS OF REALISM: HOWELLS, PERRY, LATHROP

The great theorist of American realism was unquestionably William Dean Howells. In fact, it might be said with some justice that without Howells there is little basis for identifying an "Age of Realism" in the United States at all. Howells was himself a prolific novelist who crafted his works in accordance with realist principles. But more important, as assistant editor (1866–1871) and then editor (1871–1881) of the Atlantic Monthly and later (1886–1892) as columnist ("Editor's Study") for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, he both articulated the principles of realism and promoted the careers of the great figures of the period—especially James and Twain, but also including (among others) Hamlin Garland, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Stephen Crane. Howells persistently and effectively argued for "realistic" fiction that would leave behind the sentimental excesses of many popular nineteenth-century novelists, representing instead the situations and experience of "real" people and truthfully exploring problems and possibilities pertinent to actual existence. Fiction, by this view, emerges more as a matter of fact than of genius—a departure from the Romantic view of the writer as a sort of mystical seer. Indeed, Howells confided to his readers that the belief in "genius" seemed to him "rather a mischievous superstition."

In the 1870s and early 1880s, Howells's friend Thomas Sergeant Perry produced a series of critical reviews praising the European realists and, along with Howells, working out the principles for an American realism. In a very early essay titled "American Novels" (1872), Perry proposed that the important action in a novel lies in the experience of its characters, not in the structure of events the novel describes: "In the true novel the scene, the incidents, are subordinated to the sufferings, actions, and qualities of the characters" (p. 369). The novel, then, is not an adventure story but a study in ethical behavior, and the trajectory of the study is inward: "the real story lies beneath the hats and bonnets of those concerned, not in the distant cataracts that wet them, nor the bullets that scar them" (p. 369). It might be said that what both Howells and Perry were calling for was greater patience on the part of both author and reader—the patience to get to know the characters and to attend not just to the events in the story but to the characters' anticipations, responses, and afterthoughts concerning those events. For Perry the novel should—by means of its careful description of physical details, realistic rendering of conversation, and attention to nuance—take readers deep into the psyches of its characters. Another essay by Perry, "Ivan Turgénieff," which appeared two years later in the Atlantic Page 945  |  Top of Article Monthly, praises the Russian novelist Turgenev for the naturalness of his characters, his keen observation, the vividness of detail in his work, and the absence of an "avowed purpose" (p. 567) to be read between the lines. Turgenev wrote, according to Perry, "as if his aim were entirely of another sort, simply to describe certain Russian peculiarities" (p. 567). He also praised Turgenev for "hiding himself " (p. 569) in his narrative, avoiding unnecessary authorial comment and simply presenting his characters as living people who could speak for themselves. These qualities were among those that realists were expected to exhibit, and Turgenev came to be regarded by American realists as a model to emulate.

Another very early advocate of realism, George Parsons Lathrop (1851–1898), in an 1874 essay titled "The Novel and Its Future," proposed that while the improbable may produce potent momentary effects, attention to the more usual occurrence and the more commonplace character can take one deeper into the true nature of things. The realist takes characters and events that seem to have little of interest to offer and, by "profound and sympathetic penetration" (p. 318) reveals their "full value and true meaning," bringing to light "the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature" (p. 321). This, Lathrop believed, is an exercise of imagination far higher than the creation by Romantic writers of fantasies with little connection to the lives of ordinary people. The heroes and heroines of fiction of realist fiction were "taken from the rank and file of the race" and thus would "represent people whom we daily encounter" (p. 324).

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SMILING REALISM

Howells believed that American fiction should reflect the American character and American conditions. Since life in the United States is predominantly pleasant, a realistic portrayal would emphasize the "smiling aspects."

Whatever their deserts, very few American novelists have been led out to be shot, or finally exiled to the rigors of a winter at Duluth; and in a land where journeymen carpenters and plumbers strike for four dollars a day the sum of hunger and cold is comparatively small, and the wrong from class to class has been almost inappreciable, though all this is changing for the worse. Our novelists, therefore, concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and seek the universal in the individual rather than the social interests. It is worth while, even at the risk of being called commonplace, to be true to our well-to-do actualities; the very passions themselves seem to be softened and modified by conditions which formerly at least could not be said to wrong any one, to cramp endeavor, or to cross lawful desire.

Howells, Criticism and Fiction, p. 62.

In Criticism and Fiction (1894), Howells himself maintained that in fiction, "we must ask ourselves before we ask anything else, Is it true?—true to the motives, the impulses, the principles, that shape the life of actual men and women" (p. 49). And in this focus on the "truthful," he believed, the "marvelous" would be revealed in a new and unsentimental light. The "foolish man," Howells quotes Emerson, "wonders at the unusual, but the wise man at the usual" (p. 40). A cornerstone of this realist approach to fiction was his rejection of the falsely "ideal"—a rejection that he conveyed by comparing the writing of fiction to studying a grasshopper. The realistic novelist in this analogy is a scientist in the tradition of Baconian and Cartesian reasoning who does not begin with an idea of a grasshopper (thus, the "ideal") but by looking at a real one. The Romantic, on the other hand, gives us a perfected grasshopper, beautiful to look at but not real. For Howells, "what is true is always beautiful and good" (p. 10). He concludes that the artist (and the artist's audience) must "reject the ideal grasshopper wherever he finds it, in science, in literature, in art, because it is not 'simple, natural, and honest,' because it is not like a real grasshopper" (p. 13). It can be objected, of course, that, like Howells's definition of realism as "the truthful treatment of material," this emphasis on "truth" as a clearly identifiable entity ignores the epistemologically problematic status of both "truth" and "the real." After all, the Romantics, like the realists, believed that their creations were profoundly truthful in ways that their predecessors' had not been. It would be more philosophically accurate to say that Howells is recommending that the writer attend not to the "real" itself but to the appearances of things. There is a faith here that appearances bear a relation to the truth that is not ironic—as opposed, for instance, to the Platonic view that appearance conceals truth (a view romanticism generally accepts). The realist Page 946  |  Top of Article tends to believe that appearances are in important ways straightforwardly revealing to the observer who can read them accurately. The great novelists and their comprehending readers must be such insightful observers.

If the accurate observation recommended by Howells is crucial to the novelist's art, it readily follows that the novelist must write about things within his or her field of vision. This means for the American author that, as a rule, the subject should be American, and this is particularly so in Howells's opinion because accurate seeing and actions based on such seeing are characteristic of Americans. Howells also believed that life in the United States, as compared to that in other countries, consists for the most part of pleasant experience: "the sum of hunger and cold is comparatively small, and the wrong from class to class has been almost inappreciable" (Criticism and Fiction, p. 62). It is therefore appropriate for American fiction to "be true to our well-to-do actualities," concerning itself with "the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and to seek the universal in the individual rather than in the social interests" (p. 62). In this Howells formulates what came to be known as "smiling realism"—his belief that optimistic tone and subject matter in fiction are appropriate to the happy destinies of life in the United States. For Howells's later detractors, this made him an easy target for the claim that his doctrines had the effect of trivializing fiction.

As for the ethics of fiction writing, aside from the ethical implications of the emphasis on "truthfulness," Howells portrays realism as being in some sense devout because it cherishes God's creation as it is, rather than escaping into unreal fantasy. The true realist, in Howells's opinion, finds significance in everything that he or she encounters: "All tells of destiny and character; nothing that God has made is contemptible. He cannot look upon human life and declare this thing or that thing unworthy of notice" (Criticism and Fiction, p. 15). And while fiction should bring individual experience to light, the result for Howells is to reveal how much all humanity has in common and to "make them know one another better, that they may all be humbled and strengthened with a sense of their fraternity" (p. 87).

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REPRESENTING LIFE

Henry James, like other realists, maintained that the primary task of the writer of fiction is to show life as it really is—not to substitute for that reality a contrived version of life. In "The Art of Fiction" (1884), he expressed this as "life without rearrangement" versus "life with rearrangement."

Catching the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps Fiction upon her feet. In proportion as in what she offers us we see life without rearrangement do we feel that we are touching the truth; in proportion as we see it with rearrangement do we feel that we are being put off with a substitute, a compromise and convention.

Henry James, "The Art of Fiction," p. 16.

PSYCHOLOGICAL REALISM: HENRY JAMES

James made his most important contribution to realism theory in his essay "The Art of Fiction" (originally published in Longman's Magazine in September 1884), which is regarded as one of America's classic statements of literary criticism. In this essay James proclaims the writing of fiction to be one of the fine arts and examines at length the comparison between fiction and painting (whereas many of Howells's detractors compared his approach to photography). James, like Howells and Perry, regarded the novelist more as a craftsman than as a creative genius. The writer of fiction must meticulously observe, and turn his or her impressions into art. For James the only reason for existence of a novel or short story is that it "represents life." The "supreme virtue of the novel," in his view, is "the air of reality," which he explains as "solidity of specification" (p. 12). That is, the novelist must create a convincing image of life, one that seems as if it might really happen. James also agrees with Perry that the crucial action in a story should be internal. Extending the comparison between fiction and painting he remarks, "A psychological reason is, to my imagination, an object adorably pictorial; to catch the tint of its complexion—I feel as if that idea might inspire one to Titianesque efforts" (p. 19). Here we see James's conversion of realism to something less literal than Howells's model. James advocated and practiced what came to be known as "psychological realism"—a devotion not to the precise reproduction of external detail but to a rendering of the nuances of the inner lives of his characters. However, for all his advocacy of careful observation, he gave at least equal Page 947  |  Top of Article weight to what he called in 1909 the "crucible of the imagination"—a notion not far removed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "secondary imagination," which "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate." Thus, James effected a sort of fusion (sometimes identified with impressionism) of the realistic with the Romantic that moved in the direction of twentieth-century modernism.

Howells identified James as the "chief exemplar" of a "new school" of fiction writing deriving from Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Eliot. James's fiction, like Howells's, avoids the exotic and the superficially dramatic, but he plumbs the psyches of his characters much more deeply than Howells. His fictions revolve around such situations as a governess trying to understand the moral and psychological forces that have been working on the children in her charge (The Turn of the Screw); a man wondering what his life might have been like if he had stayed in America and had a "career" instead of going to Europe and having none ("The Jolly Corner"); a man too obsessed with his own destiny, failing to make the human connection that he might have made if he had simply been attentive to the world around him ("The Beast in the Jungle"). In each case James gives readers a "central consciousness" through whom they can understand the events not simply in terms of the details of their occurrence but also in terms of their significance. James's fiction satisfies his own and Perry's criterion that the real action of the story should be in the minds of the characters, yet he makes that action visible by means of symbolic entities that he uses, as he says, to "paint" the "psychological reasons"—entities such as ghosts, "the beast," the subtly flawed golden bowl in the novel by that title, and so forth. In this, again, he is part realist and part "modernist."

Other important writers who produced works related to Jamesian psychological realism were Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, and Edith Wharton. Bierce mined his own traumatic experiences in the Civil War to craft stories that explored the psychological effects of violence and the nearness of death. Crane (1871–1900), who was himself too young to have personally experienced the Civil War, nonetheless chose it as his setting for The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which considers how an ordinary person might react to being thrown into a bewildering situation that demands heroic courage and stamina. Wharton is often characterized as a lesser version of James himself, though her works were actually more popular than his. Like James she wrote stories that treated the psychological nuances of social life among the culturally sophisticated, in whose conversations the unsaid was frequently as significant as the said.

MARK TWAIN AND LOCAL COLOR

Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)—notable for its realistic detail, the psychologically realistic portrayal of its protagonist (and other characters), the meaningful ethical dilemmas that the novel poses, and the effective use of dialect—is undoubtedly one of the great literary achievements of American realism. Although Huck Finn is an uncommon character in an uncommon situation, such moments as his decision to try to save the lives of the murderers trapped on the Walter Scott and his efforts to free the slave Jim, in spite of his acceptance of the primacy of property rights over human rights, reach deep into the ethical and psychological realms for any human being. Perry, in his review of Twain's novel in Century Magazine, found that it demonstrates how "Life teaches its lessons by implications, not by didactic preaching; and literature is at its best when it is an imitation of life and not an excuse for instruction" (p. 171). Twain's realistic disposition is revealed, albeit humorously, in his prefatory materials, which on one hand deny the existence of plot or moral in the novel but on the other hand self-consciously insist on the accuracy of the dialects. Twain also broke new ground in the use of realism in his quasi-fictional travel books, which played off the standard travel book conventions to deflate conventional expectations. The Innocents Abroad (1869), for instance, was regarded as offensive by some because it accurately described the desolate barrenness of the Holy Land, in direct contradiction of the romanticized portraits that travel books usually offered.

Unlike Howells and James, whose work tends to move within mainstream culture, Twain, in Huckleberry Finn and in other novels and tales, takes the reader to more remote and primitive locations, such as the Mississippi River valley and the California mining camps. In doing so he demonstrates his ties to regionalism and regional literature, a variety of realistic literature that attempts to capture the flavor of particular regions of the United States—an attempt particularly congenial to Howells's and Perry's notion that realism is democratic in its interest in ordinary people in common situations. However, regionalism also adds the element of the exotic—that is, it takes its readers on an exploration of cultural settings with which they are not likely to be familiar; one of its attractions is the opportunity to travel to new places through the experience of reading. Local color fiction was a particularly popular species of regionalism that thrived at the same time (1870–1890) as realism proper. Local color stories attempted to capture the uniqueness of the regions in which they were set. Twain began his career as a local colorist writing about the Far West, earning his first national fame for "The Celebrated Jumping Page 948  |  Top of Article Frog of Calaveras County" (1865), set in a mining camp in California. Bret Harte likewise wrote local color stories capturing the curious characters and settings of the mining camps and the West in general. Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman were important local colorists using New England settings, and George Washington Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, and Mary N. Murfree wrote local color fiction set in the South. Although local color tended to be nostalgic, often to the point of sentimentality, for the lifestyles of the areas in which it was set, it was realistic in its attention to actual settings and speech patterns, often including a heavy reliance on dialect to produce its effects.

THE REALISM WAR

By the early 1880s Howells, Perry, and other realists were engaged in a resolute battle against sentimental, "undemocratic," "untruthful" literature. Perry's essay "William Dean Howells," published in Century Magazine in March 1882, praises Howells as America's great practitioner of realism, whose work "has proved that realism does not mean groping in the mire" (p. 685). Howells's fiction, Perry says, fulfills the novelist's responsibility "to tell us what he sees, not to pervert the truth according to his whims or prejudices" (p. 684). And he praises realism itself as the enemy of superstition, injustice, and the old-fashioned: "Just as the scientific spirit digs the ground from beneath superstition, so does its fellow-worker, realism, tend to prick the bubble of abstract types. Realism is the tool of the democratic spirit, the modern spirit by means of which the truth is elicited" (p. 683). In the same year Howells proclaimed the triumph of realism and the resulting elevation of fiction writing: "The art of fiction has, in fact, become a finer art in our day than it was with Dickens and Thackeray. . . . These great men are of the past" ("Henry James, Jr.," p. 28). Realism was of the present. Richard Watson Gilder (1844–1909) remarked in an essay several years later (New Princeton Review, 1887), "Realism is, in fact, something in the air which even those who do not think of it by name must necessarily feel" (p. 3). Yet even as the triumph and current predominance of realism were being proclaimed, there was an equally vigorous and vocal countercurrent of critical opinion condemning the new "realistic" literature as unentertaining, immoral (or at least amoral), and even atheistic. The clash between these two sometimes violently opposed camps became known as the "realism war."

Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900), best remembered as the coauthor of Mark Twain's first novel, The Gilded Age (1873), issued one of the first answering shots, remarking in an 1883 essay titled "Modern Fiction": "One of the worst characteristics of modern fiction is its so-called truth to nature" (p. 464). Art, in Warner's view, requires idealization, but realism prides itself on a "photographic fidelity to nature" (p. 464), which he regards as an insufficient criterion for art. Warner complains that the realists, writing in a style that lacks the elevating enrichment of imaginative seeing, appear intent on representing the most sordid aspects of society: "it is held to be artistic to look almost altogether upon the shady and the seamy side of life, giving to this view the name of 'realism'; to select the disagreeable, the vicious, the unwholesome" (p. 471).

The realism war heated up with the publication of Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), which was viewed by critics, both friendly and hostile, as the purest application to date of the principles espoused by Howells and Perry. As such, it became a center of critical controversy between those who agreed with realist principles and those who opposed them. The novel is set in contemporary Boston, Howells's home base while he was working for the Atlantic Monthly. Its protagonist, Silas Lapham, is a successful businessman who encounters a situation that forces him to choose between his material well-being and his desire to do the right thing. Howells succeeds in embedding a dilemma that calls for heroism within an ordinary, seemingly unheroic context, and in doing so suggests that heroism is not something removed from everyday life. The events of the novel are mundane—business transactions and domestic arrangements—and trace what is in material terms the fall of the protagonist, but the title ironically implies that the rises and falls that matter are the moral ones. Howells's other novels of the 1870s and 1880s, including Their Wedding Journey (1872) and A Modern Instance (1882), follow similar trajectories. James said of Howells, in a piece published in Harper's Weekly in June 1886, "He is animated by a love of the common, the immediate, the familiar and vulgar elements of life, and holds that in proportion as we move into the rare and strange we become vague and arbitrary" ("William Dean Howells," p. 394). In listing Howells's intentions and the qualities for which he was striving, James might also have mentioned a kind of authorial objectivity that would reveal the mixture of strength and weakness typical of actual human beings.

Fellow realist H. H. Boyesen (1848–1895) exclaimed, "In 'A Modern Instance,' and 'The Rise of Silas Lapham,' [Howells] has penetrated more deeply into the heart of reality, as it manifests itself on this side of the Atlantic, than any previous novelist" ("Why We Have No Great Novelists"). A less sympathetic critic calling himself "R. P." conceded in his essay Page 949  |  Top of Article "Novel-Writing as a Science" that Silas Lapham was "the most scientifically realistic novel that has yet been written" (p. 276), that Howells's fictional methods were revolutionary, and that he believed Howells intended his novels to serve admirable purposes. But such a scientific approach was, in his view, "a descent, a degradation" (p. 278). He saw in Howells's novel "the logic of the downward progress of godless science" (p. 279). Howells, according to R. P., studied "men and women as a naturalist does insects. . . . he investigates and expounds his theme with the same soullessness and absence of all emotion" (p. 277).

The editor and literary critic Hamilton Wright Mabie (1845–1916), in his review of Silas Lapham, agreed with R. P. on the matter of soullessness. While granting that the novel was often precise in its depictions, he found that it remained cold, lacking the "vital spark" that brings literature to life. Mabie accused Howells and the other realists of "crowding the world of fiction with commonplace people; people whom one would positively avoid coming in contact with in real life" ("A Typical Novel," p. 423). True art, according to Mabie, reveals spiritual laws and universal facts, embodying them in noble forms. He found in Howells's fiction a "lack of unforced and triumphant faith in the worth, the dignity, and the significance for art of human experience in its whole range" (p. 421). Without this faith, he believed, Howells was unable to communicate a deep feeling for his subject and, thus, "A true art is impossible" (p. 421). For Mabie (and others) the problem was not so much a matter of subject matter or of style, but of the lack of an intention to promote a certain view of the world. In Mabie's view realism was "practical atheism applied to art" (p. 426).

Like Mabie, Maurice Thompson (1844–1901), in The Ethics of Literary Art (1893), perceived a need for what he called a "moral bias" transcending the objectivity that realists like Howells were striving for. Moral bias, he believed, is "the initial impulse" from which "every art movement springs; for it is moral bias that controls every conception of the form and the function of art" (p. 16). However, Thompson suggested that Howells's saving grace, to the extent that he had one at all, was that his novels were not entirely in keeping with the theories he articulated. Thompson, himself a novelist and poet, found in Howells's novels substantial evidence of "romance disguised as realism." In his judgment Howells must not be a realist after all but a Romantic in disguise, since "his literary tissue is healthy, the spirit of his work is even, calm, just, and his purpose is pure." The work of genuine realists, like Émile Zola (1840–1902), he found to be decadent, focusing on "the vulgar, the commonplace, and the insignificant."

The dramatist and biographer William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923), who held a similar opinion of Zola, coined the term "epidermism" to describe realism in his essay "The New Story-tellers and the Doom of Realism" (1894). He claimed that the French authors and their American imitators investigated "only the surface, the cuticle of life, usually with a preference for very dirty skin" (p. 477). Referring to Howells as one of the epidermists, he condemned Howells's work as photographic reproduction that revealed only the surface appearance and not the meaningful depth of things. Realism/epidermism was doomed, he judged, because the human element was missing; the realists had "mistaken the dead actual for reality" (p. 477). This decadence of fiction could lead only to moral anarchy because "the Real without the Ideal is as the body without life" (p. 480). In the same year, H. C. Vedder, a Baptist clergyman and literary critic, asked, after exclaiming over the flatness of Howells's fiction, "Has he never known anybody who has a soul above the buttons?"

In fairness to the American realists it should be noted that they for the most part shared their attackers' disdain for the "filth" of French realism, especially Zola. Although Thayer rather bizarrely pictured Howells "smacking his lips" over Zola's "filth" during the composition of The Rise of Silas Lapham, Howells actually condemned Zola's uncritical depiction of vice, as did James and Perry. Perry, in "Zola's Last Novel" (1880), maintained that the men and women in Zola's novels were "beasts" and that his work was "more shameless and disgusting than anything in modern literature" (p. 694). Nonetheless, the accusation of moral decadence, carrying over from Americans' shock at such French "realists" as Zola—who are more accurately described as naturalists—continued to be applied to American realists, especially to Howells.

Along with the realists' continued justifications of their methods and theories, there also were some efforts at peacemaking. Gilder proposed that the differences between Romantics and realists had been exaggerated because all fiction contains elements of both: "There are few realists who have no ideality, and few idealists, few romanticists, who do not make use of the real" (p. 1). George Pellew, who had been a student of Perry at Harvard, agreed. In "The New Battle of the Books" (1888), he maintained that the ultimate intentions of Romantics and realists were not significantly different, although they employed different methods. He found that, while the Romantic approached the object as a "mechanical Page 950  |  Top of Article draughtsman" (p. 572) and the realist was like a photographer, both wanted to reveal the truth of the object.

CRITICAL REALISM

In time the steady attention to truthful reproduction of reality became wearisome even to the realists, who were also troubled by the social-economic turmoil of the 1880s, and—led by Howells, Boyesen, and Hamlin Garland—the turn was made from a nonideological fiction to one intended to foster social progress. The term given to this new direction was "critical realism." Critical realism, which thrived especially in the 1890s, was in some ways a more reasonable application of Howells's and Perry's ideas, because culture-specific fiction is likely to speak more directly to culture-specific issues than to universal concerns. Howells himself was drawn into the notion of fiction as a force for reforming society partly as a reaction to the Haymarket labor riot in 1886, which demonstrated the willingness of those in authority to harshly repress labor uprisings—and in their aftermath showed the general lack of sympathy that Americans held for the plight of the workingman or workingwoman. His response was to turn his attention toward fiction that would show the true complexity of societal problems and in a way that would move people to try to find solutions. A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), which some regard as his best novel, was the most notable result in his own work. Howells was also a mentor to the promising young novelist Stephen Crane and greatly admired Crane's brutal account of life in the urban slums in his first novel, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893).

Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), another novelist who found a supportive friend in Howells, championed what he called "veritism," a variant of realism that, by its reference to veritas, changed the focus more specifically to truthfulness. In his essay, "Productive Conditions of American Literature" (1894), Garland proposed that "American literature must be faithful to American conditions. . . . It should rise out of our conditions as naturally as the corn grows" (p. 690). This emphasis on "our conditions" reflects his concern with the effects of environment on the individual, and his fiction chronicles the lives of ordinary people making their way under difficult circumstances. Garland was also a local colorist, setting his fiction in what he called the "middle border"—the north central portion of the United States. His best-known work is Main-Travelled Roads (1891), a book of short stories that, like many of his works, exposes the harsh lives led by farmers in the middle border region but finds in those lives a heroism unappreciated by the world at large. His commitment to revealing sympathetically but unflinchingly the grim actuality of his characters' lives is very much in line with Howells's intention in the turn to critical realism. Boyesen, in 1894, judged Garland to be "the most vigorous realist in America" (Literary and Social Silhouettes, p. 77).

Boyesen, a Norwegian immigrant known in his own time as both novelist and critic, believed that American novelists had paid too little attention to the "strong forces which are visibly and invisibly at work in our society, fashioning our destinies as a nation" (p. 46). Like Garland and Crane, Boyesen took a somewhat deterministic view of human conduct, emphasizing its direct relation to environment and heredity, and like other realists he complained about the persistence of sentimentality in American fiction. In an essay titled "Why We Have No Great Novelists" (1887), Boyesen offered the provocative opinion that the market for American fiction revolved around the delicate sensibilities of adolescent girls: "The readers of novels are chiefly young girls, and a popular novel is a novel which pleases them" (p. 616). Thus, the young American girl functioned, in his view, as an "Iron Madonna who strangles in her iron embrace the American novelist" (p. 619). The result was, he thought, an insipid body of literature, momentarily entertaining but reluctant to face issues seriously. But eight years later, perceiving a turn in the direction of critical realism, he offered, in "The Progressive Realism of American Fiction," the judgment that American fiction had "devoted itself to the serious task of studying and chronicling our own social conditions" and consequently "is to-day commanding the attention of the civilized world" (Literary and Social Silhouettes, p. 78).

Another strong advocate of critical realism was the lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), a real-world activist and defender of those prosecuted in the Haymarket affair. Darrow, in an essay titled "Realism in Literature and Art" (1893), disagreed with Howells's notion of "smiling realism," maintaining, "The true artist has no right to choose only the lovely spots, and make us think that this is life" (p. 118). Rather the novelist should face the ugly truths in the world and, by bringing those truths to the world's attention, contribute to their correction. Instead of beginning with the Romantic faith that the good, the true, and the beautiful inherently coincide, the novelist must work to make them so. He or she must "write and work until the world shall learn so much, and grow so good, that the true will be all beautiful, and all the real be ideal" (p. 118).

The turn to critical realism also brought the realists closer to a contemporaneous literature of social activism directed toward special issues. Rebecca Harding Davis was an early practitioner of such fiction, focusing on Page 951  |  Top of Article issues of gender, race, and poverty, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its debunking of the myths of the happy slave and the benevolent slave-holder, likewise was a precursor of critical realism. The fiction of Charles Waddell Chesnutt (himself an African American) also turned a realistic eye on the life of African Americans in the slaveholding and post-slaveholding South, as did the fiction of George Washington Cable on the mixed racial situation in New Orleans and vicinity. Meanwhile, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin wrote fiction that showcased the problems of women caught in the rigid framework of stereotyped gender expectations.

THE TURN TO NATURALISM

Just as realism led naturally into critical realism, the same trajectory led logically from critical realism into naturalism—which took the realistic tendency to the opposite pole of Howells's "smiling realism." Writers such as Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser examined the lives of characters in society's lowest reaches. Whereas realism had tried for a sort of philosophical neutrality, naturalism posited a universe indifferent, or even hostile, to the fate of humanity, and its characters tended to be driven by internal or external forces that they could neither understand nor control. It was, in other words, the philosophical counterpoint to romanticism's belief in the inherent rightness and connectedness of all things. Realism had experimented with an idea of truthfulness that attempted to record the actualities of human experience without fitting them into a preconceived mold. But in the progression to critical realism and then to naturalism, the photographic method fell more and more into the service of the thematizing intention.

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REALISM'S MORAL LESSONS

Clarence Darrow, a prominent lawyer and social activist, in his essay "Realism in Literature and Art" (1893), maintained that realism does teach morality—a morality that springs naturally from the truthful treatment of its characters and situations. In fact, he suggests that this is the most compelling sort of moral lesson.

The realist would teach a lesson, too, but he would not violate a single fact for all the theories in the world, for a theory could not be true if it did violence to life. He paints his picture so true and perfect that all men who look upon it know that it is a likeness of the world that they have seen; they know that these are men and women and little children whom they meet upon the streets, and they see the conditions of their lives, and the moral of the picture sinks deeply into their minds.

Clarence Darrow, "Realism in Literature and Art," p.109.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Works

Crane, Stephen. Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. New York: D. Appleton, 1896.

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. New York, D. Appleton, 1895.

Garland, Hamlin. Main-Travelled Roads: Being Six Stories of the Mississippi Valley. Cambridge, U.K.: Stone and Kimball, 1893.

Howells, William Dean. A Hazard of New Fortunes. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891.

Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. Boston: Ticknor, 1885.

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1881.

James, Henry. The Two Magics: The Turn of the Screw, Covering End. New York: Macmillan, 1898.

Thompson, Maurice. The Ethics of Literary Art. Hartford, Conn.: Hartford Seminary Press, 1893.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Charles L. Webster, 1885.

Twain, Mark. Sketches, New and Old. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing, 1875.

Secondary Works

Anesko, Michael, ed. Letters, Fictions, Lives: Henry James and William Dean Howells. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Bell, Michael D. The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Benardete, Jane, ed. American Realism. New York: Putnam, 1972.

Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884–1919. New York: Free Press, 1965.

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Boyesen, H. H. Literary and Social Silhouettes. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894.

Boyesen, H. H. "Why We Have No Great Novelists." Forum 2 (February 1887): 615–622.

Cady, Edwin H. The Light of Common Day: Realism in American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.

Carter, Everett. Howells and the Age of Realism. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1954.

Darrow, Clarence. "Realism in Literature and Art." The Arena (December 1893): 98–113.

Fishkin, Shelley F. From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Garland, Hamlin. "Productive Conditions of American Literature." Forum 27 (August 1894): 690–694.

Glazener, Nancy. Reading for Realism: The History of a Literary Institution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Gilder, Richard Watson. "Certain Tendencies in Current Literature." New Princeton Review (July 1887): 1–13.

Greenwald, Elissa. Realism and the Romance: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and American Fiction. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989.

Hochman, Barbara. Getting at the Author: Reimaging Books and Reading in the Age of American Realism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Howells, William Dean. "Criticism and Fiction." 1894. In Criticism and Fiction and Other Essays, edited by Clara Marburg Kirk and Rudolf Kirk. New York: New York University Press, 1959.

Howells, William Dean. "Editor's Study." Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1889): 962–967.

Howells, William Dean. "Henry James, Jr." Century 25 (November 1882): 24–29.

James, Henry. "The Art of Fiction." 1884. In The Art of Fiction and Other Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.

James, Henry. "William Dean Howells." Harper's Weekly, 19 June 1886, pp. 394–395.

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Lathrop, George Parsons. "The Novel and Its Future." Atlantic Monthly 34 (September 1874): 313–324.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. American Realism. New York: Abrams, 1994.

Mabie, Hamilton Wright. "A Typical Novel." Andover Review 4 (November 1885): 417–429.

McKay, Janet H. Narration and Discourse in American Realistic Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Nagel, James, and Tom Quirk, eds. The Portable American Realism Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Parrington, Vernon L. The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860–1920: Completed to 1900 Only. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1930.

Pellew, George. "The New Battle of the Books." Forum 5 (July 1888): 564–573.

Perry, Thomas Sergeant. "American Novels." North American Review 115 (October 1872): 366–379.

Perry, Thomas Sergeant. "Ivan Turgénieff." Atlantic Monthly 33 (May 1874): 565–576.

Perry, Thomas Sergeant. Review of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Century Magazine 30 (May 1885): 171–173.

Perry, Thomas Sergeant. "William Dean Howells." Century Magazine 23 (March 1882): 680–685.

Perry, Thomas Sergeant. "Zola's Last Novel." Atlantic Monthly 45 (May 1880): 693–699.

Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966.

Pizer, Donald, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism, Howells to London. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Pizer, Donald, ed. Documents of American Realism and Naturalism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998.

Pizer, Donald, and Earl Harbert, eds. American Realists and Naturalists. Vol. 12 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Quirk, Tom, and Gary Scharnhorst, eds. American Realism and the Canon. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

Rawlings, Peter, ed. Americans on Fiction, 1776–1900. 3 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2002. Contains many of the essays from nineteenth-century literary magazines quoted here.

R. P. "Novel Writing as a Science." Catholic World 42 (November 1885): 274–282.

Smith, Christopher, ed. American Realism. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. American Realism: New Essays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Thayer, William Roscoe. "The New Story-Tellers and the Doom of Realism." Forum 18 (December 1894): 470–480.

Twain, Mark. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." 1895. In The Unabridged Mark Twain, edited by Lawrence Teacher, pp. 1239–1250. Philadephia: Running Press, 1976.

Vedder, H. C. American Writers of Today. New York: Silver Burdett and Co., 1894.

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Warner, Charles Dudley. "Modern Fiction." Atlantic Monthly 51 (April 1883): 464–474.

Warren, Kenneth. Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

James S. Leonard

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Leonard, James S. "Realism." American History Through Literature 1870-1920, edited by Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst, vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 943-953. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX3470800209%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dcher99092%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D23813798. Accessed 17 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3470800209

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  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain),
    • local color and,
      • 3: 947
  • "American Novels" (Perry),
    • 3: 944
  • "Art of Fiction, The" (H. James),
  • Austen, Jane
    • realism and,
      • 3: 943
  • Balzac, Honoré de,
    • 3: 943
  • Bierce, Ambrose,
    • realism and,
      • 3: 947
  • Boyesen, H. H. (Hjalmar Hjorth),
    • on W. D. Howells,
      • 3: 948
  • Cable, George Washington (continued)
    • local color fiction and,
      • 3: 948
    • realism and,
      • 3: 951
  • "Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, The" (Twain),
  • Chesnutt, Charles Waddell (continued)
    • realism and,
      • 3: 951
  • Chopin, Kate,
    • realism and,
      • 3: 951
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor
    • secondary imagination and,
      • 3: 946-947
  • Cooper, James Fenimore,
    • realism and,
      • 3: 943-944
  • Crane, Stephen (continued)
    • realism and,
      • 3: 947
    • W. D. Howells and,
  • critical realism,
    • 3: 950-951
  • Criticism and Fiction (Howells),
  • Darrow, Clarence,
    • critical realism and,
      • 3: 950
  • Davis, Rebecca Harding,
  • Dickinson, Emily,
    • realism and,
      • 3: 943
  • Drum-Taps (Whitman),
  • Eliot, George,
    • 3: 943
  • Ethics of Literary Art, The (Thompson),
    • 3: 949
  • "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (Twain),
  • Flaubert, Gustave
    • realism and,
      • 3: 943
  • Freeman, Mary Eleanor Wilkins,
    • local color fiction and,
      • 3: 948
  • Garland, Hamlin,
    • W. D. Howells and,
      • 3: 944
      • 3: 950
  • Gilder, Richard Watson,
    • on realism,
      • 3: 948
      • 3: 949
  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins,
    • realism and,
      • 3: 951
  • Harris, Joel Chandler,
  • Harte, Bret,
  • Hazard of New Fortunes, A (Howells),
    • critical realism and,
      • 3: 950
  • Howells, William Dean,
    • on Èmile Zola,
      • 3: 949
  • Howells, William Dean (continued)
  • Ibsen, Henrik,
  • Innocents Abroad, The (Twain),
    • realism in,
      • 3: 947
  • "Ivan Turgénieff" (Perry),
    • 3: 944-945
  • James, Henry,
    • realism and,
    • W. D. Howells and,
  • Jewett, Sarah Orne,
    • local color fiction and,
      • 3: 948
    • W. D. Howells and,
      • 3: 944
  • Lathrop, George Parsons,
  • local color fiction,
    • Hamlin Garland and,
    • Mark Twain and,
      • 3: 947-948
  • Mabie, Hamilton Wright,
    • review of Silas Lapham,
      • 3: 949
  • Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (S. Crane),
    • critical realism and,
      • 3: 950
  • Main-Travelled Roads (Garland),
    • realism and,
      • 3: 950
  • "Modern Fiction" (Warner),
    • 3: 948
  • Modern Instance, A (Howells),
  • Murfree, Mary Noailles
    • local color fiction and,
      • 3: 948
  • naturalism,
  • "New Battle of the Books, The" (Pellew),
    • 3: 949
  • "New Story-tellers and the Doom of Realism, The" (Thayer),
    • 3: 949
  • "Novel and Its Future, The" (Lathrop),
    • 3: 945
  • "Novel-Writing as a Science" (R. P.) on The Rise of Silas Lapham,
    • 3: 949
  • Pellew, George,
    • 3: 949
  • Perry, Thomas Sergeant,
    • 3: 943
    • 3: 944-945
    • 3: 949
    • on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
      • 3: 947
  • poetry
    • realism and,
      • 3: 943
  • "Productive Conditions of American Literature" (Garland),
    • 3: 950
  • "Progressive Realism of American Fiction, The" (Boyeson),
    • 3: 950
  • psychology,
    • realism and,
      • 3: 946-947
  • realism,
  • "Realism in Literature and Art" (Darrow),
    • 3: 950
    • 3: 951
  • reform writers
    • critical realism and,
      • 3: 950-951
  • regionalism,
    • realism and,
      • 3: 943
  • Rise of Silas Lapham, The (Howells),
    • realism war and,
      • 3: 948
  • Scott, Walter
    • realism and,
      • 3: 943-944
  • Thayer, William Roscoe biography and,
    • term "epidermism" and,
      • 3: 949
  • Their Wedding Journey (Howells),
  • Thompson, Maurice
    • moral bias and,
      • 3: 949
  • Tolstoy, Leo
    • realism and,
      • 3: 943
  • Traveler from Altruria, A (Howells),
    • realism and,
      • 3: 947
  • Turgenev, Ivan,
    • 3: 943
  • Twain, Mark,
    • on James Fenimore Cooper,
      • 3: 944
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin (Stowe),
    • precursor of critical realism,
      • 3: 951
  • Vedder, H. C.,
    • 3: 949
  • "veritism,"
    • 3: 950
  • Warner, Charles Dudley,
  • Warner, Charles Dudley,
  • Wharton, Edith,
    • realism and,
      • 3: 947
  • Whitman, Walt
    • realism and,
      • 3: 943
  • "Why We Have No Great Novelists" (Boyeson),
    • 3: 950
  • "William Dean Howells" (Perry),
    • 3: 948
  • Zola, Émile,
    • Maurice Thompson on,
      • 3: 949
    • realism and,
      • 3: 943
  • "Zola's Last Novel" (Perry),
    • 3: 949