Boundaries of the Period
With the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, the start of the American Civil War in 1861, and the deaths of Henry David Thoreau in 1862 and Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1864, the literary landscape was ripe for a new generation of American writers who emphasized verisimilitude (similarity to truth) or Realism in the arts. These writers—among them, Mark Twain, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and John William De Forest—chose not to allegorize or sentimentalize or sensationalize experience in their fiction, preferring instead to represent the world as objectively as possible. “Let fiction cease to lie about life,” Howells declared in Criticism and Fiction (1891); “let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know; . . . let it not put on fine literary airs; let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know—the language of unaffected people everywhere.” Ambrose Bierce facetiously defined Realism in his Devil’s Dictionary (1911) as “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”
Many Realists (for example, Twain, Howells, Bierce, Bret Harte, Hamlin Garland, and Stephen Crane) began their careers as journalists, and they addressed the questions of “who, what, when, where, why, and how” in their fiction no less than in their newspaper reporting. Howells even advanced a scientific model of literary development, with Realism having evolved from literary romance much as birds evolved from lizards. Though Howells admired Hawthorne’s fiction, he nevertheless believed it occupied a lower rung on the evolutionary scale of literature than “the truthful treatment of material” (Criticism and Fiction). Purporting to offer a transcript of life, the Realists often depicted middle-class experience. They shared with such pragmatists as William James a philosophical attitude that affirmed freedom of the will, deliberate and purposeful behavior, and individual responsibility.
In addition to Howells, many other novelists of the period defended the aesthetics of Realism. James compared realistic fiction to painting in his essay “The Art of Fiction” (1884). According to James, the only reason a novel should exist “is that it does attempt to represent life. When it relinquishes this attempt, the same attempt that we see on the canvas of a painter, it will have arrived at a very strange pass” (Partial Portraits, 1888). James’s brand of Realism was a form of literary portraiture, as may be inferred from several of his titles (for example, Portraits of Places, The Portrait of a Lady, Partial Portraits). In his humorous essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895) Twain listed “nineteen rules governing literary art.” Among them are “when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk” and “the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone.” Crane similarly asserted that he had “developed all alone a little creed of art which I thought was a good one. Later I discovered that my creed was identical with the one of Howells and Garland.... we are the most successful in art when we approach the nearest to nature and truth” (The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, edited by Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, 1988).