Aestheticism A late-nineteenth-century literary movement that valued artistic values over moral or political ones; it is sometimes referred to as the “art for art’s sake” movement. Aesthetes were often criticized as “decadent,” though they embraced the term. Oscar Wilde is probably the most accomplished and notorious of the decadents.
Agrarianism A social philosophy that asserts that a rural or semirural way of life, with the farmer in control of the means of production, is more sustainable and contented.
Anarchism A political philosophy that holds that government itself is evil and urges free associations of groups opposed to private property. In the 1880s anarchists unsuccessfully tried to infiltrate the American labor movement.
Burlesque A comic technique that ridicules, through exaggeration, the style or tone of a certain kind of literary work. Unlike parody, which ridicules particular writers or texts, burlesque typically satirizes literary forms.
Censorship During this period, censorship was actively practiced by United States Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, who influenced the passage of the so-called Comstock Law of 1873, prohibiting the transportation or delivery of any lewd or lascivious material in the United States. Comstock was, in his mind, upholding a certain Victorian propriety, and his censorship even extended to prohibition of some anatomy textbooks or any information about birth control.
Chinese Exclusion Act The first act to exclude Chinese immigration, passed by Congress in 1882. In part, the act was in opposition to so-called coolie wages paid to the immigrants, but the Chinese were also demonized as a threatening “yellow peril.”
Color line A phrase given currency by the publication of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), in which he defined the problem of the twentieth century as that line that divides lighter and darker races, which gives rise to discrimination, undermines democracy, and fosters conflict. Later in his life, Du Bois recognized that prejudicial boundaries exist in the world on the basis of cultural differences that were not exclusively marked by color.
Conspicuous consumption A phrase coined by economist Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) to describe the behavior of the nouveau riche whose lavish display of wealth was an effort to establish their status in society.
Didacticism An attempt to teach or preach.
Dime novels Pulp novels popular in the mid to late nineteenth century for juvenile readers; they often cost no more than ten cents.
Direct address A literary device wherein the narrator speaks directly to the reader. It is sometimes considered a form of narrative intrusion because the author is telling the reader what to think or how to feel about certain imaginative events. In works by writers such as Walt Whitman, the device is more artistic than moralistic, and it is sometimes forgotten that the whole of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is addressed to the reader.
Doppelganger Literary double.
Dramatic monologue A passage, usually of verse but sometimes prose, in which the speaker reveals his or her inner self. Unlike a soliloquy, an internal monologue presumes a hearer or audience.
Expatriate One who resides permanently or temporarily in a country other than his or her birthplace. Among nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American expatriates are Bret Harte, Harold Frederic, Ambrose Bierce, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.
Feminism and suffrage The activist pursuit of equal rights for women, including their right to vote. The chief aim of nineteenth-century American feminism was women’s suffrage, or the extension of the vote to include women. In 1869 the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association were founded. Through marches, petitions, and other forms of protest, feminists made some strides in acquiring the vote, particularly in Western states and territories, but it was not until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 that universal women’s suffrage was achieved.
Fin de siecle Literally, end of century; usually associated with decadence at the close of the nineteenth century.
Frame tale Sometimes referred to as the “box tale,” a form of comic sketch featuring a genteel narrator who introduces the narrative and comes in contact with a rustic vernacular narrator who tells a story in his own idiom. Ordinarily, the genteel narrator returns at the end of the sketch to round things off. The form was later adapted to serious purposes. Mark Twain did so in “A True Story”; Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, and Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs may be considered variations of this literary mode.
Free verse or vers libre A poetic form that self-consciously refuses to observe strict rhyme schemes but is recognizable as poetry by other patterns or conventions. Walt Whitman is the most famous nineteenth-century American poet to adopt this poetic manner.
Frontier or borderland Literally, the area beyond some boundary. The American frontier was constantly receding due to what was understood to be a civilizing process of the West. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, however, maintained that what was best in the American character evolved out of the tension between settlements and the rugged individualism just beyond it. When the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier officially closed in 1890, some believed a new era had begun in the development of the country.
Genteel tradition A literary tradition that emphasized sexual propriety, refinement, and complacent optimism. After World War I, writers were in active revolt against this tradition.
Higher criticism Literary analysis of the Bible. It concentrates on chronology, sources, and historical analysis to understand Scripture instead of naive faith and sometimes disputes the authenticity or authorship of some parts of the Bible. Many Christians are highly critical of the practice, believing that Scripture itself is the best guide to understanding.
Impressionism A literary manner derived from the example of the French impressionist painters. It attempted to paint with words, to disclose individual impressions under given circumstances uncorrected by mental or moral adjustments. The best of American impressionists is Stephen Crane; Hamlin Garland and Henry James also engaged in this form of writing.
Initiation story or bildungsroman A story of development (German Bildung), usually about a young male protagonist who undergoes rites of passage from innocence to experience or from ignorance to knowledge.
Internal monologue A conversation with oneself, or thinking in words, as in stream-of-consciousness writing.
International novel Unlike novels that emphasized American individualism and mobility, usually to the West, a novel that dramatized the experience of the American point of view as it confronted the old world of Europe. Henry James is the most notable practitioner of this form, and some of his works in this vein include Daisy Miller, The American, Portrait of a Lady, and The Ambassadors.
Irony A broad term referring to the recognition by characters or the reader that expected consequences or meanings are far from reality. Irony may occur as verbal phrasing, in dramatic situations, or even in cosmic terms. Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” is a good example of a story employing all of these forms. Irony may be used for comic purposes; often, however, it is serious, even tragic.
Leisure class In the stratified class structure of the Gilded Age, the wealthy class that enjoyed privileges unavailable to the working or underclass. The economist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).
Local color Writing that attempted to render the peculiarities or distinct qualities of a given region—its customs, dialects, attitudes, and natural setting.
Melodrama Originally associated with drama and operetta, its features include stock characters (unmistakable heroes, heroines, and villains), high drama, and sensationalism. Naturalist novels are sometimes described as melodramatic, though lacking the self-conscious effort at sentimental drama of justice and reform.
Muckraking Journalistic writing designed to expose corruption in business and politics. Lincoln Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities (1904) and Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904) are the most famous examples of this form.
Narrative point of view The perspective of the teller of a world of fiction. As Harold Kolb observed, Realist writing tends to be “antiomniscient” in the sense that reality is essentially social and individuals have a common but still partial understanding of the world. For that reason, first-person narratives were common because they dramatized an individual sense of experience (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the most famous example of that sort of narrative). Another form of first-person narration presents an unreliable narrator who, due to a variety of reasons including self-delusion, madness, or conniving, presents a story that the reader is expected to be skeptical of;
Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is an example. James, Edith Wharton, and others offer a limited omniscient perspective wherein the point-of-view character offered a center of consciousness that was restricted but still allowed for authorial commentary and clarification. Naturalist writers, on the other hand, tended to favor third-person, omniscient narrators who understood the significance of events according to biological or economic and social forces that were quite beyond the grasp of their characters. For that reason, authorial intrusion, wherein the author comments directly to the reader on the significance of narrated events, was more common with Naturalists.
Naturalism Although writers such as Jack London, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser called themselves Realists, their assumption about truth and their literary manner differed markedly from Realists in the Howellsean vein. The historian David Shi has described these writers as “savage Realists.” The Naturalist writer tends to take a scientific point of view toward his or her subject; his or her characters are motivated by forces (biological and/or economic) beyond their understanding or control. Often those baser instincts are best displayed in extreme circumstances; London favored the extreme cold of the Alaskan tundra, and Norris concludes his novel McTeague in Death Valley. In other words, Naturalists embraced sensationalist and melodramatic elements that Realists tried to avoid. Vernon Parrington identified these characteristics of Naturalism: attempted objectivity, frankness, an amoral attitude toward the subject, a philosophy of determinism, pessimism, and a projection of strong characters of a marked animal or neurotic nature.
Nouveau riche French for “newly wealthy”: a class that has accumulated wealth and influence but has neither the education nor refinement to know how to behave according to more traditional and genteel standards. The so-called Robber Barons were seen in this light, and in fiction Henry James’s Christopher Newman or William Dean Howells’s Silas Lapham are somewhat sympathetic portraits of this type.
Parlor magazine A magazine, such as the Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s Monthly, designed for a middle-class to genteel readership.
Parody The technique of satirizing a writer or work by lowering the significance or manner of treatment of the subject.
Persona A literary “mask” often used by humorists as a comic device. Among the masks were the Dandy, the “Muggins” (someone self-assured but lacking judgment), the Tenderfoot, and the Sentimentalist.
Picaresque narrative A highly episodic narrative, typically involving travel and comic adventures, in which the main character is a “picaro” (Spanish for rogue or rascal). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is sometimes characterized in this way, though Huck Finn is hardly a rogue.
Populism The political movement that seemed to advocate the interests of the common man. The People’s Party was organized in 1892 to protect the interests of farmers, including falling prices and foreclosures. It joined the Democratic Party in support of William Jennings Bryan for president in 1896; when Bryan lost, the Populists lost their national influence and eventually dissolved.
Pragmatism William James published a volume by that name in 1907 and said it was a new name for a very old philosophical method. Pragmatism is not merely a practical attitude toward life; it was a “meliorative” way of negotiating or settling intellectual disputes. To oversimplify, according to James, if the answer to a given question would not make a practical difference in one’s daily life, the question is really not worth asking.
Progressivism The movement that promoted the transition of American society to an industrial base. From 1901, with the election of Theodore Roosevelt, until 1917, the political establishment attempted to institute reforms to correct the grosser abuses of corporations and to regulate and to combat monopolies. Constitutional amendments also ensured a more direct form of democratic representation.
Proletarian novel A novel that exposes the exploitation of the workers under a capitalist system. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a notable example.
Psychological Realism A form of Realism most often associated with Henry James. He emphasized the drama of consciousness in his characters and the moment-by-moment apprehension of experience, which is often bewildering and very nuanced.
Realism Broadly speaking, a literary movement in France, England, and America devoted to representing life as it is lived and experienced; thus, the subject matter is often common or ordinary, and the literary manner is representational (the subject is rendered in a certain way). Realist writers were generally opposed to idealistic or sentimental fiction and often dramatized the ill effects brought about by such sentimentality. Mark Twain is sometimes described as a vernacular Realist, William Dean Howells as a doctrinal Realist, and Henry James as a psychological Realist. In a response to a questionnaire given to Americanists at a Modern Literature Association meeting, the following were identified as characteristics of Realism: “fidelity to actuality, objectivity (or neutrality—the absence of authorial judgment), democratic focus (particularized, ordinary characters), social awareness (and critical appraisal), reportorial detail, and colloquial expression.”
Reconstruction From 1865 until 1877 the U.S. government sought to repair the devastated economy of the South and, in an orderly fashion, to readmit those states that had seceded from the Union, though a great deal of bitterness on both sides remained. In 1877 federal troops were removed from the South.
Revolt from the village A phrase coined by Carl Van Doren in 1920 to designate those writers who challenged the Romantic idea that the village was characterized by goodwill, virtue, and hospitality. He had in mind twentiethcentury works such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919); however, Edgar Watson Howe’s The Story of a Country Town (1883), Twain’s The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899), and Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915) are earlier examples of the same impulse to expose the fraudulence, venality, and corruption of village life.
Satire Both a genre and a literary manner in which the deficiencies of certain attitudes or practices are pointed out through humor and wit. An author may be satiric without writing a full-fledged satire. (Twain is a good case in point.) The satirist may be gentle or biting in his or her treatment of the subject matter but in either case should aim to correct rather than demean; in that sense satire can be understood as a moral form of literary expression.
Sentimentality A literary device that cultivates in the reader responses excessive of the circumstances that occasion them. The death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop is an epitome of sentimentalism, but many writers recognized certain forms of affection, ideas about love and marriage, or patriotism as other forms of sentimentality.
Social Darwinism An application of evolutionary principles to social behavior. Among other things, Social Darwinism, derived from the work of Herbert Spencer, justified or at least extenuated the existence of powerful millionaires because they were specimens of the survival of the fittest.
Social gospel An intellectual movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, composed of liberal Protestants who were intent on applying Christian ethics to social and political problems and were part of the liberal element in the Progressive movement.
Veritism Hamlin Garland’s term for Realism.
Vernacular The language native to a particular nation or locale, often considered nonstandard and colloquial. Dialect is a form of speech marked by vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and sometimes accent. Dialect writing was particularly popular among local-color writers and was sometimes, though not always, used for comic effect.
Wild West A popular perception of the American West fostered by William F. (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody, who staged a type of Western show, often imitated, that featured shooting contests, frontier warfare, and such celebrities as Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Cody’s Wild West Show spent nine of its thirty-three years in Europe, and an estimated fifty million people saw Cody in person, more than any other figure in history to that time, and at his death in 1917 he was arguably the most famous person in the world.
Yellowback Cheap fiction novels with brightly colored covers, often reprints of cloth editions. They were advertised as entertainment reading and created in part as a response to increased rail travel. Routledge Publishing called their series of such books their “Railway Library.”
Yellow journalism A type of cheap or sensational journalism usually associated with the Hearst newspapers (for example, the New York American, the San Francisco Examiner, the Boston American) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Named perhaps for featuring the cartoon character “The Yellow Kid,” or perhaps for the high sulphur content of the newsprint, which turned yellow within a day or two of publication.