Realistic Period (in American literature)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Realistic Period (in American literature)

Realistic Period (in American literature): A period in American literary history spanning the years 1865 through 1900. In the wake of the devastation of the Civil War, forces including capitalist industrialization; Reconstruction; northern urbanization; and rapid advances in communications, science, and transportation contributed to a great change not only in American society and politics but also in American literature. While the work of many writers continued to exhibit a romantic strain throughout much of this period, realism dominated the national literary scene by the epoch’s end. Nevertheless, much of the work of the Realistic Period drew on both the romantic and realistic traditions. So-called romantic realists, for instance, essentially presented their subject matter accurately but wrote only about topics that were pleasant or positive.

Unlike romantic writers, who emphasized emotion, imagination, and individuality, realists aimed to present life as it really is, in its nobility and banality alike. Although realistic authors sought to represent their subject matter in an unidealized, unsentimentalized way, they did not set out to emphasize the negative, the distorted, or the ugly. Rather, they sought to create truthful portraits, unlike naturalistic writers who depicted life with a decidedly deterministic, pessimistic bent. Novelist William Dean Howells outlined the tenets of realism in a book entitled Criticism and Fiction (1891).

Some realistic poets, such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, began writing during the Romantic Period. Others, such as Stephen Crane, Sidney Lanier, and Edwin Arlington Robinson, wrote entirely during the Realistic Period. Crane’s poems, written in free verse, anticipate the twentieth-century experiments of Ezra Pound and the Imagists. Lanier experimented with versification by introducing musical meter; he is one of many writers of the Realistic Period whose romantic leanings make his work hard to categorize strictly.

The Realistic Period was also a high water mark for the novel; aside from Howells and Crane, noted authors include Louisa May Alcott, Charles W. Chesnutt, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Henry James, and Mark Twain. Twain, who began his career as a Western humorist, wrote a number of popular novels, such as Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). He also worked with satire, however, disguising his merciless and cynical criticism as historical romance in works such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Crane, perhaps best known for his realistic novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), pioneered American naturalism, a literary movement that represented people in a deterministic and generally pessimistic light, in works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893).

Local color literature, which emphasizes the setting, customs, dialects, and other features peculiar to a given region of the country, also developed and thrived during the Realistic Period. Local color writers include Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin, best known for her novel The Awakening (1899).

Other prose writing of the Realistic Period includes the historical novel, works published in mass-circulation magazines, short stories, and utopian literature. Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1867) is one of the best-known short stories in American literature. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000—1887 (1888) is a utopian novel.