The Literary Realism Movement: A Response to Romanticism

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  • 0:05 Literary Realism
  • 0:50 Context: Romanticism
  • 2:18 Changes: Emergence of Realism
  • 3:09 Realism:…
  • 4:58 Example: Twain as a Realist
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Godin

Katherine is a teacher of middle and high school English and has an M.A. in English Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Administration.

In this lesson, we will learn about Realism in American literature, how this new literary movement grew out of Romanticism and what circumstances in our changing nation made that literary shift possible.

Literary Realism

Anyone who thinks they might be able to muster up a decent definition of Realism in American literature probably can. Realism is just as it sounds - it was a style and type of writing that emerged during a specific time period in this country's literary history when writers sought to portray life as it really was: real characters in real lives with real jobs and real problems. Why is this significant, you might ask? Well, Realism in American literature, which lasted from 1865-1910, was a reaction to and a rejection of Romanticism. In order to really understand the weight of this last statement, it's time to look at a little history.

Context: Romanticism

Romanticism in literature in the U.S. took hold from about 1830-1865. While you might guess that Romanticism is a period during which everybody wrote about love, this isn't always the case. Yes, love was very much a popular topic, but so were larger ideas like optimism and opportunity. Basically, this was a time of growth in the United States, and the literature reflected that. Remember the promise of expansion that the frontier adventure brought. Think about changes in industry and that spirit of hope and limitless potential.

As a result, Romantic literature focused on larger themes and topics: the potential of good vs. evil, the idealization of love, the common man as a hero. This literature was formal in the sense that the language and theme elevated the work to a higher purpose: to communicate great lessons or to ask important questions of the reader. The fancy language, some argue, was also just a case of a group of American authors trying to prove they were as elegant and smart as the English. It was plot-focused, imaginative, mostly very positive, emotionally intense and at times - you guessed it - not very realistic. This was purposeful. Ultimately, Romantic literature strove to communicate a message that was very much a reflection of the spirit of the time.

Literary realism reflected 19th-century urbanization and industrialization
Urbanization Photos

Changes: Emergence of Realism

Well, things change. And so did the U.S. As the 19th century churned on, the country's immigrant population and working base grew, while simultaneously, changes in industry became life-altering. Machines were built. Manufacturing became easier as the factory life grew. Urban areas expanded with both business and home life. Cities became the center of the action. Ultimately, this industrialization and urbanization led to major economic and social changes. This part is important. In this new world, there grew a greater divide between the rich and the poor, and for the first time, (pay attention here) there was a larger, literate working-class population. And there was a need for literature that reflected their lives. Their real lives.

Realism: Characteristics and Authors

So, because of this growth of this industrial nation, a social shift really did take place. Life at this point was not about the promise of westward expansion anymore; rather, it was about working a job, feeding a family and dealing with the hand you were dealt. There really wasn't anything romantic about it. Writers like Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Rebecca Harding Davis and Henry James saw this gap in the landscape of literature at the time. So they began to write real stories with real characters who often spoke in a way that reflected their region, class, gender and age. Mark Twain especially is known for the use of dialect. Rather than looking towards an ideal, these authors focused on an accurate representation of the middle class here and now.

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