Last updated: March 16, 2019
Topic: ArtPoetry
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The Civil War tore the country apart. Once America was reunited in 1865, there was a lot of healing that needed to take place to correct the wounds Americans had suffered at the hands of their kin. In these years there were still a lot of questions to answer and still a lot of truth to be found out about the nation itself. The questions of the place of African-Americans, white Americans, political Americans and every other kind of American out there was a source for constant frustration and violence. This is the background and the huge dust storm that American Realism rose out of.

Prior to the Civil War, America was knee deep in the Romantic Movement which included writers such as Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, Poe and Whitman. Their writings focused on the puritan aspects of their ancestors or of the dark romance and psychological perspectives writers such as Poe and Melville used. However, after the war, this movement began to fade and Realism increased as the choice reading of the people. This was due to multiple events and changes in culture that led to Americans looking for something better to relate to. The first event was the end of the Civil War. The Civil War showed the violent intentions men had towards each other and also showed the vulnerability of men and the nation and how ungodly man actually was.

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However, Realism did not begin immediately after the Civil War but rather took off in the 1880’s. So what happened in the 1880’s then? The 1880’s saw the major migration of the typical American from the country to the city due to the rise of the industrial revolution and the increase in jobs in manufacturing and more efficient distribution methods.

The migration to the city led to a new culture of Americans whose hard work days with long hours left little room for the desire for imagination and symbolism as American Romanticism had provided. Rather, the working man wanted to read something that he could easier relate to and find meaning in. This migration to the city was one of the major shaping catalysts of the movement as well meaning as opportunities grew, then so did the people that benefited from them leading to the rise of a shallow upper class that grew from stepping on the misfortune of others. This is especially prevalent in the 1920’s as social classics such as “The Great Gatsby” rebuked the hallow society that had formed.

As one can see, the movement grew out of the war and the increase of a metropolis full of all kinds of people, but this leads one to question, what aspects actually describe and define the Realism movement? In all sources a reader can read, one aspect remains certain, Realism is best described as the anti-romantic movement and was everything that the Romantic Movement was not and was not anything the Romantic Movement was:

“For some, it is easier to define realism in terms of what it is not—which is primarily romanticism. After the Civil War, American authors and scholars turned against the irrationality and vanity of contemporary literature. According to Benardete, some even blamed the conventions of romanticism—idealism, chivalry, heroism, absolute moral stances—for fostering a national vision which inevitably led to war, (Cengage).”

According to Cengage, the Realist movement was greatly influenced by French author Emily Zola whose work emphasized sexuality, immorality and the lower class when other authors were typically writing about their Puritanism roots. America however resisted the movement until the end of the Civil War and move to the big city.

There are three common aspects that most definitions of Realism share. The three aspects are character and plot, verisimilitude and social notation and representativeness and objectivity and other aspects relating to structure and prose.

One of biggest giveaways in Realism is the characteristics of the characters and plot. Unlike Romanticism, the plots in realist stories are usually very probably and are unlikely to be in fantastic situations that are hard to believe. Next, the formation of the character is more often more important than action and plot. This also means a lot of realism relies on ethical choices the character must make. Next, in Realism the individual is perceived as simply an individual rather than a God as is the case with Romanticism.

This means characters aren’t really looking for that inner enlightenment and place in relation to nature as in Thoreau’s writings but are rather simply looking for a way to be in a demanding and unsettling society that wants more than one has. The last part of this section is the importance of class in realism. The upper, middle and lower classes all have special places in Realism and much of the writing is directed at these social classes. This is especially true in novels such as “Daisy Miller” by Henry James and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Penrose).

The next aspect of American Realism is verisimilitude and social notation. Verisimilitude is a very big word that simply means to find the truth in something. Realism personifies this exactly as much of the writing done by authors in this movement was to reveal or educate people about certain aspects of society and a lot of times the dirty truth that it hid. Social notation is the second part to this as much of realism was about the individual’s relationship with society. In Black and White Strangers, Kenneth Warren suggests that a basic difference between realism and sentimentalism is that in realism, “the redemption of the individual lay within the social world,” but in sentimental fiction, “the redemption of the social world lay with the individual” (75-76), (Campbell).” This particularly defines the importance of social notation in the Realism movement. The redemption of the individual lay within the social world.

Lastly, the last major aspect of realism has to do with structure and prose of the actual writings themselves. Representativeness was a large motivation in many author’s writings. They would typically use imagery over symbolism to express their thoughts and ideas unlike Romantics. Also authors often wrote based off of their own experiences or to mirror themselves or the desired view of themselves in the lines of their stories. This is especially true in the writings of Hemingway and his use of the Hemingway Hero. Next, as the movement continued, writers typically became more objective in their writings. Instead of writing themselves in the story, they simply recorded the events of the story and the formation of the characters and left it to the reader to judge. Toni Morrison was very objective in her writing as she records the full view of a character rather than the popular aspects of a character. This differs to romanticism where authors would subjectively build characters by only showing a flawed or a heroic side of a character and a certain characters subjective view of a story.

Now that there are words to the movement of Realism, how does it differ from Romanticism? Romanticism typically consisted of three main elements, the value of the individual self, the workings of the perceiving mind and an affirmation of emotion and instinct. It consisted of transcendental writers such as Thoreau and Whitman and dark romantics such as Poe, Melville and Hawthorne. Richard Keenan defines American Romanticism as “In literature, it ultimately placed greater emphasis on the value of intuition and imagination than on objective reason, (Keenan).” Compared with the three main aspects of Realism that were just examined the differences can easily be seen. Realism tends to rely more on objectivity than on intuition and imagination. In fact, many of the characters in Realist novels hardly display any kind of intuition or God like qualities as was the case in Romanticism.

One could also argue that Romanticism focuses on the inside of an individual and their personal desires for knowledge and wisdom while Realism focuses on the outer core of individuals and their relationship with society. Another difference is the romantic focus on emotions and relationships with nature. Thoreau often wrote of the way nature made him feel and how he felt in nature, as in Realism the character is less likely to express these emotions but would rather show them through the events in the story. The migration to the urban environment also cut out the relationship of the individual with nature.

Now that the major definition of realism has been defined and the differences between realism and romanticism can be seen, the major authors can be broken down and their work shown for the realism it contains. The five major authors to be examined are Mark Twain, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Toni Morrison.

Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain is extremely famous for his post Civil war writings that were extremely political and satirical and examined themes and topics ranging from the rights of African Americans to religion to democracy. Twain was born in 1831 and was popular with his writings during the reconstruction period, many of which dealt with experiences he faced as a steamboat captain who constantly traveled the Mississippi and had to memorize much of it. These experiences help to explain his fascination and obsession Twain seemed to have with the Mississippi in his writings. Mark Twain lived during the time of reconstruction and tensions were rising as the North punished the South for the war and African Americans were fighting for their rights. In this setting, Twain paints some enticing tails of freedom and the state of society in a land trying to rebuild itself.

First of all, Twain’s characters and plots exemplify a typical Realist setting. Twain crafts realistic characters that partake in very plausible situations An example of this are the characters of Huck Finn and Jim from the story “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Huck Finn is a young boy whose broken family and background of uneducation and poverty is very close to the situation of many American families in the reconstruction period. Many families had been torn apart or had their land torn apart due to the war. The character of Jim is a slave with no rights that wishes to be free. Jim is typically uneducated as well and is extremely superstitious which exemplifies the state of many slaves during the Civil War period. Jim’s desire to be a free man also echoes the hopes and dreams of many people during this era who suffered under the bonds of slavery. Also, the events in Mark Twain’s stories are also very plausible. He never puts his characters into situations that are hard to believe.

In the same story “Huck Finn,” Twain puts his characters into events such as running into bandits, robbers, murderers and con artists all of whom ran rampant in the Mississippi area in the wild. Another aspect Twain fulfills is the importance of social class in his works even if it is not immediately apparent. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” subliminally show a clash of classes as the poor class is contrasted with that of the upper class (the differences of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer). Finn is a poor character who is uneducated but is in some way an honest character since he has nothing while Sawyer is an upper class member whose spoiled lifestyle has bored him into looking for compromising situations to get himself into, such as disguising himself as Huck Finn and trying to help Jim escape and getting shot even though he knows Jim is already free and does not tell Huck.

Next, Twain uses verisimilitude to express some kind of truth in his writings. Although not apparent at first Twain’s writings contain some kind of truth to share with people. One could argue that the character of Jim is Twain’s way of pointing out the bonds slavery has over people that can coexist and be equal with the White American as seen with Jim’s relationship with Huck. Next Twain also focuses on his characters relationships with their society and usually the redemption that is found in their society. This is seen with Jim’s conflict with society and what he wants for himself, slavery versus freedom, and in the end society’s acceptance of Jim which leads to his redemption. Another example is Huck’s relationship with society as he fights against what is acceptable in culture such as education and religion in favor of his own way which is freedom and individualism. However, once Huck tastes the bitter side of independence and poverty he readily accepts the redemption that civilized society and a real family can offer to him as he lacked both of those things throughout the story.

Lastly, to verify Twain’s place in realism, one must look at the prose of Mark Twain. Twain is a huge user of satire and humor in his writings against politics and society in general. This style of writing is typical of realists and his unwillingness to write in poetry as many romantics did allows him to appeal to the American’s of his day. Twain uses much satire in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” an example is Huck’s young honest view of religion and the insensibility he sees in it and comes to give it up. This way of saying that religion may be a flawed view of reality is subtle but is a tongue in cheek comment that Twain purposely crafts into the story. Twain also remains objective as the story goes on as he shows multiple sides of Huck Finn throughout the story. He shows the flaws, the good sides and all other parts of Huck and does not make him super heroic or super flawed to the point of subjectivity. Twain writes from Huck’s perspective but manages to keep an objective attachment to Huck.

In the end, Twain stays true to the definition of realism as his characters and plots are realistic and plausible and often comment on social classes, his use of verisimilitude and social notation points out truths to the reader and his prose uses representativeness and objectivity.

Henry James was born around 12 years after Mark Twain and lived through the same time period in history. However, James perspective of writing is much different as he spent much of his in England and even became a royal subject before he died. This influenced much of his writing as he constantly wrote about the cultural classes between the Europeans and Americans. Unlike America, Europe was a relatively old culture as civilized society had lived there for thousands of years. Therefore, there tended to be a richer culture based in traditionalism compared to the relatively new culture of America. Even though James lived in Europe much of his life, he never lost his American views and tended to rely on them to compare the cultural clashes in Europe.

James’ characters and plots were always built and centered in a realistic way. In “Daisy Miller” his formation of the character of Winterbourne and of Daisy help to contrast the cultural aspects of an American and of an American that has lived in Europe for some time. These characters are realistic in their conceptions. Next, the situations and plot of “Daisy Miller” is very plausible and does not contain anything that cannot be believed. Winterbourne’s love for Daisy and her tragic death are very realistic situations that can easily happen to people. Next, the characters in this story control their own destinies and aren’t simply reacting to their environments. This can be seen with Winterbourne’s decision to pursue Daisy in Rome and with Daisy’s decision to keep running with the slick Italian even though it clashes with her society. Next the clashes of class are very apparent in “Daisy Miller.” The clashes deal with old upper class American – European society with the newly upper class American society. This clash is seen with Daisy’s decision to run and flirt with an Italian and her lack of care for the ostracism she receives from her own American class in Europe.

Along the same lines, James uses the situations of the story to express the clash of culture and offer verisimilitude in the story. These situations and clashes would have been apparent to any American of James day that has traveled or lived in Europe and saw the clash between the cultures of Europeans and Americans. Next this novel contains much social notation as both Winterbourne and Daisy have deep in bred relationships with their society. Winterbourne’s relationship is one of old culture and traditionalism of one who has lived in Europe to long. His love for history and architecture shows the roots of his culture in this relationship. Daisy’s relationship with society is quite different as she represents a different kind of society and clashes with the society she is surrounded by in Europe. Even though this society doesn’t offer Daisy redemption, Daisy’s relationship with society offers Winterbourne a type of redemption as he recognizes the change in times and culture and the need to adapt.

Lastly, James’ prose represents the prose and structure of a realist writing He does not use any symbolism by trying to guise situations for the reader to guess, but rather he writes directly of the situation which in turn provides the imagery needed to get his point across. This is seen with his use of Roman society to contrast the clash between Daisy and other Americans. In a rather opinionated story, James also manages to stay objective. James never comes out and agrees or sides with one side of the clash but instead simply illustrates the clash. Also his crafting of the characters of Daisy and Winterbourne show an objective viewpoint of them as well. This is seen with Daisy’s bright attitude with hints of flirtation and playfulness but also stubbornness and of Winterbourne’s cold traditional style but backed by sensibility and intelligence.

James is easily classified a realist due to the types of writings he did where he formed his characters instead of providing action and by placing them in socially clashing situations. The social notation he provided by illustrating his characters relationships with society also reinforce his realist style of writing.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 and became a voice for the lost and hollow generation of the 1920’s. During this time in history, the First World War had ended and America had profited greatly from it while the rest of the world suffered in debt. Throughout the 1920’s the economy was apparently booming but was really built on hollow forms of debt due to mismanagement of the stock market and eventually the economic problems of the rest of the world caught up and slung the US into the Great Depression. However, the 1920’s were primarily Fitzgerald’s subjects as he scrutinized the methods of the upper class in his novels.

Fitzgerald crafted some of the most realistic characters in the realistic movement in my opinion. Three perfect examples are Nick, Jay Gatsby and Daisy from the story “The Great Gatsby.” Nick is the Midwestern middle class man trying to make it in the city, Daisy is the rich upper class citizen who belongs and thrives off of the things the city has to offer while Jay Gatsby is a lower class individual living an upper class man’s life. The contrast of these characters greatly exemplifies the class situation in New York in the 1920’s. The plot itself is one of a downfall and a loss of innocence but is in every way believable and is a statement of the generation at the time. This exemplifies how the plot leads to the realist classification. As mentioned above, the use of classes was extremely important in Fitzgerald’s writings as he constantly wrote of the repulsion of the middle and lower class at the actions of the upper class stepping on those they needed to get what they wanted.

Fitzgerald offers huge social notations in “The Great Gatsby.” The main character Nick is a member of middle class trying to fit into the upper class society of New York and Long Island even though he really doesn’t belong there. The whole story essentially focuses on Nick’s relationship with this society and in the end the enlightenment he obtains offers him redemption from this society to find his place in his own. Jay Gatsby’s and Daisy’s relationship with society are also significant but unlike Nick, they do not find redemption in their society only demise, Daisy in a mental demise while Gatsby’s is a physical demise. Overall, the relationships with society presented here are realist and provide a very deep social notation that many in the 1920’s could relate to.

When it comes to objectivity, Fitzgerald portrays his characters from an objective point of view. His use of Nick tells an objective story between two lovers as he is watching it that judges both the flaws and strengths in each characters personality. Fitzgerald also sets Nick up as a character that is learning and also contains his own flaws. However, Fitzgerald’s use of Nick removes the author from the story and allows a more objective piece to be presented compared to the biases an author may have. Fitzgerald also uses imagery to stress his point of a hollow society by portraying the eyes of a giant billboard as a type of God. The point being the lost society can only think of God and shame as a piece of painted wood used for advertising.

Fitzgerald’s elements of realism are present all throughout his writing and are rather obvious. His realistic characters of the 1920’s and their relationships with society appeal to a range of people not fooled by the hollow society and economy of the 1920’s.

Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 and led an interesting life that includes an extensive military career and safaris in Africa. Hemingway used these experiences to craft his writings into the product he penned during his lifetime. Hemingway can be thought of as the war author as he wrote during the period of World War II and on and it greatly influenced his writings. The world was at war as was the state of Hemingway’s mind at the end of his life. In 1961, Hemingway committed suicide in Idaho thus putting realism in a whole new perspective by living out the tragic endings he wrote about.

Hemingway always used very in depth characters. He would never describe characters but would let the reader inside the mind of his characters to see how the characters were. Hemingway also presented many of his characters from a psychological point of view by expressing the thoughts inside their minds both perverted and honest. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the man suffering from the infected foot is seen from the inside out and the darkness and coldness and loss of love in his life is apparent through his thought process and lack of love. Hemingway also never wrote a story to write an exciting story but rather wrote the story around his characters which is an attribute of realism.

This is true in all of his short stories as he spent much time examining the minds of his characters to the readers. Hemingway also used the Hemingway hero in which he built at least one heroic character who escaped the tragedies of society and was both brave and valiant but still with faults. These characters usually were the characters Hemingway crafted that he wanted to model himself after. The element provides another side of realism not seen in any of the other writers in this essay. Hemingway’s characters and plots were no doubt realistic and believable and contained all elements of realism.

Hemingway’s use of verisimilitude is very apparent in the truthful and believable situations and motives he expresses in his stories. Hemingway also used social notation just not to the extent that writers such as Fitzgerald did. “The Killers” portrays Nick Adams relationship with the society he is surrounded by and his sickness of it and desire to move on. Hemingway hardly offered redemption in his writings but rather replaced it with tragedy or a realization. Anyway, the characters did in fact have relationships with their societys just in a more subliminal way.

Next Hemingway’s prose is very consistent with others of the realism movement. He used heavy imagery to drive his stories. Hemingway can be well known for the settings of his stories as they take place in places in Africa, at the feet of mountains, in forests and oceans and in bars. Hemingway was also a very objective writer as he simply wrote the viewpoints of the characters and did not offer any authorial commentary or side with any one motive or theme in his stories. He simply wrote the facts as the character saw them.

Hemingway was a very talented writer that had a unique writing style and even though some characters were in different situations such as safaris among other things, Hemingway still places elements in his characters that the reader can relate to and observe without having to delve through layers of symbolism.

Toni Morrison is the only female author, black author and still living author on this list. Morrison grew up in the midst of the civil rights movement and witnessed the rebirth of black culture into the mainstream with their fight for equality. This was a tense time in America as the status quo was changing and there was resistance. In this Morrison crafted tales of the pasts as well as the present of African Americans to show the society of her day the place they came from.

Toni Morrison had a unique way of crafting her characters and plots as she would typically choose one character to center the story around and write out from there. This created ties with characters, histories and other aspects a real person may have in their life. A great example of this is the character of Sethe in “Beloved” whom the story is really centered around. Sethe is shown by reliving her past and visiting the ghosts that live there. However, those that interact with Sethe also gain a tie and a history in connection with Sethe’s that enhance the realism of the story. The plot of “Beloved” seems odd but that is because it is based on speculation rather than on the facts of the story. It almost seems like it doesn’t fit in with realism but it does as Morrison never comes out and confirms Beloved as being a ghost, Sethe and Denver just speculate she is but it does properly show the state of freed African Americans at this point in history and the situations and hurts they contained.

Morrison’s characters always had a very important relationship with society as it shaped who they were. The mistreatment of Sethe by society and her desire to be free shaped her personality and attitudes as well as guilt and shame she possesses. Society’s relationship with Denver is also important as it shapes her personality and offers her and Sethe redemption by helping to expel the presence of Beloved.

Lastly, Morrison’s characters are very objective in the prose she creates. She fills the characters with stories and history and this allows for no authorial commentary and she lets the story rest fully on the shoulders of the characters. Morrison also uses multiple narrators to tell the story from all aspects. Once again this approach limits the need for the author to comment on anything and leaves an objective account from multiple views in the story to present the story in a way for the reader to judge.

Morrison’s stories were very well crafted pieces of fiction that featured realistic characters in difficult realistic situations. Her carefully crafted characters and their relationships with society are important aspects that show her realism writing for what it is.

All the way from the 1880’s with Twain to the 1980’s with Morrison, realism has been covered and defined and assigned appropriately. These authors all share a common theme in that they wrote fiction about situations that mirror the pressures of daily life. Whether still applicable today or not is a different issue in its own but at the time of publication the general public could greatly relate with the characters and situations in these stories. Realism is now seen in these authors with realistic characters and plots with ethical dilemmas, their use of verisimilitude and social notation and relationships and the prose the author uses to objectively tell a story. This is truly an exceptional genre of literature full of many lessons and stories that can never be forgotten.