Literary Realism

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  • Topic: Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Literary realism
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  • Published : January 31, 2013
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Literary realism is the trend, beginning with mid nineteenth-century French literature and extending to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century authors, towards depictions of contemporary life and society as it was, or is. In the spirit of general "realism," Realist authors opted for depictions of everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_realism

Realism 
Even though there are rumblings of it in earlier decades (Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, for instance, published in 1850), realism doesn't become the dominant literary style in the U.S. until the 1870s.  And it's the influence of one hugely important novelist and literary critic, a guy named William Dean Howells (his most famous novel is The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885), that really makes it dominant.  Howells, Henry James, and Mark Twain are the movement's most famous practitioners.  So how can you tell "realist" literature when you see it?  There are a few ways.  * Realism tries hard (as its name suggests) to present the world as it really is -- the way, for instance, a photograph might capture it.  Howells writes that "realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material."  Since it tries so hard to be truthful, realist literature, unlike much of the "romantic" writing that preceded it, never feels overblown, the way a fairy tale or a parable or a dream might.  And it's rarely sentimental or emotional.  It tends to read like a plain, sensible, sober account of whatever action it's describing. * This concern with delivering plain and simple truth leads realists to fill their works with details and facts drawn from everyday life.  They can be facts about domestic life, about families and genealogies, about history, about politics, about business and finance, about geographical places...whatever.  But to make us believe in the reality of the worlds they show us, realists fill their literature with facts to bolster the reader's feeling that, yes, this place I'm reading about is just like the everyday world I live in.  * Speaking of the "everyday," it's another important concept in realist works.  Realists, generally speaking, don't write about extraordinary people in fantastic situations.  They write about plain, normal, everyday folks dealing with the trials and tribulations of plain, normal, everyday life.  Melville's Moby Dick (1851), which pretty much defines the romantic literary period that came before realism, is about a crazed sea captain named Ahab who's obsessed with killing the biggest, fiercest whale in the world -- not an everyday person in an everyday situation.  Realist literature, on the other hand, might often leave you saying, "That one character totally reminds me of my aunt."  Again, everyday folks doing everyday things.  * Since writers are most likely to be factual and convey a sense of everyday-ness when dealing with subjects they know intimately, many realists write specifically about places where they live or have grown up.  There's a whole subcategory of American realism, in fact, called "local color," which tries hard to convey the reality of particular places in the U.S.  It's interesting to note, too, that a whole lot of this local-color realism is set in different parts of the Midwest.  Up until the realists' time, most American literature is about the East (New England especially).  But the fact that the American West is becoming increasingly settled late in the 19th century -- and that Americans at this time are fascinated with the notion of "manifest destiny" -- leads to a boom in literature about the nation's newer territories.  * Setting their works in specific places leads realist writers to make use of specific dialects, or speech patterns that are particular to certain locales.  Before the realists' time, most characters in American literature were simply expected to speak the Queen's...
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