The Rise of Realism

Topics: Literature, Library of America, William Dean Howells Pages: 8 (2362 words) Published: August 27, 2013
The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrial North and the agricultural, slave-owning South was an important event that marked American history. Before the war, idealists championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealized progress and the selfmade man. Business boomed after the war. War production had boosted industry in the North and given it prestige and political clout. The enormous natural resources — iron, coal, oil, gold, and silver — of the American land benefitted business. The new intercontinental rail system, inaugurated in 1869, and the transcontinental telegraph, which began operating in 1861, gave industry access to materials, markets, and communications. In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half of the population was concentrated in about 12 cities. Problems of urbanization and industrialization appeared: poor and overcrowded housing, unsanitary conditions, low pay, difficult working conditions, and inadequate restraints on business. For this reason the labor unions grew. From 1860 to 1914, the United States was transformed from a small, young, agricultural excolony to a huge, modern, industrial nation. A debtor nation in 1860, by 1914 it had become the world’s wealthiest state, with a population that had more than doubled. By World War I, the United States had become a major world power. As industrialization grew, so did alienation. Characteristic American novels of the period (Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London’s Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy) depict the damage of economic forces and alienation on the weak or vulnerable individual. Survivors, like Twain’s Huck Finn, Humphrey Vanderveyden in London’s The Sea-Wolf, and Dreiser’s opportunistic Sister Carrie, endure through inner strength involving kindness, flexibility, and, above all, individuality. SAMUEL CLEMENS (MARK TWAIN) (1835-1910)

Samuel Clemens, better known by his nick name of Mark Twain, grew up in a town of Hannibal, Missouri. Early 19th-century American writers tended to be too flowery, sentimental, or ostentatious. Twain’s style, based on vigorous, realistic, colloquial American speech, gave American writers a new appreciation of their national voice. Twain was the first major author to come from the interior of the country, and he captured its distinctive, humorous slang and iconoclasm. For Twain and other American writers of the late 19th century, realism was not merely a literary technique: It was a way of speaking truth and exploding worn-out conventions. Thus it was profoundly liberating and potentially at odds with society.

Twain’s most famous work was Life on the Mississippi. It shows many comical and dangerous shore adventures that show the variety, generosity, and sometimes cruel irrationality of society. The novel is a story of death, rebirth, and initiation and it also dramatizes Twain’s ideal of the harmonious community but the mythic image of the river remains, as vast and changing as life itself. The unstable relationship between reality and illusion is Twain’s characteristic theme, the basis of much of his humor. The magnificent yet deceptive, constantly changing river is also the main feature of his imaginative landscape. Twain’s principal purpose combined with a rare genius for humor and style keep Twain’s writing fresh and appealing.

Two major literary currents in 19th century America merged in Mark Twain popular frontier humor and local color, or “regionalism". These related literary approaches began in the 1830s in the “old Southwest”, the mining frontier, and the Pacific Coast.


Like frontier humor, local color writing has old roots but produced its best works long after the Civil War. Obviously, many pre-war writers, from Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne to James...
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