Three of the great literary movements of nineteenth-century America were romanticism (approximately 1820-1865), realism (1865-1890), and naturalism (1890 into the twentieth century). All three of these movements (also known as historical genres) originated in Europe roughly thirty years before they came to America. Realism began in France, in the works of Balzac and, later, Flaubert, as a reaction against the libertarian excesses of romanticism in art and Napoleonic politics. From there, it quickly spread to Russia in the work of Tolstoy and Turgenev, and to England in the work of George Eliot and Trollope. There were four important tenets of French realism: 1. They rejected previous standards of art, especially standards of symmetry and harmony espoused by neo-classicism, and the glorification of the individual championed by romanticism. Instead, they favored first-hand experience and social documentation. 2. They based their art on the direct observation of the visible world. 3. They erased, as much as possible, any sign of the narrator’s presence in order to make fiction seem like an account or representation of actual life. As Flaubert put it, “The author should be [present in the text] like God at the creation; everywhere felt but nowhere seen.” 4. They refused to moralize or editorialize; they merely presented the story and let readers come to their own conclusions about the characters. 5. They were completely emancipated from the 18th-century doctrine of “levels of style” in which lower class characters could be found in fiction only as grotesque, comic, or light characters. For the realists, common reality, including everyday people, became appropriate subject matter for serious fictional representation. This was itself partly a product of the democratizing impulse that followed in the wake of the Napoleonic Era.
Realist Elements in Antebellum Literature