American Realism and Naturalism


English 343 is a course for undergraduates who want advanced study in the deterministic fictions of urban America, from about 1865 to 1914.

Click on the links to the right to learn more about the course.


Meets Fall 2010
in 113 Capers Hall, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 to 10:45

Schedule of Work
Scholarly Resources





    Prerequisites: Juniors and Seniors only; Satisfactory completion of English 101 and 102.
Readings in English 343 are grim but very thought provoking texts from the end of the Civil War to about World War I by such authors as Mark Twain, Henry James, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and others. In this course we hone our critical thinking and writing skills by testing the relative truth of cliches like "survival of the fittest" and slippery literary definitions like "realism" (and other "-isms") against a wide range of texts. Along the way we consider the texts are social or historical documents as well and discuss what they teach us about the ways America changed in the years leading up to and just past the turn of the century.


40%  = 3 exams (essays and objective questions)

15% = Paper #1
25% = Paper #2

5% = Class participation

15% = Comprehensive final exam

You must do all of the assigned work by the specified due dates in order to pass this course.



A Gallery of Authors


Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote "The Yellow Wall-Paper" as an allegory of the problems facing the female author in her time Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie depicted a "fallen" woman--but Dreiser did not condemn her on moral grounds. Henry James, "The Master," first brought American literature international attention
  Sinclair Lewis satirized American institutions like business and religion in Babbitt and Elmer Gantry Rebecca Harding Davis was an early realist who wrote of the poor and the working class. Mark Twain famously said that his compatriot Henry James "chewed more than he bit off."  
  Upton Sinclair was the original "muckraker," exposing working conditions in the factories James Weldon Johnson, a novelist and song writer, was also the first president of the NAACP Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without ever having seen battle  
  Sherwood Anderson satirized and eulogized the American small town in "Winesburg, Ohio" Charles Chesnutt featured wily former slaves who told stories of magic and legend. Edith Wharton was among the first women writers to "professionalize"; she was James's most devoted disciple.  
Ambrose Bierce 's nihilistic motto was "Nothing matters." In 1913 he went to Mexico to fight alongside Pancho Villa and was never seen again.
Edwin Arlington Robinson's characters are despairing and long for the past, like "Miniver Cheevy."


Kate Chopin's The Awakening rivalled Sister Carrie in its frank treatment of sexuality.



An Historical Overview







Muckrakers were American journalists and novelists of the first decade of the twentieth century who exposed corruption in big business and government. Theodore Roosevelt invented the term in a 1906 speech, agreeing with some of the muckrakers' findings but deploring the methods as irresponsible sensationalism.





"The world has grown tired of preachers and sermons; to-day it asks for facts. It has grown tired of fairies and angels, and asks for flesh and blood. .. It wishes to see all; not only the prince and the millionaire, but the laborer and the beggar, the master and the slave. ." --Clarence S. Darrow, "Realism in Literature and Art" (1892)





"Presidency: The greased pig in the field game of American politics." --Ambrose Bierce (1906)





Darwinism was especially important to the genre, as the naturalists perceived a person's fate as the product of blind external or biological forces (chiefly heredity and environment). But in the typical naturalistic novel, change played a large part as well.





"Almost a million people called New York home, everyone securing his needs in a state of cheerful degeneracy. Nowhere else in the world was there such an acceleration of energies. A mansion would appear in a field. The next day it stood on a city street with horse and carriage riding by." -- E. L. Doctorow, in The Waterworks




"Whether owing to the large German element in its population or to other causes, it is undeniable that New York cultivates high class music with distinguished success and enjoys a series of concerts ranking with the best in Europe."--Baedeker's United States for 1893





"What is the chief end of man?-to get rich. In what way?-dishonestly if we must; honestly if we can. Who is God, the one only and true? Money is God. Gold and Greenbacks and Stock-father, son, and the ghost of same-three persons in one." --Mark Twain, in the New York Tribune (27 Sept 1871)





"Murder and sudden death, say you? Yes, but it's the life that lives; it's reality, it's the thing that counts. We don't want literature; we want life." -- Frank Norris, in the San Francisco Wave (22 May 1897)





"an urbane and highly respectable old gentleman, a sitter on committees, an intimate of professors . . . a placing conformist"--H. L. Mencken's opinion of William Dean Howells, 1919






"Environment is a tremendous thing in the world, and frequently shapes lives regardless." -- Stephen Crane, in his presentation copy of Maggie (1893)








Before the Civil War, the United States had been essentially an agarian culture, idealistic and self-reliant, a nation of God-believing people who were relatively isolated from the rest of the world. By the time of World War One, all that had changed. America had become industrialized and urbanized. Great cities like New York and Chicago seemed to dominate the landscape, bestriding the rest of the world like a colossus. Science had been exalted, and many began to question the traditional belief in God. Wealth was unprecedented, created by a new economy that had prospered materially from the war and from emergent technologies. The U.S. had also become an imperialist nation, one illustration of which was the Spanish-American conflict of 1898.

"The Gilded Age"

The early parts of this period are sometimes called The Gilded Age, for it was a time when money seemed to be on perpetual parade. Great displays of material wealth were showcased in newspapers and magazines, and the men who amassed these fortunes--men like Jay Gould, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller--Andrew Carnegieattained mythic stature. These tycoons amassed huge fortunes and spent them in acts of "conspicuous consumption," a phrase coined by the social theorist Thorstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class analyzed the U.S. class structure. Mansions were erected and world-class art collections were acquired, yet even though these men donated huge sums to universities and set up private foundations, many still viewed them as robber barrons, for they had made their fortunes at the expense of the working class.

Boom times, of course, soon give way to bust, yet even before the several financial slumps that were created by greed and wildcat speculation, there were rumblings of corruption in high places. The laying of the great transcontinental railroad, for example (completed in 1869), was a triumph of promotion, free enterprise, and territorial expansionism. It united two main lines at Promontory Point, Utah, and made a reality the then-extraordinary dream of allowing people and goods to travel across the country in about a week. Yet it was later learned that the businessmen behind the railroad had set up a construction company that bilked the investing public of more than $20 million and, to avoid exposure, had bribed the Vice-President of the United States, along with several members of Congress. Labor unrest spiked dramatically after the financial panic of 1873. A particularly bloody year was 1877, when federal troops stepped in to quell railroad strikes in several eastern states.

Yet the steady march of capitalism moved implacably forward, and hucksterism swept across the country like a tidal wave, washing out much of the intellectual curiosity, self-exploration, and free-ranging sense of fair play symbolized by American figures like Lincoln and Emerson before the Civil War.Horatio Alger's testaments of self-improvement In its place arose a rapacious self-promotion and vulgarity, epitomized by the original "self-made man," P. T. Barnum, whose most popular lecture was called, bluntly, "The Art of Money-Getting." Horatio Alger made a small fortune with his series of Ragged Dick books (1867 and after). They preached a bootstraps gospel that held out the promise of moving swiftly up the social and economic ladder from rags to riches.

"The Dynamo and the Virgin"

Science and technology also changed the nation. New forms of transportation arose--the railroad, the electric trolley car, the transcontinental steamship-- as well as new forms of communication--like the telegraph, cable, and telephone. One effect of the new technology was to expand the American language considerably: words like X-ray, aeroplane, and Kodak sprang into being from new technologies, just as today interface, real-time, and online have come about because of the computer.

Another effect was mass industrialization, and the feeling sometimes that the soul of the American had been commandeered, or replaced, by the machine. In his self-styled "autobiography," Henry Adams portrayed himself as a kind of 19th century Everyman, facing the juggernaut of technology as he beholds the Corliss Steam Engine at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. the Corliss engineHe saw that the dynamo would shake 20th century civilization just as surely as the idolization of the Virgin Mary impacted medieval Christianity. Technology and science were the new gods, replacing traditional religious beliefs.


Darwinism and its various permutations affected most every aspect of American life--how Americans viewed their economic system (competitiveness); their religious beliefs (a universe of fate and unknowable "forces"); their physical surroundings (the material world reduced to a system of masses and molecules); and even their bodies (physical-chemical machines that respond, like plants and animals, to external stimuli).

Industrialization also created a huge demographic shift, drawing people away from the provinces to the big cities like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. At the time of America's centennial, 1876, there were an estimated 8.5 million factory workers. The age-old wisdom that the countryside was the locus of goodness and old-fashioned values and the city a wicked place that deceived and corrupted innocent souls was being simultaneously tested and vindicated. Abuses abounded as sweatshops exploited female and child labor and imposed grim working conditions that made it hard for the poorer classes not to despair.

Lecherous shop stewards and drummers (travelling salesmen) who were also roues did prey on naive young girls, but authors like Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane, whose writings featured the new "working girl" heroine, also toyed with a new moral relativism that did not automatically lay the blame for such behavior on the male pursuer.

The New "Classes"

Immigration also changed the face of the nation, not just in the influx of people from other lands and the new words and new ways of living that they brought with them, but in the way it complicated many people's ideas of what it meant to be "American." The country's vigorous program of imperialistic expansionism reached its peak with the Spanish American war and the takeover of the Phillipines in 1898 and 1899. The goal of the latter mission was stated in simple terms by then-President William McKinley. He wanted to "uplift and civilize and Christianize" the Filipinos, "as our fellow men for whom Christ also died."

The redefinition of individual and group identities manifested itself in many different writings. Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives in 1890, an analysis of the ghetto-izing of different ethnic and social subclasses. Labor was cheap, abundant--and greatly exploited.Jane Adaam's Hull House presented a picture of the working poor. In a much different key, Henry James and Edith Wharton registered the distinctions between "new" and "old" money in their upper-class social tier.

Women were now perceived as a distinct social and sexual subclass. The old code of manners prescribed for young ladies by ettiquette manuals of the earlier 19th century fell dusty from disuse, and a new "working girl" emerged to take her place as a wage-earner, with an identity of her own, quite apart from a husband or family. Cut loose from the moorings of hearth and home, however, the new American woman was seen as being in danger of corruption, especially by the "evil" city. The sensationalistic shooting of architect Stanford White by the husband of his lover, Evelyn Nesbit, made banner headlines across the country in 1907, as reporters for the yellow presses of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, among others, painted Nesbit as an American femme fatale.

The Spirit of the Arts

Romantic writers of the preceding generation--the era of Emerson and Hawthorne--had emphasized freedom of choice and the presumed triumph of the human will. Late nineteenth century writers--typically classed as "realists" and "naturalists"-- saw humankind in less optimistic terms. Men and women were willful spirits, but they were also at the mercy of "outside forces"--God or gods, unseen elements of the universe, or whatever was "out there" that controlled human destiny. All literary terms and categories are slippery, and many writers resist easy classification. But some working definitions and examples are still possible.

William Dean Howells, William Dean Howells, "Dean" of American lettersfor a long time the acknowledged leader of the realists, defined realism as simply "the honest depiction of everyday American life"--real, ordinary people in contemporary settings going about their daily business. Among such writers we could sometimes also count Mark Twain, Henry James, Hamlin Garland, and Edith Wharton. Howells's views, however, appear rather soft-focused, confined to sentimental, happy emotions and denying the less pleasant facts of existence.

Naturalistic writers (Dreiser, Crane, Frank Norris, and others) went much further, stressing that in the end man was subject to forces of biology and nature, beyond his control. Naturalists argued that individuals have no choice because a person's life is dictated by heredity and the external environment. These ideas arrived in America by way of the Continent: the novels of Emile Zola and Dreiser based An American Tragedy on a real-life murder trialGustave Flaubert influenced these writers considerably, especially Zola's aesthetic treatise, "Le Roman Experimental," which many of the naturalists embraced as a manifesto and adopted as a guidebook for their own writings. Zola set down specific precepts for objective, scientific reporting of real life and then transforming it into fiction--making for a greater realism than that envisioned by Howells and his peers. The naturalists quite often took the plots for their novels directly from the newspapers--especially incidents of murder and greed--and, filtering them through the alembic of their imagination, retold them as illustrations of a sort of reverse Darwinism: under the right circumstances, man may revert to the most primitive stages of being. Or, on a social plane, man can swiftly descend from a respectable wage-earning citizen to a down-and-out bum, as Dreiser's George Hurstwood does in Sister Carrie (1900).

Other Continental arts were on exhibit as well--painting, statuary, and sculpture. The sexual license that some writers granted to their female characters, for example, came not just from Balzac's Cousin Bette, but also from Manet's Olympia "Absinthe," by Edgar Degasand Gaugin's Tahitian scenes. Edgar Degas's famous Absinthe could well serve as the illustration for a Stephen Crane novel about life in New York's Tenderloin district. And the stark realism of such city scenes in American novels spilled over into other native arts, especially the emergent photography. Alfred Stieglitz witnessed New York transform itself from a sleeping giant of cobblestone streets and horse-drawn trolleys to a vibrant symbol of the modern metropolis, with soaring skyscrapers becoming visible emblems of a new age.

As one might imagine, such unvarnished "truth" as these writers were promoting eventually came up against the spectre of the censor. During this time, Anthony Comstock founded his Society for the Suppression of Vice, a watchdog organization that tried to use the postal code as a means of stopping the distribution of "pornographic" novels. The careers of Dreiser, Crane, Kate Chopin, and others were hit hard by censorship.

The Business of Authorship

Yet this was also the time that authors professionalized and began to think of themselves as men and women of letters, full-time writers who earned their livings by their pens--a relatively new development in American literary culture. Hawthorne and Melville, for instance, had supplemented their incomes considerably withMark Twain went on the lecture circuit with fellow writer George Washington Cable government posts; Longfellow was a professor of literature. Others had family money or other private sources of funds. Mark Twain, in contrast, might be considered the first major professional author. He was a literary businessman--a shrewd marketer of his literary goods--who advertised his wares, promoted his image, and also adopted working practices like using a typewriter as ways of becoming more efficient (and profitable) through his writing. Henry James was the earliest American writer recognized on a grand scale by Europe, bringing American literature into the ongoing critical discussion in the international arena. Many other writers, like Howells, were also editors of major magazines, columnists, and reviewers.

These advances in the public image of authorship were made possible by new printing technologies that increased the amount, kind, and quality of text and illustrations.Magazines for the masses Books, journals, and newspapers proliferated. Photos began to be commonly used by the late 1890s, and magazines mushroomed in variety and extent.

Improved print and picture meant that contact spread more widely throughout the nation--through all layers of society, from rural to urban. The so-called genteel readership of the early and mid 19th century, once centered in New England, now radiated out from the eastern seaports to far-flung communities that had access to a huge selection of books and magazines. The popular press in part saw itself as the guardians of popular taste, yet it also cynically exposed social ills and cheerfully smashed shibboleths left and right.

Underlying all these varieties of writing, in sum, was a new sense of social awareness. Authors felt a strong sense of social obligation to their readers. They wrote with unswerving conviction, daring to take on the sacred codes of public taste and manners and tell of life honestly, as they themselves saw it and as many of them lived it. All had high ideals. They believed that literature should provide a true picture of social conditions, of life as it was lived, of the game as it was played.




--The schedule is always subject to change. Due dates should remain as they appear, but always check the website for updates on readings and other assignments.


Date   Work due
26 Aug   First class - explanation of requirements and introduction to the material. Begin reading The Red Badge of Courage and finish it as soon as possible.
31 Aug    Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
2 Sept   The Red Badge of Courage
7   Crane, Red Badge; "The Open Boat"; "The Veteran"
9   Crane, "The Monster"; "The Blue Hotel"
14   Crane, "The Monster"; "The Blue Hotel"
16    Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson
21   Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson; read Twain, Those Extraordinary Twins for extra credit on the exam
23    Exam
28    Twain, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg"
30   James, The Patagonia
5 Oct    James, Daisy Miller
7    First paper due
12    Wharton, The House of Mirth
14   Wharton, The House of Mirth
19    Wharton, The House of Mirth.
21    Exam
26    Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"; "If I Were A Man"
28    Gilman, stories TBA
2 Nov    No class
4    Norris, McTeague
9   Norris, McTeague
11   Norris, McTeague
16    Norris, McTeague
18    Exam
    Thanksgiving Break
30    Washington, Up from Slavery
2 Dec   Up from Slavery  Second paper due
7 Dec   Up from Slavery


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