Chapter 8 American Realism





课 型

Theory and practice

课 题

American Realism


Aim of knowledge: 1. To make students get to know the definition, reasons and characteristics of American Realism.

2. To make students get the general idea about the schools of American Realism and some masterpieces of those representatives, esp. Henry James’ The Jolly Corner.

Aim of ability: training of the ability to analyze literary works along with social background.

Aim of quality: emphasize the intermingle of objective writing and subjective writing..


Lecture, discussion, PPT presentation


Key points: The schools of American Realism, Henry James’ The Jolly Corner

Difficulties: Henry James’s international novels


教 学 内 容


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Step 1: The Reasons for the Coming of American Realism ( Outline P88-89)

  1. The Civil War which broke out in 1861 taught men that life was not so good, man was not and God was not. The war marked a change, in the quality of American life, a deterioration, in fact, of American moral values. It led people to question the assumptions: natural goodness, the optimistic view of nature and man, benevolent God.
  2. In post-bellum increasing industrialization and mechanization of the country in full swing produced soon extremes of wealth and poverty. Wealth and power were more and more concentrated in the hands of the few “captains of industry” or “robber barons”, but life for the millions was fast becoming a veritable struggle for survival.
  3. The frontier was about to close and the safety valve was ceasing to operate, and a reexamination of life began. Beneath the glittering surface of prospective there lay suffering and unhappiness. Disillusionment and frustration were widely felt.
  4. The age of Romanticism and Transcendentalism was by and large over. Meanwhile younger writers appeared on the scene, such as William Dean Howells, Henry James, Mark Twain, and so on, which means the coming of new literary age, American realism.


Step 2. Definition and Characters of American Realism

1. Definition  

As a literary movement Realism came in the latter half of the nineteenth century as a reaction against “the lie” of romanticism and sentimentalism. It expressed the concern for the world of experience, of the commonplace, and for the familiar and the low.

The American realists advocated “verisimilitude of detail derived from observation,” the effort to approach the norm of experience —— a reliance on the representative in plot, setting, and character, and to offer an objective rather than an idealized view of human nature and experience.


2. Characters (Outline P89-90)

1) Truthful description of contemporary life and everyday scenes; truthful treatment of material

2) Typical character under typical circumstance

     Character is more important than action and plot

3) Open-ending

   Life is complex and cannot be fully understood.

   It leaves much room for readers to think by themselves.

4)The subject matter of Realism is drawn from “our experience” . They focus on common characters and the everyday events. It treated

the common

the average

the non-extreme

the representative

the probable

5) concerned with social and psychological problems, revealing the frustrations of characters in an environment of sordidness and depravity

6) Class is important; the novel has traditionally served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent middle class.


Step 3 The Schools of American Realism

  1. Frontier Humor
  2. Midwestern Realism
  3. Cosmopolitan Novelist
  4. Regionalism (local color)
  5. Naturalism
  6. The Chicago School of Poets
  7. The Rise of Black American Literature


1. Frontier Humor

1) It is the vital and exuberant literature that was generated by the westward expansion of the United States in the late 18th and the 19th centuries.

2) The spontaneity, sense of fun, exaggeration, fierce individuality, and irreverence for traditional Eastern values in frontier humor reflect the optimistic spirit of pre-Civil War America.

3) Frontier humor appears mainly in tall tales of exaggerated feats of strength, rough practical jokes (especially on sophisticated Easterners and greenhorns), and tales of encounters with panthers, bears, and snakes. These tales are filled with rough, homely wisdom.


2. Midwestern Realism

1) It just refers to William Dean Howells (1837 - 1920)’s realism because he came from the American Midwest and carefully interweaved the life and emotions of ordinary middle-class there in his works.

2) Also because he was the champion of realism, having helped to publish many realistic local color writings by Bret Harte, Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and others.

His masterpiece: The Rise of Silas Lapham

1) A fine specimen of American realistic writing. There is nothing heroic, dramatic or extraordinary. Howells is here so devoted to the small, the trivial, and the commonplace.

2) He has always emphasized on ethics. He stresses the need for sympathy and moral integrity, and the need for different social classes to harmoniously adapt to their environment and to one another.

3) Howells did not approve of competitive economic individualism. He was convinced that laissez-faire competition had proved the rapacity of man.


3. Cosmopolitan Novelist

Henry James ‘s fame rested largely upon his handling of his major fictional theme, the international theme, that is the meeting of America and Europe, American innocence in contact and contrast with cosmopolitan European decadence, and the moral and psychological complications arising therefrom. So he was called the cosmopolitan novelist.

Henry James (1843 - 1916)

  1. Brief Account of His Life

(1) He was born into a wealthy cultured family of New England. His father was an eminent philosopher and reformer, and his brother, William James, was to e the famous philosopher and psychologist.

(2) Most of his life he settled down in Europe except of some visits to America. In 1915 he became the naturalized British citizen. He was not married but once loved his attractive cousin who died young.

(3) A voluminous writer, he was influenced by some English, European and American writers. One American author who exerted a measure of influence on James is Hawthorne whose insight into the human psyche impressed the younger writer deeply.

2) His Works

  • The first period (1865-1882). The works in this period reveal James’ fascination with his “international theme”

(1) The American

(2 )Daisy Miller

(3) The Portrait of a Lady

  • The second period (1882-1895). During this time he focuses on tales and plays, but most of them prove a failure.
  • The last one (1895-1909)

(1) A few novellas and tales dealing with childhood and adolescence.

(2) In the major phase of his career he returned to his old ground. He completed his trilogies (the summit of his art): The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl

3) Ghost stories

The final phase of his short narratives

with more involved style, deeper psychological exploration, and elements of terror  

The Turn of the Screw (1898), The Jolly Corner (1908) his best ghost story


  • The Jolly Corner

 a) Background of His Writing the Story

James conceived the story during his extended visit to America of 1904-5. Returning to his home country for the first time in over twenty years, James was overwhelmed by the great changes that had taken place in his absence. 

 b) The Subject

 The question of American national identity in a returning exiled American, connection with one’s past and with one’s alter ego.

Brydon, Staverton

 c) The Story

    Brydon begins to suspect that somewhere within his nature there is an aptitude for business that might have flourished had he remained in New York. The more he considers the possibility of this alter ego, the more preoccupied he becomes with the question of what life might have held had he chosen differently. And Alice Staverton confirms him that she believes in the other version of himself – that she has seen him in a dream “twice over”.

    Brydon is obsessed with  the idea of looking for his other self . One night, he finds a door closed that he had previously left open, and knows that behind it crouches the cornered alter ego. On his way out of the house, he is confronted by the figure of his double self – maimed and odious.

    Brydon collapses in the face of the “roused passion of a life larger than his own” and awakes to find himself in Alice’s arms. She too has seen the double again, and accepts and pities him. 

 d) Themes

  (1) Memory and Reminiscence

    He needs to reflect on past events in order to understand who he is now. In particular, Spencer needs to come to terms with what he could have been had he remained in New York; in that way he can accept himself and move on with his life.

  (2) Alienation and Loneliness

    When Spencer left New York as a young man, he was rejecting a life in business and embracing a career in art. Upon his return, he discovers that he has  lost his family; also, New York City has irrevocably changed to him.

 e) Style

  (1) Point of View and Narration

    The narrator is nearly omniscient, relating exactly what Spencer sees, thinks, and feels. However, this perspective is a limited one.

eg. Alice's opinions are presented by Spencer;

    All impressions of her character— as well as others— are presented through him. Also, at a few points in the story the narrator addresses the reader directly, implying perhaps a collaboration between the reader and narrator.

  (2) language: characteristics of expression: indirect expression, vague reference (e.g. personal pronouns)


3) His Literary-aesthetic Ideas(see his The Art of Fiction

(1) Art must be related to life. It must be life transformed and changed so that the art form would give the truthful impression of actuality.

(2) Though closely related to life, art is important in its own way. It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance.

(3) He was concerned with point of view which is at the center of his aesthetic of the novel.


4. Regionalism (local color writing)

The concept:

  • The style of writing derived from the presentation of the features and peculiarities of a particular locality and its inhabitants. Simply it means The use of regional detail in a literary or artistic work. The name is given especially to a kind of American literature that in its most characteristic form made its appearance just after the Civil War and for nearly three decades was the single most popular form of American literature.
  • Following in the footsteps of the pre-war "sectional humorists," local colorists were interested in realistically depicting life in different sections of the United States in order to promote understanding and unification.
  • Fiction writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, Bret Harte, O. Henry, and Mark Twain have been identified within this tradition.
  • By the 1930s, the local color style had spread beyond the bounds of novels and short stories into less formal territory like the "hometown material" section of local newspapers. Local color writing had always been premised on an informal approach and rejection of high-culture concerns. Now it entered mass media.


▲Contrast of the Three “Giants” of American Realism


Howells – middle class

James   – upper class

Twain    – lower class


Howells – smiling/genteel realism

James   – psychological realism

Twain   – local colourism and colloquialism

  1. The three dominant figures of the Realistic period differed in their understanding of the “truth”

1) Mark Twain and Howells paid more attention to the “life” of the Americans

Henry James, a realist of the inner life, laid a greater emphasis on the “inner world” of man. Henry James: literary artist should not simply hold a mirror to the surface of social life in particular times and places, use language to probe the deepest reaches of the psychological and moral nature of human beings

2) Though Twain and Howells both shared the same concern in presenting the truth of the American society, they had each of them different emphasis.

Howells focused his discussion on the rising middle class and the way they lived.

Twain preferred to have his own region and people at the forefront of his stories, which is known as Local Colorism, a unique variation of American literary realism.


5. Naturalism

1) The Reasons on the Coming of American Naturalism:

(1) Industrialism produced financial giants, but at the same time created an industrial proletariat entirely at the mercy of external forces beyond their control. Slums appeared in great numbers where conditions became steadily worse.

(2) New ideas about man and man’s place in the universe began to take root in America. Living in a cold, indifferent, and essentially Godless world, man was no longer free in any sense of the word. Darwinian concepts like “the survival of the fittest” and “the human beast” became popular catchwords and standards of moral reference in an amoral world.

(3) French naturalism, with its new technique and new way of writing, appealed to the imagination of the younger generation.

2)The Main Characteristics of Naturalism:

(1) The writers of naturalism tore the mask of gentility to pieces and wrote about the helplessness of man, his insignificance in a cold world, and his lack of dignity in face of the crushing forces of environment and heredity. In their works there is a desire to assert one’s human identity, to define oneself against the social and natural forces one confronts

(2) They reported truthfully and objectively, with a passion for scientific accuracy and an overwhelming accumulation of factual detail.

(3) The major representatives of American naturalists include Jack London, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser and so on.


6.The Chicago School of poets

The concept:

  1. Three Midwestern poets who grew up in Illinois and shared the midwestern concern with ordinary people are Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters. Their poetry often concerns obscure individuals; they developed techniques——realism, dramatic renderings —— that reached out to a larger readership.
  2. They are part of Midwestern, or Chicago, School that arose before World War I to challenge the East Coast literary establishment.
  3. The “Chicago Renaissance” was a watershed in American culture; it demonstrated that America’s interior had matured.


7. The Rise of Back American Literature

  1. The literary achievement of African-Americans was one of the most striking literary developments of the post-Civil War era. The roots of black American writing took hold, notably in the forms of autobiography, protest literature, sermons, poetry, and song. For example:
  2. Booker T. Washington’s fine and simple autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901) recounts his successful struggle to better himself.
  3. W. E. B. Du Bois’s landmark book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) helped black intellectuals rediscover their rich folk literature and music.
  4. James Weldon Johnson explored the complex issue of race in his fictional Autobiography of an Ex- Colored Man (1912), about a mixed-race man who "passes" (is accepted) for white. The book effectively conveys the black American's concern with issues of identity in America.


Step4: Key Points and Difficulties

Key Points: The schools of American Realism and Henry James’ The Jolly Corner

Difficulties: Henry James’s international novels


Step5: Homework

Please read Mark Twin’s masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and introduce its major themes to the class.