Presentation on theme: "A look at American Styles & John Steinbeck. American Realism (1860-1890) Realism tries hard (as its name suggests) to present the world as it really is."— Presentation transcript:
American Realism (1860-1890) 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.
Presentation of the Facts 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.
Everyday People 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.
Common Places 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.
Dialect 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 English, like good gentlemen and ladies. In the realist period, though, writers make a conscious effort to let American characters speak various types of American English. A white man in rural Missouri doesn't, of course, speak like an English gentleman, so it wouldn't be factual and "truthful" to make him sound that way. Similarly, a black woman from rural Missouri may not speak the same way a white woman from the same place does, so it wouldn't be factual and truthful to make her speak in anything other than her dialect. Realists have to have an excellent ear to make their characters sound like real Americans. And by representing different American dialects, these writers help create a genuinely American body of literature -- that is, a set of works distinguishable from the European lit most Americans of that time have grown up reading.
Celebrating the Individual Realism generally celebrates the individual. Most realist works feature a central character who has to deal with some moral struggle, hopefully to arrive at an important moral victory or realization before the story's over. And this, relatedly, often means much of the "action" in realist lit is internal action: we hear lots about what's going on in central characters' heads; we learn a lot about those characters' psychologies. Since realist characters live in the "everyday" world, interesting external things aren't always happening -- so the "internal" stuff has to take up the slack. One way or the other, though, realist writers are fascinated by individuals: they love the idea that single human beings must learn, grow, and change their worlds -- or be held responsible for failing to do these things.
Plot Driven One last thing: realist works are generally plot driven, even if only subtly. This means they pivot around conflicts we as readers want to see resolved. A realist work, then, will typically have at least one protagonist (a main character -- not necessarily a likeable person or "hero") and at least one antagonist (another character or a force that will try to prevent the protagonist from getting what s/he wants), and readers will wait to see, as they watch a sequence of increasingly dramatic events, who prevails. This is how any standard story works, but it's important to note that realism does these things, too, because the modernist stuff we'll look at later often refuses to provide plot, going in for more fragmented or "stream of consciousness" modes of storytelling instead.
Characteristics of Realism Renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail. Selective presentation of reality with an emphasis on verisimilitude, even at the expense of a well-made plot Character is more important than action and plot; complex ethical choices are often the subject. Characters appear in their real complexity of temperament and motive; they are in explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past. Class is important; the novel has traditionally served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent middle class. (See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel) Events will usually be plausible. Realistic novels avoid the sensational, dramatic elements of naturalistic novels and romances. Diction is natural vernacular, not heightened or poetic; tone may be comic, satiric, or matter-of-fact. Objectivity in presentation becomes increasingly important: overt authorial comments or intrusions diminish as the century progresses.
Major Authors Mark Twain William Dean Howells Rebecca Harding Davis Joseph Kirkland Henry James Ambrose Bierce Sarah Orne Jewett Guy de Maupassant (French) Gustav Flaubert (French) Anton Chekov (Russian) George Eliot (English)
American Naturalism (1890-1910) The term Naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Naturalism is an outgrowth of realism. Like realism, it wants to present an almost photographically accurate version of "real" life. It's full of facts and details about an everyday world ordinary people may well recognize. Its characters speak the same dialects real Americans speak. And it's generally plot driven. Unlike, Realism which focuses on literary technique, naturalism implies a philosophical position: for naturalistic writers, since human beings are, in Emile Zola's phrase, "human beasts," characters can be studied through their relationships to their surroundings. The Naturalist believed in studying human beings as though they were "products" that are to be studied impartially, without moralizing about their natures.
Uncontrollable Forces Naturalist writers aren't interested in individuality the way the realists are. They don't think it's the individual's place to change the world, and whatever moral struggle s/he goes through may well not add up to a hill of beans. Naturalism's central belief, in fact, is that individual human beings are at the mercy of uncontrollable larger forces that originate both within and outside them. These forces might include some of our more "animal" drives, such as the need for food, sex, shelter, social dominance, etc. Or, in a more "external" vein, these forces might include the natural environment, the man-made environment, or finance, industry, and the economy. Something, though, is always beating down and controlling the lives of lowly individual humans in naturalist works. The whole point of this literary movement, in fact, is to demonstrate that this is inevitable. And yes, it's often pretty grim.
Political Naturalist works are more likely to be political than traditional realist works. A great many naturalists (Upton Sinclair, for instance, whose The Jungle describes the plight of the working poor in Chicago's meat-packing industry) want to expose the cruelty of such "larger forces" as the U.S.'s voracious capitalist economy. It may, on one level, be inevitable that money will crush poor people, but it might also be true, these writers suggest, that we shouldn't turn a blind eye to it -- that we should, maybe, start thinking about bigger-than-the-individual political movements (like socialism) that can counter capitalism's exploitation of the poor.
Extraordinary Subjects Naturalist works are more likely than realist works to deal with extraordinary (that is, beyond-the-ordinary) subject matter. In their desire to show how larger forces control and manipulate people, naturalist works often deal with subjects most comfortable middle- class readers of the time wouldn't have considered part of their ordinary lives: war, violence, crime, natural disaster, urban squalor, poverty.... Those more politically charged naturalist works I mentioned above are especially likely to depict things that would shock or jar readers, unlike the more "polite" realist works of, say, William Dean Howells or Henry James.
Major Authors Jack London Stephen Crane Theodore Dreiser Jack London Edith Wharton Richard Wright
Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck is known for his realistic writings that portray the life of Americans searching for something better. Details are realistic Experiences are common Language is natural and dialectical Also portrays human life as directed by greater forces. No control over ultimate fate
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