American Realism

Sometimes you just need to sit down, focus, and get real – or in this case, realist! Whichever way you spin it, realism is all about the here and now. It focuses on the reality of the situation the author is writing about. For the American realist, there's no sense in pretending and no point in imagining the perfect world, where all problems magically disappear. Instead, the most important thing is to portray things as they actually are - no sugar-coating. It's complex characterisation, psychological dilemmas and social critique at its best, so let's dive into the movement to learn more about how it came about.

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Table of contents

    American Realism: the realism movement in literature

    Realism portrays things truthfully and remains faithful to the real world. Works of realism often intertwine descriptions of everyday activity with concerns about the impact of war, politics and the brutal forces of nature. Rather than whisk the reader away to an exotic location in the past or future, realist authors focus on their present day, attempting to represent the acute struggles of men and women as they happen in the real world.

    The movement arose as a rejection of the romantic movement that preceded it. Whereas the romantics celebrated spontaneous thought, emotions, and expressiveness, realists sought to depict the problems that ordinary men and women faced in daily life.

    Romanticism (the romantic movement) was an artistic and literary movement that began in Europe in the late eighteenth century, reaching its peak between 1800 and 1850.

    Romantic literature often concerned freedom of imagination, the beauty of the world, man's oneness with nature, and individual expression.

    Literary realism originated as part of a broader art movement in France in the mid-eighteenth century, where artists attempted to depict their subject matter realistically in response to the prevalence of romanticist art throughout the early eighteenth century. This was mirrored in French literature when authors like Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) produced works with intricate characterisation, dialogue, and observations about French society. The movement then spread to Europe, Australia and the United States of America.

    History of American Realism in Literature

    Some examples of what can now be termed 'realism' could be seen in American literature from as early as the 1830s, such as in Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes (1835), which aimed to capture what Longstreet remembered from his time in Georgia authentically. However, the movement was popularised toward the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and lasted into the twentieth century.

    The American Civil War was fought between the North and South of America between 1861 and 1865. It began over tensions over slavery.

    The Civil War was devastating to America. It challenged people's sentimentalism and optimism, the driving forces behind the romantic movement. After the pain of war, romanticism felt fake, like it was offering a glimpse into an ideal world that didn't exist.

    Industrialisation, increasing literacy rates and expanding populations were all contributing to a society that was always evolving. This led to an increased demand for literature that authentically dealt with the rapid cultural change occurring day to day in the United States. Authors, therefore, began to depict real people in real situations, reacting to the often challenging events happening in the world around them.

    William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was the first author to be credited as wholly 'realist' and is considered the father of American realism. His work revolved around middle and upper-class life, and featured a truthfulness that brought close attention to societal problems.

    Other early, influential American realists include Samuel Clemens (better known by his pen name, Mark Twain (1835-1910)), Henry James (1843-1916) and Stephen Crane (1871-1900). Mark Twain was famed for his realistic, colloquial dialogue that provided America with a new way to define its national voice.

    Colloquial dialogue means writing in a way that people would speak, rather than writing formally or in a literary way.

    For example, using an informal word like 'gonna' or 'wanna' in a novel is colloquial because it represents how someone would speak over how they would write.

    American Realism: characteristics in Literature

    Some of the defining characteristics of American realist literature include attention to detail, focus on social issues and everyday life, use of vernacular language, characterisation, and use of naturalism.

    Attention to detail

    The most important aspect of American realism is that it depicts reality with close attention to detail. It is essential that the events occurring will appear plausible when compared to their time and setting. The realist writer avoids the sentimental, overly emotional prose favoured by romanticism.

    The realist author would design a character's social class, way of thinking, and way of speaking based on the part of the United States in which the novel is set. This complex, authentic characterisation was fundamental to creating literary realism.


    The characters are more important than the plot in realist literature. Much of a realist novel is often consumed by a character tackling complex moral issues and dealing with personal struggles related to broader social and political difficulties like war and government.

    The pursuit of psychology as a study was emerging simultaneously with the Realist movement. Sigmund Freud developed his concepts during the end of the eighteenth century.

    This growing interest in psychological study could account for the psychological character studies commonly found within realist literature.

    Social Criticism

    Many American realist writers were interested in critiquing the conditions of their societies. Authors aimed to depict the acts of racism, prejudice, or social injustice common to their time.

    Specific focus was often placed on the experience of the lower classes, who were vital to the strength of the country, but lived in terrible conditions and were frequently treated poorly.

    American Realism: examples in Literature

    Some prominent examples of American realism include The Rise of Silas Lapham, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Red Badge of Courage.

    William Dean Howells - The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885)

    The Rise of Silas Lapham follows Silas, a man chasing materialistic goals and values. He attains good fortune, but through his greedy mistakes, he falls from grace, losing his business and livelihood. Silas must begin a journey to think of others instead of himself, and better himself morally. Howells presents realistic characters in the novel, showing their individual flaws and strengths and commenting on societal issues in the process.

    Mark Twain - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is likely the most famous work of American realist fiction of all time. The novel recounts Huckleberry Finn's escape from an abusive father, before embarking on an adventure down the Mississippi river alongside Jim, an escapee enslaved person.

    American Realism, a portrait of Mark Twain in a suit looking out to the right, StudySmarterFig. 1 = Mark Twain is a notable writer of American realism.

    Twain's novel is the perfect example of literary realism. He creates a narrative authentic to the time and writes with colloquial dialect representative of the region. The novel also tackles topics of slavery, morality and betrayal, while critiquing the romanticism of the American South.

    Stephen Crane - The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

    The Red Badge of Courage sought to reveal what life was like on the battlefield during the American Civil War. It follows one soldier's experience and illuminates the harsh conditions he is made to endure. It also brings attention to the psychological struggles associated with war.

    In creating his novel, Crane brought attention to a significantly underrepresented area in American literature and encouraged other writers to depict the realities of war, as they were, without patriotism.

    Other examples of American realism

    Here's a list of other realist novels for further reading!

    American RealismNovel Examples
    AuthorTitleRelease date
    Edith Wharton (1862-1937)The House of Mirth1905
    Edith Wharton (1862-1937) Ethan Frome1911
    Henry James (1843-1916) Daisy Miller1878
    Henry James (1843-1916) The Portrait of a Lady1881
    John Steinbeck (1902-1968) Of Mice and Men1937
    John Steinbeck (1902-1968) The Grapes of Wrath1939
    Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) Tales of Soldiers and Civilians1891
    Kate Chopin (1851-1904) The Awakening1899
    Frank Norris (1870-1902)McTeague1899

    American Realism: plays

    Some examples of American Realism plays include:

    American Realism Play Examples
    Play and AuthorYear PublishedDescription
    A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry1959Portrays the struggles of an African-American family living in Chicago's South Side in the 1950s.
    The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams1944A memory play that depicts the struggles of a family living in St. Louis during the Great Depression.
    Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller1949Portrays the struggles of a travelling salesman named Willy Loman, and explores themes of disillusionment and the decline of the American Dream.
    Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill1956This autobiographical play explores the struggles of a family living in New England during the early 20th century, and deals with themes of addiction, illness, and family dysfunction.
    Our Town by Thornton Wilder1938Portrays life in a small New England town at the turn of the 20th century, and emphasizes the importance of appreciating the ordinary moments of life.

    American Realism (1830s- 1900s) - Key takeaways

    • American realism is a literary movement that emerged in the late 19th century, primarily in the United States. Realism was a reaction against the Romantic movement and emphasized the depiction of ordinary life and people in a realistic and objective manner.
    • The realist movement originated in France in the mid-eighteenth century, and was popularised in the United States towards the end of the American Civil War.
    • The brutality of the war, combined with increased literacy, and the power of industrialisation, led to an increased demand for true-to-life, authentic literature to help readers understand the ever-changing world around them.
    • The most important characteristics of American realism are; attention to detail, complex characterisation and social criticism.
    • The originator of the movement in America was William Dean Howells, and some other significant realist authors are Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Edith Wharton.
    Frequently Asked Questions about American Realism

    What is American realism in literature?

    American realism is the depiction of authentic characters in realistic American settings with a focus on truthfulness and social commentary.

    What are the elements of American realism? 

    The Civil War, class struggles, racism and prejudice are the defining elements that make up American realism.

    What are the characteristics of realism in American literature? 

    The characteristics of realism in American literature are: attention to detail, characterisation, and social criticism.

    Who is the father of American realism? 

    The father of American realism is William Dean Howells.

    What is modern American realism? 

    Modern American realism is a type of realism that is set in our present day. Think John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (2012).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which movement did realism arise in response to?

    Which of these is generally not a concern of realist writers?

    Where did the realist movement originate from?


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