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Realism and the American Hero

Page history last edited by Abigail Heiniger 8 years, 1 month ago

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Realism and the American Hero


Winslow Homer. "Breezing Up a Fair Wind" (1873-76)


Winslow Homer. "Dinner Horn" (1870)


Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836. He began his career as a painter in 1859 in New York and traveled widely throughout his life time. His subjects capture and celebrate mundane ordinary life, even in the midst of war and tragedy. His style is generally characterized as American Realism. 


Like all the terms relating to literary movements, the term is loose and somewhat equivocal.  American Realism began as a reaction to and a rejection of Romanticism, with its emphasis on emotion, imagination, and the individual.  The movement began as early as the 1830's but reached prominence and held sway from the end of the Civil War to around the end of the nineteenth century.  The movement was centered in fiction, particularly the novel.  It attempted fidelity to real life, or "actuality," in its representation.  The realist concerns himself with the here and now, centering his work in his own time, dealing with common-place everyday events and people, and with the socio-political climate of his day .



(from Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition

  • 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.
  • Interior or psychological realism a variant form.
  • In Black and White Strangers, Kenneth Warren suggests that a basic difference between realism and sentimentalism is that in realism, "the redemption of the individual lay within the social world," but in sentimental fiction, "the redemption of the social world lay with the individual" (75-76).  


Group Work: Realism of Daisy Miller by Henry James


Break into groups and consider the list of characteristics and the paintings above. How does our reading from Daisy Miller resemble these paintings? How do both works of art reflect American realism?   

• they resemble by how life is going on today. It reflects America today how kids are growing up and how parents let there kids do things 


More American Realism:



William Dean HowellsW. D. Howells. As editor of the Atlantic Monthly and of Harper's New Monthly MagazineWilliam Dean Howells promoted writers of realism as well as those writing local color fiction.


Other Views of Realism

"The basic axiom of the realistic view of morality was that there could be no moralizing in the novel [ . . . ] The morality of the realists, then, was built upon what appears a paradox--morality with an abhorrence of moralizing. Their ethical beliefs called, first of all, for a rejection of scheme of moral behavior imposed, from without, upon the characters of fiction and their actions. Yet Howells always claimed for his works a deep moral purpose. What was it? It was based upon three propositions: that life, social life as lived in the world Howells knew, was valuable, and was permeated with morality; that its continued health depended upon the use of human reason to overcome the anarchic selfishness of human passions; that an objective portrayal of human life, by art, will illustrate the superior value of social, civilized man, of human reason over animal passion and primitive ignorance" (157). Everett Carter, Howells and the Age of Realism(Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1954).

"Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. It would apprehend in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature. Beneath the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, it detects and endeavors to trace the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there; tho measure the changes in their growth, to watch the symptoms of moral decay or regeneration, to fathom their histories of passionate or intellectual problems. In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worth of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance." 
-- George Parsons Lathrop, 'The Novel and its Future," Atlantic Monthly 34 (September 1874):313 24.

“Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.” --William Dean Howells, “Editor’s Study,” Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1889), p. 966. 

"Realism, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm." --Ambrose Bierce The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Context and Controversy

In its own time, realism was the subject of controversy; debates over the suitability of realism as a mode of representation led to a critical exchange known as the realism war. (Click here for a brief overview.)


The realism of James and Twain was critically acclaimed in the twentieth century. Howellsian realism fell into disfavor, however, as part of early twentieth century rebellion against the "genteel tradition." For an account of these and other issues, see the realism bibliography and essays by Pizer, Michael Anesko, Richard Lehan, and Louis J. Budd, among others, in the Cambridge Guide to Realism and Naturalism.


Group Work: "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot


How does this poem bring realism to the American love story? How do the relationships described here resemble the realism paintings below? 



Jean-Baptiste-Camille CorotYoung Girl Reading, 1868



Honoré Daumier,Les Joueurs d'échecs (The chess players), 1863





Transition: Realism to Modernism


The Modernist novel's turn away from the techniques of representation of nineteenth-century realism towards formal experimentation has left an ambiguous legacy. On the one hand, the the stylistic and self-referential play of the novel has been read as a strategy of containment in response to some "crisis" usually located at the turn of the century. The increasing formalization of the novel is thus read as a tendency toward artistic autonomy and away from mimesis, where the ideal sphere of art compensates for the transformation of experience in a world where urbanization, the rise of monopoly and state capitalism, political movements on both the left and right, imperialism, mass culture and the pressure of all of these social, economic, political and cultural forces on gender, class, and national identities, engender an overwhelming sense of self-fragmentation and loss of agency. On the other hand, this same stylistic play has been read as an effort to come up with emancipatory possibilities for experience in such a world, by offering new ways to narrativize experience, and in some cases, appropriating precisely those expressive modes of mass culture that had been thought to impoverish experience, from popular entertainment to the press, in order to develop new narrative modes. 


T. S. Eliot's poem bridges the shift from realism to modernism (which we will begin on Friday). 


Compare and Contrast:


Break into groups and create a Venn diagram  where you compare and contrast the stylistic choices of Henry James' Daisy Miller and Eliot's "Love Song." Use these to think about the similarities and differences between realism and the modernism that is to follow. 


Comments (4)

qlhines@... said

at 2:20 pm on Feb 29, 2016

Thia showed an image of the setting of both paintings and the paintings revealed the settings in a quicker visual form.

Courtney Kendrick said

at 2:22 pm on Feb 29, 2016

the pictures are painting the picture of what the artist wants you to see. In the story, he is trying to get the reader to see things how he is seeing them.

Matthew Mullins said

at 2:22 pm on Feb 29, 2016

The point of realism is trying to make it look as real as possible. He’s laying out everything about the place; he wants to make you feel like you are there and that you are seeing what he is seeing. He is painting the picture of the area in your mind. The town in Switzerland and it has many hotels and he's just telling us details about pretty much everything for example the balcony with glass. Talks about the day such as when he talks about having breakfast.

qlhines@... said

at 2:25 pm on Feb 29, 2016

These paintings also define realism because as we look straight , we do not see everything around us. The author showed this in the paintings.

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