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Realism and Naturalism

John Dudley

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0059
Realism and Naturalism

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Variously defined as distinct philosophical approaches, complementary aesthetic strategies, or broad literary movements, realism and naturalism emerged as the dominant categories applied to American fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Included under the broad umbrella of realism are a diverse set of authors, including Henry James, W. D. Howells, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, George Washington Cable, Rebecca Harding Davis, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Hamlin Garland. Often categorized as regionalists or local colorists, many of these writers produced work that emphasized geographically distinct dialects and customs. Others offered satirical fiction or novels of manners that exposed the excesses, hypocrisies, or shortcomings of a culture undergoing radical social change. A subsequent generation of writers, including Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, and Jack London, are most often cited as the American inheritors of the naturalist approach practiced by Emile Zola, whose 1880 treatise Le Roman Experimental applied the experimental methods of medical science to the construction of the novel. Governed by a combination of heredity, environment, and chance, the typical characters of naturalist fiction find themselves constrained from achieving the transcendent goals suggested by a false ideology of romantic individualism. Over the past century, critics and literary historians have alternately viewed realist and naturalist texts as explicit condemnations of the economic, cultural, or ethical deficiencies of the industrialized age or as representations of the very ideological forces they purport to critique. Accordingly, an exploration of these texts raises important questions about the relationship between literature and society, and about our understanding of the “real” or the “natural” as cultural and literary phenomena. Though of little regard in the wake of the New Critics’ emphasis on metaphysics and formal innovation, a revived interest in realism as the American adaptation of an international movement aligned with egalitarian and democratic ideology emerged in the 1960s, as did an effort to redefine naturalist fiction as a more complex form belonging to the broader mainstream of American literary history. More recently, the emergence of deconstructive, Marxist, and new historicist criticism in the 1980s afforded a revised, and often skeptical, reevaluation of realism and naturalism as more conflicted forms, itself defined or constructed by hegemonic forces and offering insight into late-19th- and early-20th-century ideologies of class, race, and gender.

Article.  9971 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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