Reading the Novel

Title Page






America Singing: The Varied Voices of Realism

Mapping the Territory: Realism, Romance, and the Civil War

See also

Chapter 1: Toward the ‘Great American Novel’: Romance and Romanticism in the Age of Realism

A “Library of Romance” in the Age of Realism

Romanticism and Realism: The Historian's Paradox

The Romance of the “Great American Novel”

See also

Chapter 2: Of Realism and Reality: Definitions and Contexts

“The Way Things Happen”: Henry James on the Art of Fiction

Mark Twain on Faux Realism and Bogus Romance

Realism and Romance: The European Matrix

Benevolent Realism: Howells's Reflections on America

See also

Chapter 3: Dramas of the Broken Teacup: American ‘Quiet’ Realism

High Suspense on a Suspension Bridge: Their Wedding Journey

Prayerfully Numbering Her Days: Quiet Triumph of a New England “Nun”

Not Living in Henry James's World

The Ambivalent American: Living and Not Living in The Ambassadors

See also

Chapter 4: The Nature of Naturalism: Definitions and Backgrounds

Hard and Soft Determinism

Principal Conceptual Frames

The “Grandsons of Balzac”: Naturalism and the French Connection

Melodramas of the Beast: Naturalist Primitivism and Atavism

Naturalism and the Romance-Novel

See also

Chapter 5: Implacable Nature, Household Tragedy, and Epic Romance

Jack London and the “Law” of Nature

Zero Days: Ethan Frome as Naturalist Tragedy

The Force Be With You: Norris's The Octopus as Epic Romance

See also

Chapter 6: Frank Norris: The Beast Within

Vandover and the Brute: An American Decadent Novel

The “Sport of Chance”: Sex, Greed, and Entropy in McTeague

See also

Chapter 7: The Rocking Horse Winners: Theodore Dreiser and Urban Naturalism

Conflict of Convictions

Fish-Tank Philosophy: Free Will and Fatality in the “Titan” Trilogy

Going Nowhere Fast: Fortune and Fortuna in Sister Carrie

See also

Chapter 8: Subjective Realism: Stephen Crane's Impressionist Fictions

Pictures at an Exhibition

The Inexorable Environment: Crane's Bowery Tales

Maggie in the Bowery: Another Experiment in Misery

See also

Chapter 9: Impressions of War: The Interior Battlefield

Bierce's Surrealist Impressionism

“The Unexplained Glory”: Flying the Colors in The Red Badge of Courage

Incidents of Battle and the Schematics of War: The Five-Act Structure

See also

Chapter 10: Sense and Sensibility: Sentimental Domesticity and ‘New Woman's Fiction’

The Domestic Novel: Sentiment, Manners, and Marriage

Theory of “Woman's” Fiction

New Woman and Modern Woman

The Contraries of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Escaping the Chains of Gender? Lillie Devereux Blake's Fettered for Life

Freedom and Domesticity? Alcott and the New Woman

See also

Chapter 11: Domestic Feminism: The Problematic Louisa May Alcott

“Cosy Domesticity”: The Children's Writer

Beyond Little Women

Achieving “Woman's Fiction”: The Sentimental Realism of Work

See also

Chapter 12: ‘All the Happy Endings’: Marriage, Insanity, and Suicide

Radical Compromise and the Female Bildungsroman: Stoddard's The Morgesons

Escaping the Domestic Prison? Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“To Love and Be Wise”: Kate Chopin and the New Woman

Escaping the Self? The Awakening as Self-Consuming Feminism

Edna among the Creoles: Creating “Dense Social Milieu”

See also

Chapter 13: Vulgarians at the Gate: Edith Wharton and the Collapse of Gentility

A Life “Apart”– A Love “Too Late”

Infinite Vulgarity: The New American in The Custom of the Country

House of Pain: The Downward Path to Wisdom in The House of Mirth

See also

Chapter 14: Tea-Table as Jungle: Henry James and ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’

James's House of Fiction: The Three-Stage Paradigm

Two Portraits of a “Lady”

The Dove and the Serpent: Milly Theale

See also

Chapter 15: Economies of Pain: W. D. Howells

Four Key Events

The Shape of a Novelist's Career

Comedies of Manners

“Problem” Novels

The Problematic Rise of Silas Lapham; or, the Economy of Pain

Genteel Muckraking in A Hazard of New Fortunes

See also

Chapter 16: The ‘Gilded Age’: Genteel Critics and Militant Muckrakers

Picaresque Adventures in The Gilded Age

The Genteel Critics

“Muckraking” in Journalism and Fiction

Muckraking in the American Jungle: The Persistence of Naturalism

See also

Additional muckraking works

Chapter 17: What Is An American? Regionalism and Race

Becoming “American”: The Myth of the Frontier

Regionalism versus Local Color

Hamlin Garland: Local Color, Regionalism, and Veritism

Sarah Orne Jewett and New England

Toward Mark Twain: Southern Writers

Mark Twain: “De-Southernized” Southerner

See also

On Twain and Huckleberry Finn

Chapter 18: The Territory Ahead: Emerging African American Voices

Toward “Double-Consciousness”: Historical Backgrounds 1789–1912

The New Black Novel and the Crisis of Identity

Toward the Twentieth Century: Traditionalism and Modernism

See also

Chapter 19: The ‘Dream of a Republic’: War, Reconstruction, and Future History

De Forest and the Great American War

Imagining History: Contradictory Chronicles of the Reconstruction

Dream Visions: Utopian Romance – Time Travel – Future History

Quixotic Dreams and Romantic Lies in Medieval America

Shaping the “Modern” Chivalric Romance

See also

Chapter 20: At the Modernist Margin: Mark Twain

Historical Discriminations

Letters from Somewhere: From the Great Dark to the Great Emptiness

No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger


See also

Bibliographical Resources

(1) Basic Background Readings

Textbook Histories, Anthology Resources, Reference Works

(2) Abbreviations for Frequently Cited Works

(3) Critical Works Cited and Selected Supplementary References


Reading the Novel

General Editor: Daniel R. Schwarz

The aim of this series is to provide practical introductions to reading the novel in both the British and Irish, and the American traditions.

Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel Harry E. Shaw and Alison Case
Reading the Modern British and Irish Novel 1890–1930 Daniel R. Schwarz
Reading the Novel in English 1950–2000 Brian W. Shaffer
Reading the American Novel 1865–1914 G. R. Thompson
Reading the Eighteenth-Century Novel Paula R. Backscheider
Reading the American Novel 1780–1865 Shirley Samuels
Reading the Twentieth-Century American Novel James Phelan
Title Page

For Elizabeth


Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to. . . students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

Many American students seem to think that American literature exists in some sort of void, as if American writers knew only American history and read only other American writers. But American writers did not write in a parochial vacuum. They were nurtured by England, the mother country, and by Continental brothers, sisters, and cousins. To understand specific texts of American fiction more than superficially, it is necessary to see them in a broader, primarily European, context of social and literary history. It is also necessary to see them in historical contexts that often blur the boundaries of particular time periods.

America was from the first a mix of different cultures; but British literary culture was always the preeminent model and influence, even when Americans were in the process of trying to reject it. Other European influences ebbed and flowed for over two centuries. In the later eighteenth century, the major foreign influence in literature was French neoclassicism; in the earlier nineteenth century, the major influence was German romanticism; in the later nineteenth century, it was the French again, accompanied by the Russians and Scandinavians, who like the French provided models for realism and naturalism. In the early twentieth century, the new modernism was an international mixture of European literatures, owing much to French impressionist painting and literature and emerging German expressionist fiction and theater.

Other elements of an “American” literature developed closer to home. Native American songs and creation myths in the oral tradition from the seventeenth century forward are still being recovered. African American literature begins in the eighteenth century and reaches its first apogee by the middle of the nineteenth. The first important appearances of Asian and Jewish immigrant literature occur in the very late nineteenth century. The twentieth century saw the development of a growing corpus of Hispanic American literature.

These were some of the contexts for a course in American literature from 1865 to the early 1900s that I taught at Purdue University, called “The Rise of Realism.” However, the period from the 1860s through the 1890s and beyond was not characterized simply by realism, but also by the persistence of romance and romanticism, by special blends of nonrealistic regionalism and local color, by gothic themes and fantasy, by domestic sentimentalism, by women's idealistic protest writings, by muckraking melodrama, by intense and conflicted polemics on race, class, and economics, and especially by a problematic “naturalism” partaking of both realism and romanticism.

I sometimes used “Realism and the Persistence of Romance” as an alternate title for the course, and that phrase is a sub-thesis underlying the period survey presented here. But I wish to make clear at the outset that in noting continuities with earlier periods and precedents in certain forms of literature, I am not suggesting the superiority of one over the other in social value or literary achievement. Knowledge of traditions before the American Civil War enhances our understanding of postwar concerns. And by cross-referencing prewar and postwar works and matters, I have sought to moderate some historical inaccuracies.

Some texts are significant for their sociopolitical or philosophical aspects; and there are a number of works that receive attention in the following pages for their historical or biographical interest. But within the large contexts of cultural and literary history, the emphasis here is on works that have enduring power to engage readers both intellectually and emotionally: on individual works significant for their form (their various integrating structures) and individualizing functions (with particular voices, particular characters, and particular imagery). Once the large context has been laid out, it is the individual text that is most important – at least for what I would call literary studies. To reverse that would be like reading about the history of music and composers without listening to any musical compositions.

The present book reflects this approach: major text plus context. It is intended as a general overview of the territory, suitable for introductory classes, though not necessarily always at the most elementary level. It is aimed at the diverse audience levels of the Wiley-Blackwell A Companion to American Fiction 1865–1914 (2005; rev. 2009), which I co-edited with Robert Paul Lamb. As in that book, the major audience for the present volume is conceived to be threefold: advanced undergraduates interested in preparing for graduate education; beginning graduate students; and what the Companion designates as “non-specialists and general intellectuals.” It may also be of some use to teachers preparing their own courses in the field.

Wherever it has seemed appropriate, I have referred the reader to the discussions in the Companion volume. For one thing, each of the Companion essays contains an up-to-date bibliography of selected major critical and scholarly works beyond what I have included in the comprehensive “Bibliographical Resources” for the present volume. For another, my colleague and I planned that volume over several years in ongoing consultation with the contributors; and, for me, the present volume is an extension of, and at times a debate with, that one. That is, I have an individual approach, and I argue a more defined overall thesis: I trust that readers will find the two books, although covering the same ground, are not repetitive but complementary.

My focus is on Anglophone American novels. By novel I mean to include the short novel form usually called the “novella” or “nouvelle”; and I also make use of selected short stories that are especially significant for understanding such movements as romanticism, realism, naturalism, impressionism, feminism, regionalism, and modernism. The discussions often counterpoint an established canon with an emergent new canon (or canons), noting for example redefinitions of the “sentimental” and “domestic novel,” reconceived ideas of “women's fiction,” and rediscovered areas like nineteenth-century African American fiction. Others deal more centrally with political issues, the economics of social class, the development of psychological fiction, and so on.

As part of the introduction of particular literary texts with which the general reader or beginning student may not be familiar, the importance of narrative structure is emphasized. In emphasizing the importance of story, I follow the lead of critics and teachers of American literature like Darrel Abel in his three-volume literary history, American Literature (1963), and Nina Baym in her Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870 (1978; revised 1993). In these works, analytic plot summary is combined with critical interpretation, revealing meanings embedded in the structure of unfolding narration.

In dealing with structure, I have recourse to some very basic ideas: namely, the old Freytag pattern of rising and falling action with a crisis somewhere a little past center. This paradigm was developed by Gustav Freytag in the nineteenth century in reference to the apparent five-act structure of renaissance (specifically Shakespearean) drama: exposition (setting forth the basic situation and introducing the main characters); complication (setting obstacles between characters and their goals, knotting up the plot and complicating relationships); crisis (a turning point toward one outcome or another in the narrative and in the lives of the principal characters); climax or second crisis (usually an emotional highpoint replicating the issues decided in the crisis); and the denouement (untying the plot knots, bringing the narrative to some sort of resolution, even if an elliptical one).

To this pattern, I add two more. Most obvious is the nineteenth-century practice of publishing long novels in two or three volumes, which results in the typical American novel of any substantial length having a significant high point or narrative “turn” at the end of the first of two volumes. When published in one large volume, portions of the narrative may be labeled “books” and may or may not renumber the chapters within each book; sometimes very large novels have five-act structures named and numbered as “books.” This often results in a thematic and narratival “middle-point” at the end of a “book” or volume, taking the form of a major iconic scene or a major turning point, often the “principal” crisis. In earlier nineteenth-century aesthetics, as formulated by German theorists, notably Friedrich Schlegel, this middle-point (Mittelpunkt) was central to the idea of the “geometric” novel. Schlegel further elaborated the middle-point to include secondary or “elliptical” middle-points – an idea that finds an analogue in Frank Norris's concept of a main narrative “hinge” and related “pivot-points” (see Ch. 6).

I also have occasional reference to nineteenth-century narrative aesthetics when calling attention to the “arabesque” quality (intricate interpenetrating and framing patterns) of certain works and “romantic irony” (a proclivity for seriously meaning and simultaneously mocking something). But in general I call attention to middle-points, structural pivots, and geometrical segments without specific reference to arcane theories. Nevertheless, I attempt in this volume to combine traditional analytic tools for close reading of narrative texts with newer concepts in critical theory and narratology – especially those of M. H. Abrams, M. M. Bakhtin, Wayne Booth, Gérard Genette, Wolfgang Iser, Frederic Jameson, Thomas Kent, Morse Peckham, and John Carlos Rowe (see Bibliographical Resources). In addition to standard terms like plot, story, action, and point-of-view, the reader will find concepts like focalization (the consciousness through which the story is presented regardless of technical point-of-view) and narratees (an explicit person or implied consciousness to whom the story is addressed directly or indirectly). In this regard, the student should be familiar with traditional point-of-view and its modes (e.g., first-person central or peripheral; third-person omniscient or restricted; and so forth).

A few other significant terms, like dialogical, carnivalesque, and transgeneric, are drawn in particular from the critical framework of Mikhail Mikhailovitch Bakhtin, whose work has informed my own for the last twenty-five years. The meaning of transgeneric is obvious; carnivalesque basically suggests the comic-grotesque as a mode undercutting cultural norms. The dialogical indicates historical and ideological oppositions embedded together in a text for an open-ended, rather than a closed, thematic dialectic: the art of bringing to light contradictions and weighing their relative value. (Fuller definitions and applications can be found in my earlier works on Poe, Hawthorne, and “arabesque” narrative; see Bibliographical Resources.)

I have employed these terms sparingly, trying always to keep the primary student audience in mind. I have imagined myself in the classroom, sometimes lecturing to a group, sometimes talking to students informally. I have remembered various expressions of puzzlement or sudden enlightenment – or incomprehension at seeming digressions – or excitement about seeing the overall picture of historical contexts and generic patterns – or, best of all, sudden epiphanies regarding specific works. Thus, while presenting an overview of some complex theoretical propositions, I have tried to keep from loading up the discussion with unfamiliar terms and jargon. Those more technical terms and constructs that I do use I have tried to define and explain as we go. In this regard, let me clarify the use of the word “we” in the following discussions. It is not the “royal we” of some anointed expert, but the conversational “we,” the sign of shared experience in reading. Ordinarily, personal opinion will be obvious (for example, Howells's The Shadow of a Dream deserves greater recognition as a minor classic of American fiction). Occasionally, however, I will try to make more explicit what may be a radical divergence from the standard view. For example, I happen to think that Henry James's The Golden Bowl, which some critics think a masterpiece, is highly overrated; and I say so as an “opinion.” For works about which there is substantial critical disagreement, I give in addition to my own what seems to me a central or basic interpretation in the context of what I think will be useful to a student-oriented overview of the field.

My debt to the historical scholars and literary critics who have preceded me is enormous; but I also owe a general debt to sources beyond the printed page: to my academic colleagues. By that I mean to include former teachers, fellow teachers, fellow readers – and students. In the course of a career that spans nearly fifty years and five universities, I have faced some ten thousand students in the classroom. Many of these students, in their papers, in class discussion, and later on in publications, have given me wonderful insights, broadened my knowledge, and enriched my understanding. To the ten thousand as whole, I owe an incalculable debt, and I thank them for what has been a wonderful career. I can't think of a better life than having been able to read and talk about books with them.

Albuquerque, New Mexico
October 2010


I want first to acknowledge colleagues and friends at Purdue University where I taught for over thirty years. I want especially to thank Howard and Nancy Mancing, who provided a room in their home during my last teaching semester; this refuge allowed me to complete parts of this book in seclusion and quiet.

My time at Purdue University overlapped with that of Darrel Abel for only a few years. I could have wished for more. Conversations with him, and his writings on Poe and Hawthorne, were important influences on my own work. How much so may be suggested by the Festschrift that I and another Purdue colleague, Virgil L. Lokke, compiled for him: Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel (1981).

For some two decades, my Purdue colleagues Leonard Neufeldt and Robert Paul Lamb generously read and critiqued nearly everything I wrote. The present book is the lesser for Len's having retired. Bob Lamb's reading of my work always improved it; and of course we collaborated on the Blackwell Companion to American Fiction 1865–1914. I cite Bob frequently, and his presence will be felt by those who know him, even when he is not specifically cited.

Among the greatest pleasures of my Purdue years was working with a number of talented graduate students. One of the first dissertations I directed at Purdue was that of Thomas L. Kent, a revised version of which was later published as Interpretation and Genre: The Role of Generic Perception in the Study of Narrative Texts (1986). In this work, Tom introduced me to some new modes of thinking about genre by applying paradigms of “information theory” to the conventions of dime novels and tracing their transmutations in classic texts by Mark Twain and Stephen Crane. Stephen Frye completed his PhD dissertation at Purdue under my direction in 1995, a revised version of which was published as Historiography and Narrative Design in the American Romance (2001); his interest in Bakhtinian theory and his work on the persistence of the romance tradition in America run in the background of several of the discussions here. Eric Carl Link also completed his PhD dissertation under my direction in 1995, a revised version of which was published as The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century (2004). The extensive notes to that book provide a useful critical-bibliographical guide to issues in both naturalism and realism, and this work is often cited in the present volume. Eric and I also co-authored Neutral Ground: New Traditionalism and the American Romance Controversy (1999), a book covering American theories of fiction from the late eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, cited in the opening chapters of the present volume. In 2000, Beverly J. Reed, who had acted as my research assistant for a volume on Poe, completed a dissertation on the interaction of “scientific racialism” and the “visual/verbal construction” of the body in relation to the “American Woman.” I was privileged to serve as co-chair for this dissertation with the late Cheryl Z. Oreovicz; from this project I learned new ways of thinking about historical issues of gender and culture. There are others I would mention if there were enough space; but my debt to Darrel, Tom, Eric, Steve, Bev, Bob, and Len is direct and immeasurable.

Second, I wish to acknowledge the editors and staff at Wiley-Blackwell. In what seems now a distant time and place, the General Editor of the Blackwell Readings series, Professor Daniel Schwartz of Cornell University, recommended me as the person to write Reading the American Novel 1865–1914; and I want to thank him for his confidence in someone who is primarily a pre-Civil War scholar. My first experience with the Blackwell publishing group was with Andrew McNeillie (now of Oxford University Press), whose enthusiasm was infectious; it was his conviction of the importance of the Blackwell American series that persuaded me to attempt A Companion to the American Novel 1865–1914 – on condition that I could persuade Bob Lamb to join me as co-editor.

Working with Blackwell (subsequently Wiley-Blackwell) has been one of the more gratifying experiences I have had in book publishing (as the acknowledgment in the Companion indicates). For their work on one or both projects I want to thank Karen Wilson, Jenny Hunt, Helen Nash, Gillian Somerscales, and others of the Blackwell and Wiley-Blackwell teams. Ben Thatcher saw the final two condensed versions of the present book through to the production stage. Copy-editing was carried out meticulously by Gail Ferguson, who also took special care with complex bibliographical cross-references; Alison Worthington undertook the task of producing a thorough index beyond just names and titles. I especially want to acknowledge Felicity Marsh, who coordinated the final production of this book from copy-editing to actual publication. Her command of all aspects of editing and production, her understanding of writers' concerns, and her straightforward professional demeanor, combined with friendly low-key humor, made the last stages of this project virtually free of author-anxiety.

Most of all, I am grateful to executive editor Emma Bennett, who became the guiding light for the present volume shortly after its initiation. She suggested different options while the manuscript grew and shrank like Alice. When I began more than once to lose perspective, she offered gentle encouragement to stick with the project and made many suggestions for its improvement. She has been central in shaping this book into the more focused work it is now. I have had some wonderful editors in the past; and I was once again exceedingly fortunate.

I sought special help from Grace Farrell, Rebecca Clifton Reade Professor of English at Butler University. I asked Grace to read what was then a very long central section (almost a small book in itself) on women authors and woman's fiction, checking for gross errors as well as editing for length. It was a lot to ask. To my great delight, she set to work cutting and condensing; page after page of unnecessary material dropped out; and, with a few deft transitions, she made them disappear pretty much seamlessly. Bob Lamb also helped me cut the first part of the overly long manuscript, with analyses and summaries shortened, with some paragraphs of garrulous transition omitted, and the notes curtailed. I am grateful for all such advice; but of course any abrupt shifts of subject or overly truncated discussions are my sole responsibility.

My deepest debt is to my wife, Elizabeth Boyd Thompson, who is herself the best editor I know. Elizabeth listened to me natter for more than five years about this book, offered sensible advice, and, as she has done so many times before, skillfully edited the final manuscript. She reduced the repetitions, weed-whacked the underbrush, generally cleaned up the style, and pointed out when things didn't quite cohere. When further reductions were requested, she did all this again. Without her indispensable help, I could not have finished this book. And so, once more, I dedicate my work to my beloved life's companion.


From 1865 to about 1910, literary circles in America debated the relative value of the novel and the romance with increasing intensity. On the surface, such a matter may not sound terribly significant, but the ongoing debate about realism and romance was central to the quest for cultural unity after the Civil War: it became a major issue in the reemerging concern for a “national” American literature, embodied in the idea of the “Great American Novel.”1 This debate is also central to the interpretation of the texts to be examined in this volume. Genre is a lens, and we need to be aware of the lens and its prismatic properties. Genre conceptions – and their departures and de-formations – are central to the accurate understanding of individual works of literature.

Over time we find an ever-changing hierarchy of genres reflecting complicated (and not always consistent) value systems of cultural suppositions and fashions. Taxonomies like novel or romance, realism or romanticism, are tied to some angle of vision, whether generally conceptual or specifically literary. It is important to remember that, however privileged any one literary form may be in any given era, genres are always in contention with one another. It will be well to remember this caveat when trying recover an accurate idea of the post-Civil War era and its literature.

America Singing: The Varied Voices of Realism

Just before the Civil War, in 1860, and then again in 1867, the romantic-realist poet Walt Whitman included in the “Inscriptions” section of Leaves of Grass the poem “I Hear America Singing.” In it, he catalogues the “varied carols” he hears: from mechanics, carpenters, boatmen, shoemakers, hatters, woodcutters, ploughboys, wives, mothers, girls sewing or washing, young men singing together at night. Historical paradigms are dependent on which “voices” from the past we actually allow ourselves to hear. The following are some classic examples of these varied voices.

Realist Fiction: 1860s and 1870s

Important realist works that focused on the actual and specific problems of particular regions, events, and occupations include: John William De Forest's Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867); Mark Twain's The Gilded Age, A Tale of To-Day (1873) and the quasi-fictionalized Life on the Mississippi (1873); Louisa May Alcott's Work: A Story of Experience (1873); Albion W. Tourgée's A Fool's Errand: A Narrative of the South during Reconstruction (1879).

Realist Fiction: 1880s and 1890s

The next decade produced works of social and economic realism as different as Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), both of which make use of dialect and vernacular in an attempt to reproduce the actual sounds of regional American and immigrant English. A newer form of domestic realism also reached a zenith in the 1880s and 1890s with such works as: Henry James's Washington Square (1881), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), The Spoils of Poynton (1896–97), and What Maisie Knew (1897); William Dean Howells's A Modern Instance (1881) and The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885); and Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899).

The last decade of the century also produced not only gentler-seeming works of pastoral regional realism, like Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), but also grimmer works focused on regions or specific areas like Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads (1891) and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895).

Realist Fiction: Early 1900s

These realist breakthroughs were followed in the new century by Charles W. Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and The Colonel's Dream (1905), James's The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Ambassadors (1903), Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) and The Custom of the Country (1913).

The term naturalism refers to the pessimistic late-century aesthetic ideology competing with realism. But readers familiar with some of the works just mentioned will be aware of how blurred the line between naturalism and realism can be.

Naturalist Fiction: 1890s and Early 1900s

Representative titles of naturalist fiction include: Ambrose Bierce's Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891), Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893, 1896) and George's Mother (1896, 1898), Frank Norris's McTeague (1899) and The Octopus (1901), Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods (1902), Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903) and The Sea Wolf (1904), Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome (1911), James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) and The Financier (1912).2

What underlay the appearance of these works, which are supposed to be a reaction to the illusions of romance and romanticism? The usual answer is political and sociological rather than literary: the grim realities of the Civil War and its economic aftermath. But this seemingly simple and direct proposition is actually rather complicated, involving several quite different ideological perspectives and genre conceptions.

Mapping the Territory: Realism, Romance, and the Civil War

One of the most repeated generalizations about the 1865 to 1914 period in literature used to be that “realism” overtook and essentially buried “romanticism.” In the conflict between romanticism and realism, the novel supposedly achieved dominance over the earlier romance – so that one of the carcasses left on the battlefield after 1865 was the emaciated body of the latter. Most of the great realist works, however, have various forms of romanticism and romance embedded deep within their realist fabric. Moreover, naturalist writers of the same era, particularly Jack London and Frank Norris, whose works are sometimes said to represent an extreme form of realism, acknowledged the strong influence of the romance tradition.

The preconception that post-Civil War realism did away with romance and romanticism for the next half century continues to be popular in part because it is reified by the very names for the period in literary histories, textbooks, and course descriptions. For decades, the most common names for the era in American literary history between the Civil War and World War I were the Age of Realism and the Rise of Realism, or more aggressively the Triumph of Realism. This idea that the shocking realities of the Civil War and its aftermath were responsible for the “triumph” of realism was conventional for a century or more, beginning at least by the 1880s.

For example, in the Dial for May 1887, Samuel M. Clark commented that “the present generation of readers do not take readily to romance.” The following year, in an essay on “The Romantic and the Realistic Novel,” the critic and novelist H. H. Boyesen remarked that, in his “devotion to realistic art,” he “was inclined to believe some years ago that romanticism was dead.” Earlier in the decade, in 1883, James Herbert Morse, equating the novel with realism, had written in the Century magazine that – after the war – “all the conditions of the times forced the romancer out of the field and pushed the novelist in.”3 It is clear from Morse's and Boyesen's pairing of the words romanticismromance and realismnovel that they equated genre and genre expectations with a worldview, with literary movements, and with historical eras.

W. D. Howells in an 1899 lecture on “Novel-Writing and Novel-Reading” called the realistic novel the “supreme form of fiction,” a form greater than the romance (NGd, 143). In an essay remarking the rise of “The New Historical Romances” in the North American Review for December 1900, Howells claimed that the “natural tendency” of American fiction of the 1870s and 1880s was realistic and that the new romances were, happily, more realistic than the older ones before the war.

Theory of the American romance-novel

Half a century later, when a new generation of American scholars was reevaluating its national literary history, Richard Chase offered the classic statement of both the demise and persistence of romance. In The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957), Chase wrote: “It used to be thought that the element of romance in American fiction was destined to disappear,” and that “perhaps had to all intents and purposes already disappeared, as a result of the rise of modern realism,” which “set in after the Civil War.” Moreover, it “used to be thought, also, that this was a good thing, romance being regarded as a backward tendency of the comparatively unenlightened youth of our culture.”4

A year or so before, in The Cycle of American Literature (1955, 1956), Robert E. Spiller, the editor of the celebrated Literary History of the United States (1948), had insisted on the idea that romance and romanticism had been supplanted by realism and the novel. The new realistic novelist was represented by W. D. Howells, who, Spiller said, had opened the door to “a more meaningful fiction” through “his advocacy of realism” (116–19; my italics). Not only had the realist novel “superseded” the older forms of literature (including drama and poetry), but also a more precise regionalism and realism “took the place” of the “imagination and idealism” of romanticism (113). It was, he said, sometime between 1910 and 1920 that America finally “came of age.” The “actual moment of maturity” might be located in events in 1912 or 1916, as the “symbol for the putting away” of “nineteenth-century forms, ideas, and habits” (162).

But Chase pointed out the ways in which realism and romance coexisted. The actual “cycle” of American literature was the interaction of novel–romance, romanticism–realism. The “history of the American novel,” Chase wrote, is “not only the history of the rise of realism but also of the repeated rediscovery of the use of romance . . .” Chase's interpretation of the native tradition became known as the “Romance Theory” of American fiction.

Nearly another half a century later, Michael Davitt Bell in Culture, Genre, and Literary Vocation: Selected Essays on American Literature (2001) analyzed his career as a development from an initial interest in romanticism vis-à-vis realism. His earliest concern was “a question about the generic bases of nineteenth-century American fiction.” He had undertaken “the project of interrogating two literary historical assertions that had become commonplace by the 1960s.” These were the interrelated ideas that “the tradition of our fiction before the Civil War had been one of ‘romance’ (as distinguished from the supposedly ‘novelistic’ tradition of nineteenth-century British fiction); and that following the Civil War the characteristic mode of American fiction had shifted from ‘romance’ to ‘realism’.5

Without abandoning his interest in romance and realism as aesthetic phenomena, Bell shifted his focus to what he came to call the “sociology of literary vocation.” His “ultimate aim,” he wrote, “was to use sociology to try to work out the relationship between works of American literature and generalizations about ‘culture.’” Although focused on a literary form, his 1980 study, The Development of American Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation was already merging formalist with cultural concerns. Thirteen years later, in The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea (1993), he was examining “realism” primarily as a political-cultural event.6

The sociological interpretation of realism was not new in the 1980s and 1990s when Bell moved from aesthetic interests to more broadly cultural ones. It had been quite common for mid-twentieth century surveys and anthologies to toss off casual statements about the overly aesthetic inclination of romanticism and how the “romantic element was vanishing from our national life.”7 A somewhat more temperate statement is found in the introduction to “The Triumph of Realism” section in a standard reference book for students, the College Outline Series volume, American Literature. Here we read that the Civil War brought mass “industrialization of the United States,” which brought about “the twilight of romanticism and the dawn of realism.”8

Sociology and Literary History

It is easy to see the appeal of the Civil War as the major pivotal point not only in American political history, but also in American cultural history. For one thing, the bloody realities of war seem to contrast with the romantic optimism of the dominant American philosophy known as Transcendentalism. For another, the war brought into sharp focus, not the overarching idealism of a unified land, but a recognition of its disparate regions and peoples. And yet the romantic idea of the Great American Novel as something mythic – an archetypal representation of the nation as a whole – grew and persisted after the war.

In 1960, C. Hugh Holman reemphasized the idea of “industrialism” as a primary cause and a principal trait of American realism – attributing its rise to the Civil War. He asserted that the war had been a struggle between the concepts of agrarian democracy and industrial democracy. The Northern victory brought the “triumphant emergence” of industrialism, which generated mechanical and material advances but also caused labor disputes, economic depression, unionism, violent strikes, and reciprocal repression by the Robber Barons. There was, Holman wrote, a realistic “disillusionment with American life never before widespread in the nation.”9 How “widespread” is uncertain; but among pre-war intellectuals and artists, disillusionment with the dream of an ideal republic was certainly a major theme. Holman also pointed to the rise of science – or at least a rising consciousness of scientific thought among the general public. The impact of Darwin, Marx, Comte, Spencer, and others who were advancing “a scientific view of man,” was sharply at odds with “the older religious view” and was undercutting the old romantic “certainty” about “perfectibility” and the “inevitability of progress.”

Jay Martin opens his densely detailed Harvests of Change: American Literature 1865–1914 with the following: “The changes that took place in America between the Civil War and the First World War were remarkable both for their completeness and for their rapidity”; the “whole scene of human endeavor and thought” that had “existed since the Middle Ages” in the short period of a half-century “passed away.” Chief among the “forces” effecting change in “literary production between the wars” was the fact that the “continuity of literary taste” was “shattered by the Civil War.”10

These generalizations are not entirely wrong; it is the sweeping and absolutist quality of them that is problematic. Like many another critical study of the period, Harvests of Change focuses on post-war historical, political, and socioeconomic pivotal points: the Rise of Wealth, the Growth of the City, Immigration, Reform, Education, the Growth of Science and what he calls “a Naturalistic Test of Truth” (specifically Darwinism), Technology, and Mass Literature. In literary criticism since then, the shift toward sociological context and cultural critique has continued apace.

Sociological concerns are paramount in the fourth edition of the popular Heath Anthology of American Literature (2002). Much of the long introduction, the “Late Nineteenth Century: 1865–1910,” is focused on the social and technological implications of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. About a third of the way into the introductory essay, the editors say that literary realism may be defined on its “simplest level” as a “matter of faithfulness to the surfaces of American life.”11 The introduction goes on to place a number of later American writers in socioeconomic contexts, with the history of literary tradition relegated to the background.

In my view, for the study of literature per se, we need first to deal with several large aesthetic idea-complexes barely mentioned in the Heath introduction: the historical-cultural terms, romanticism, realism, naturalism; and the more specifically literary terms romance and novel. For one thing, these concepts are central to the whole debate over literary realism. For another, they are key concepts in the idea of the “Great American Novel.”


1. The “Great American Novel” is discussed in the next chapter. “Literary nationalism” was a major aspect of the preceding romantic period, but it was less generic. Anyone reading the reviews and literary debates of the last quarter of the nineteenth century in America can hardly fail to be struck by the intensity of the concern for genre – especially the novel versus romance as representing value systems and worldviews. Students often think of the romance as merely a love story instead of its broader definition of going beyond (or eschewing) everyday reality; see the historical definitions throughout this chapter and the next. The terms and documents of the national debate are set forth in detail from ante-1810 to post-1910 in Thompson and Link (1999), hereafter cited as NGd (see Abbreviations for Frequently Cited Works, p. 391), including a comprehensive chronological bibliography.

2. For a complementary list, see Cowley, “Naturalism in American Literature” (1950), 329.

3. Quotations from Hjalmar Hjyorth Boyesen and Samuel M. Clark will be found, contextualized, in NGnd, 157 and 141. For James Herbert Morse, see “The Native Element in American Fiction” (Century Magazine), NGd, 141.

4. Chase, xi–xii. This influential book was considered a somewhat controversial work for many years; for fuller discussion, see NGd, 33–43.

5. Adding “end of the century ‘naturalism’” as a form of realism (x–xii).

6. Bell's struggles with aesthetics versus sociology are representative of an entire generation of scholars, including myself.

7. This hyperbole is from a classroom guide of the mid-twentieth century, Guy E. Smith's American Literature: A Complete Survey (1957), 123–4. In the preface to Nation and Region 1860–1900, the third volume of the Viking Portable Library American Literature Survey (1968), Howard Mumford Jones maintains that by the end of the Civil War “Romanticism had run its course” (III, xviii). Also see Howard Jones's The Theory of American Literature (1965 [1948]) for further historical context outside of the romance/novel controversy, esp. Chs 4 and 5 on literary nationalism.

8. Crawford, Kern, and Needleman (1945[1953]), 158.

9. See Holman, “Realistic Period in American Literature, 1865–1900” (HBL, 1992), 400–2. The Robber Barons were ruthless “moneyed men” who practiced “bossism” and were largely responsible for the growing poverty level in what Lincoln Steffens in 1904 called “the shame of the cities.” See Chs 4 and 16 of the present volume.

10. Jay Martin (1967), 1, 16.

11. Heath Anthology of American Literature, 4th edn, II, 10, col. B.

See also

Abrams (GLT); Barrish (1995); Cady (1971); Cowie (RAN); Hoffman (1972); Kent (1986); Link (2004); Parrington (1930); Perosa (1983 [1978]); Pizer (1984 [1966]); Ridgley (REAmL 1963); Rowe (1982); Scheick (ACAF 2009); Walcutt (1956). Also see references at the end of the next chapter.