How Literary Realism Impacted American Literature

American literary realism defined writing from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, and it remains a theme of literary criticism today.

In the 18th century, literature tended to be highly romantic in nature. Literary realism hit the scene late in the 19th century, and there was a dramatic shift in style.

Instead of romanticized stories and scenes, literary realism was a literary movement that portrayed everyday life and experiences as they happened, with minimal symbolism but instead a focus on truthful storytelling.

Though it was popular in the 19th century, literary realism remains a common type of writing in modern literature. If you are considering a career or hobby in fiction writing, learning how to embrace this style is helpful.

A History of Literary Realism

How literary realism impacted American literature?

In 18th century writing and art, Romanticism reigned. Exotic and dramatic writing was commonplace. In the 19th century France, this started to change.

In France, writers started to publish works that made stories out of everyday experiences in serial form through newspapers. Honore de Balzac was one of the first of these writers. He wrote stories with complicated characters that had detailed observations about the world around him.

Gustave Flaubert followed close behind. He defined the realist narration form that is still showing up in literature today. Soon the writing style jumped across the ocean and began to impact writers in America.

History of American Literary Realism

Honore de Balzac
By Jean Alfred Gérard-Séguin – Own work, Public Domain,

Realism soon took up root in American literary history, creating some of the most-studied American works. William Dean Howells took up the mantel of realism in America and became the first American realist author. His novels explored middle-class life in the late 1800s in America.

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, followed not long after. His book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which hit the shelves in 1884, was the first novel that captured the distinct voice and culture of the American South. 

Other Examples of American Literary Realism

When the works of Howells and Twain started to gain popularity, the literary style took root. Other popular authors and works include:

  • Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage explores life on the battlefield during the Civil War. 
  • John Steinbeck: This Nobel Prize-winning author wrote Grapes of Wrath, a novel that showed the truly horrifying nature of the Great Depression.
  • Upton Sinclair: Sinclair used his writing to call out the improper political and business practices of the meat-packing industry in his novel The Jungle. 
  • Edith Wharton: This American novel and short-story writer explored the upper-class lifestyle of the early 1900s.
  • Henry James: James wrote a number of famous American works, including The Turn of the Screw and The Portrait of a Lady

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Other Examples of Literary Realism in Literature 

Other European authors who wrote about real-life include:

  • George Eliot: This English novelist was actually the pen name for Mary Ann Evans, and she wrote seven novels about Victorian Europe, including Silas Marner and Middlemarch.
  • Charles Dickens: Social critic and English literature contributor, Dickens explored the plight of the poor and working-class people in books like Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities.
  • Emile Zola: This French novelist and playwright wrote Les Rougon-Macquart, which explored life in mid-1800s France.
  • Jane Austen: Jane Austen used her books to explore and critique the landed gentry of Britain in the late nineteenth century.

Characteristics Of Realist Writers And Realist Novels

Realist novels take place in the mid-1800s, just after the American Civil War, and into the early twentieth century. most novels follow the middle and lower classes, but some will explore upper-class themes. 

The main characteristic of these novels is the exploration of real life. They often critique social injustice or explore the culture of a particular area of the country. Realist authors explore everyday experiences, even those considered mundane, in an effort to explore what society is like at the time and do so as truthfully as possible.

Types of Literary Realism

Literary realism can include several subtypes of literature, including:

  • Social realism: Socialist realism focuses on the poor or working class, often making a social or political statement. These authors often hoped to create social change through their writing.
  • Magical realism: This form of literary realism adds magical elements to an otherwise normal world, in a way combining literary realism with fantasy writing.
  • Naturalism: Naturalistic realism is a form of realism influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution. This form of realism, common in Emile Zola’s writing, focuses on the belief that the scientific method can explain events in society and the environment. 
  • Psychological realism: This form of writing is driven by the characters of the story and their psychological motivations.

A Final Word About Literary Realism 

Not all stories have to be fanciful, exotic experiences. Sometimes, real life is just as interesting as imaginative prose. In American fiction writing, realism is a popular literary style.

Literary realism often explores social problems through fiction writing. Many writers created change through their writing as they exposed the problems of modern society, especially those facing middle and lower classes of society.

These novels remain popular today because of the way they capture everyday life and make it beautiful.

FAQs About Literary Realism

Who Are The Three Leading Figures Of American Literary Realism?

According to Washington State University, the top examples of literary realism in American literature were Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James. Each of these authors wrote stories with minimal symbolism but that accurately portrayed the reality of the time frame they were writing about.

Who started realism in literature?

Though there are many American authors who wrote with realism, the movement started with a French writer, Honore de Balzac.

This French novelist wrote with an unfiltered view of society and its ills. His writing set the foundation for the realism movement in literature, which eventually filtered into American novelists. 

Other sources attribute the rise of realism to Norwegian playwright Henrik Johan Ibsen. Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, which has become one of the most performed plays across the globe.

  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.