Influence of Realism on Literature



After World War I, American people and the authors among them

were left disillusioned by the effects that war had on their society.

America needed a literature that would explain what had happened and

what was happening to their society. American writers turned to what

is now known as modernism. The influence of 19th Century realism and

naturalism and their truthful representation of American life and

people was evident in post World War I modernism. This paper will try

to prove this by presenting the basic ideas and of these literary

genres, literary examples of each, and then make connections between

the two literary movements. Realism Modernism not only depicted

American society after World War I accurately and unbiasedly, but also

tried to find the solutions brought upon by the suffering created by

the war (Elliott 705).

The realistic movement of the late 19th century saw authors

accurately depict life and it?s problems. Realists attempted to ?give

a comprehensive picture of modern life? (Elliott 502) by presenting

the entire picture. They did not try to give one view of life but

instead attempted to show the different classes, manners, and

stratification of life in America. Realists created this picture of

America by combining a wide variety of ?details derived from

observation and documentation...? to ?approach the norm of

experience...? (3). Along with this technique, realists compared the

?objective or absolute existence? in America to that of the ?universal

truths, or observed facts of life? (Harvey 12). In other words,

realists objectively looked at American society and pointed out the

aspects that it had in common with the general truths of existence.

This realistic movement evolved as a result of many changes

and transitions in American culture. In the late 1800?s, the United

States was experiencing ?swift growth and change? as a result of a

changing economy, society, and culture because of an influx in the

number of immigrants into America. Realists such as Henry James and

William Dean Howells, two of the most prolific writers of the

Nineteenth-century, used typical realistic methods to create an

accurate depiction of changing American life. William Dean Howells,

while opposing idealization, made his ?comic criticisms of society?

(Bradley 114) by comparing American culture with those of other

countries. In his ?comic? writings, Howells criticized American

morality and ethics but still managed to accurately portray life as it

happened. He attacked and attempted to resolve ?the moral

difficulties of society by this rapid change.? (Elliott 505). He

believed that novels should ?should present life as it is, not as it

might be? (American Literature Compton?s). In the process of doing

this, Howells demonstrated how life shaped the characters of his

novels and their own motives and inspirations. By concentrating on

these characters? strengths as opposed to a strong plot, he

thematically wrote of how life was more good than evil and, in return,

wanted his literature to inspire more good. On the other hand, Henry

James judged the world from a perspective ?...offered by society and

history...? (704). He also separated himself from America to create an

unbiased view of it as a ?spectator and analyst rather than recorder?

(Spiller 169) of the American social structure. He wrote from a

perspective that allowed him to contrast American society with that of

Europe by contrasting the peoples? ideas. By contrasting social

values and personal though about America in America, he presented to

the people the differing motivational factors that stimulated the

different social classes (Bradley 1143). Overall, these writers

managed to very formally portray America as it was while adding their

own criticisms about it in an attempt to stimulate change.

The naturalist movement slowly developed with most of the same

ideals as those of the realists in that it attempted to find life?s

truths. In contrast, Naturalists, extreme realists, saw the corrupt

side of life and how environment ?deprived individuals of

responsibility? (Elliott 514). Literary naturalism invited writers to

examine human beings objectively, as a ?scientist studies nature?

(?Am. Lit.? Compton?s). In portraying ugliness and cruelty, the

authors refrained from preaching about them; rather they left readers

to draw their own conclusions about the life they presented.

Generally, these authors took a pessimistic view to portray a life

that centered on the negative part of man?s existence. When dealing

with society directly, naturalists generally detailed the destruction

of people without any sentiment.