Listen to part of a lecture in a United States literature class. The professor is discussing realism.
OK everyone, in our last class we finished up Romanticism, right?
So now let's look at something completely different.
Realism as a literary technique was most popular in U.S. literature from around 1860 till 1890.
So it started pretty much around the time of the Civil War.
And I think you'll see right away how it's different from Romanticism, or any other kind of literature.
It has a very specific point that makes it unique, and that is that it shows people as they are, and gets you to look at them, and also, you know, the things that need to be changed in a society.
And it does it without being sentimental, not in that sort of overly emotional way, the way that Romantic literature can.
Realism tells it like it is.
Let's look at society as a whole.
In the late 1800s, people were interested in the scientific method, as well as rational philosophy—which, uh, says that people can discover the truth by using reason and factual analysis.
So, reason and facts, OK.
And at the same time that realism was becoming popular there were a lot of political and socioeconomic changes happening in the country.
There was, uh, increased literacy, plus the growth of industrialism and urbanization, growth in population from immigration, and a rise in middle-class affluence.
All these factors, combined with [hesitates] the importance of reason and facts, meant that readers were interested in really having a good understanding of all these uh,changes, the changes going on in society.
A scholar named Amy Kaplan says, and I'm just paraphrasing here, that realism is a way to understand and deal with social change.
Which makes a lot of sense, I think.
So, then, let's take a closer look at the tricks of the trade, at how realist writers did their work.
For one thing, as we said, they focus on— [somewhat sarcastic] big surprise—reality. And in great detail.
They aim for verisimilitude—should I write that on the board?
FEMALE STUDENTS & MALE STUDENTS
[ um-hms of confirmation in background] Umm.
OK.Verisimilitude means, basically, to seem true or real.
Like, say, a photograph, rather than a painting, in a way.
In fact, that's a good analogy.
You see, writers tried to capture a moment in time, and all its basic facts, but without exaggeration, just like a camera does.
Anyway, the events, the things that happen in realist literature, are usually pretty much plausible, I mean, you figure they could probably happen to anyone.
And the characters are believable too, and actually, they're usually even more important than the plot.
They're also uh... they talk the way that real people talk, authentic speaking styles from different regions... different parts of the country were captured in the text.
Does that make sense?...OK.
So, besides verisimilitude, another important characteristic of realism is the narrator's objectivity.
Characters and events are described without the narrator's passing much judgment on them or anything, or being too dramatic.
Basically, you're reading a story without too much extra comment from the narrator.
OK. Now, we have an idea of what realism was.
So, who were the players?
Well, two important realist novelists were Rebecca Harding Davis and Mark Twain.
We'll talk more about other realists tomorrow, but for today let's just start by looking briefly at these two.
Rebecca Harding Davis was an author and journalist who, like other realists, was concerned about all those social changes going on.
She wrote mainly about some marginalized groups of the time, like women, Native Americans, uh, immigrants.
Now, her best-known book is a novella called Life in the Iron Mills.
It's really a key text because it's one of the original realist works.
Her works overall have been pretty much ignored for a long time, but some critics and scholars are starting to revisit them and study them more seriously, probably more for the historical aspects of the works, and... and I think that's great.
But if we're talking about great literature, literature that's read and enjoyed today... as something more than just a way of looking at that era, the era when it was written, well, a favorite of mine is Mark Twain.
I'm sure you've read or heard of his most famous book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
And Twain's style... it goes back to what I said earlier, verisimilitude, the realistic way characters act and talk.
You should realize too that this was quite a contrast to earlier writers in the U.S. who tried to emulate British writers, tried to be very elegant—at the expense of realism.
Y'know, a lot of critics will tell you that American literature began with that book—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.