In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Realism and Naturalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies and Collected Essays
  • Periodicals and Resources
  • Authorship, Professionalism, and the Canon
  • The City and Urbanization
  • Darwinism, Science, and Technology
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Ethnicity, Nativism, and Immigration
  • Regionalism, Space, and Empire
  • 20th-Century Naturalism

American Literature Realism and Naturalism
John Dudley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0059


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.

General Overviews

In the wake of Parrington’s attempt to reconcile the rise of realism and naturalism with an essentially romantic tradition (Parrington 1930), interest in the rise of these movements has occurred in waves. In particular, efforts to provide large-scale summaries reflect the attention to social problems in 1960s, and the influence of—and reaction to—post-structuralism and cultural criticism in the 1980s. In all cases, however, comprehensive hypotheses about the nature of realism and naturalism remain grounded, to a large extent, in the political, economic, and cultural history of the late 19th century. Berthoff 1965, Pizer 1984, and Lehan 2005 represent attempts to accommodate the horizons established by Parrington’s definition of the study of literary form. Kaplan 1988, Borus 1989, and Bell 1993 each make valuable contributions to the new historicist reexamination of naturalism. Murphy 1987 offers one of the few comprehensive accounts of realism within dramatic literature.

  • Bell, Michael Davitt. The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

    Provides compelling readings of the canonical authors, suggesting little common ground beyond the fact that both realism and naturalism explicitly reject the conventional dictates of artistry and dominant notions of style. Unified in their attraction to “reality” as an abstraction, Howells, Twain, James, Norris, Crane, Dreiser, and Jewett each constructed radically unique responses to a common “revolt against style” (p. 115)

  • Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884–1919. New York: Free Press, 1965.

    Suggests that realism as a category may be best understood though an examination of practice, rather than through the study of principles or theories. In this light, establishes forceful reading of realist novels as varied statements of outrage and opposition to the increasing materialism, disorder, and perceived moral decay in the years leading up to World War I.

  • Borus, Daniel H. Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

    Draws on concerns of new historicism, yet emphasizes the process of literary publication and reception itself. Explores Howells, James, and Norris in detail, with some attention to other writers, including compelling discussions of the publishing industry, literary celebrity, and rise of the political novel.

  • Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

    Includes a concise summary of earlier critical debates about realism (including and subsuming naturalism) and describes the cultural work in novels of Howells, Wharton, and Dreiser to construct social spaces that contain and defuse class tensions emerging in the late 19th century. Among the more influential new historicist interventions.

  • Lehan, Richard Daniel. Realism and Naturalism: The Novel in an Age of Transition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.

    Resolutely formalist overview of realism and naturalism as literary modes. Describes the philosophical and cultural assumptions that helped shape these movements and traces their development throughout the 20th century. At times polemical in its dismissal of post-structuralist or materialist rereadings (see, for example, Kaplan 1988; Howard 1985 or Michaels 1987, both cited under Philosophy, History, and Form), nonetheless immensely useful and readable synthesis of key ideas.

  • Murphy, Brenda. American Realism and American Drama, 1880–1940. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    A treatment of realism in American theater, tracing the development of realist ideas about dramatic representation and their subsequent influence on American dramatists of the 20th century, including Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, and others. Addresses the scant attention paid to the theater in the scholarship on realism.

  • Parrington, Vernon Louis. The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860–1920. Vol. 3, Main Currents in American Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930.

    Though left incomplete at Parrington’s death, offers what would become the dominant view of realism and naturalism for much subsequent criticism. Sees these movements as antitheses of idealism represented by the Emersonian tradition, providing a needed corrective to “shoddy romanticism” that threatened to consume the American literary tradition.

  • Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Rev. ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

    Revision of essential 1966 work, offering a comprehensive formal theory of realism and naturalism, linked by adherence to an ethical idealism that informs, restructures, and complicates the diversity of themes and topics, the often bleak subject matter, and the presence of a deterministic worldview. Collects a variety of essays that construct a coherent portrait of the movements and their defining tensions.

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