Realism Essay Question

American Realism

American Realism was a late nineteenth-century literary movement that began as a reaction against romanticism and the sentimental tradition associated primarily with women writers. Chief among the authors writing in this genre were William Dean Howells, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, and Stephen Crane. Although the realist aesthetic influenced European as well as American literature, the American tradition emerged somewhat later in the century and employed slightly different conventions than its continental counterpart. American Realism was most commonly a feature of narrative fiction, although authors occasionally applied its themes and literary techniques to poetry and drama as well. Further, the critical debate surrounding the proper definition and literary validity of realism spawned a considerable number of essays—often by the same authors who were writing realistic novels and short stories—in the literary journals of the day.

To many writers and critics of the late nineteenth century, realism was synonymous with the works of the French novelist Emile Zola, whose works emphasized sexuality, immorality, and the lives of the lower classes. America, still under the influence of Puritanism, resisted such themes as inappropriate for literature and continued to cling to the optimism and idealism associated with the romantic movement. The pessimism that followed European industrialism and the population shift from country to city arrived in America more slowly, perhaps as late as the 1880s, although some scholars insist that the realist movement actually began shortly after the Civil War. Warner Berthoff (1965) has made a case for the former, claiming that “[the] great collective event in American letters during the 1880s and 1890s was the securing of ‘realism’ as the dominant standard of value.” Jane Benardete (1972) has chosen a slightly earlier date, claiming that realism “flourished in the last three decades of the [nineteenth] century,” and the majority of literary historians tend to agree with her.

As Berthoff's quotation marks around the term “realism” suggest, the definition of what he calls a “dominant standard” varies, and the works that are included under its umbrella are diverse in both form and theme. For Berthoff, realism is committed to “capturing the special immediate air of American reality in the familiar American dialect.” However, he does question whether realism was “anything more than a name, a borrowed label which happened to come so strongly into fashion … that no one could avoid deferring to it.” For Benardete, realism is “the record of life, the real, the true,” although she has conceded that her definition “only opens new difficulties.” Donald Pizer (1984) has modified a commonly accepted definition of realism based on three criteria—verisimilitude, representativeness, and objectivity—to include a much wider range of human experience than is normally considered typical or representative, and to include the humanistic colorings of “ethical idealism” or “pragmatic realism.”

For some, it is easier to define realism in terms of what it is not—which is primarily romanticism. After the Civil War, American authors and scholars turned against the irrationality and vanity of contemporary literature. According to Benardete, some even blamed the conventions of romanticism—idealism, chivalry, heroism, absolute moral stances—for fostering a national vision which inevitably led to war, causing Americans “to fight when they might have negotiated, to seek empty glory though it cost them their lives.” Alfred Habegger (1982) has suggested that realism was more specifically opposed to women's fiction, to which it “bore in part an adversary or corrective relation.” Women's fiction presented idealized models of marriage and female roles; realism offered “detailed verisimilitude, close social notation, analysis of motives, and unhappy endings [which] were all part of a strategy of argument, an adversary polemic.”

Many authors and critics, including those involved in the contemporary debate, have asserted that realist literature must fulfill a social function or a moral purpose in an age and in a country where no official religion or state church existed to guide citizens on moral and ethical issues. The era's increasing levels of class division and labor unrest prompted some authors, such as Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1887), to offer possibilities for change in the form of “utopian realism.” David E. Shi (1995) has explained the apparent contradiction: “Although usually considered pure fantasies, most of the era's utopian novels reflected the impact of literary realism and the reform impulse. In their efforts to use an ideal future to shed light on the evils and excesses of the present, utopian authors, most of whom were practicing journalists, included meticulously detailed descriptions of current social conditions.” Other journalists, popularly known as “muckrakers,” reported on the human cost of industrialization and urbanization in fact-based non-fictional works. The most famous of these was Jacob Riis, whose 1890 collection of stories and photographs, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, became one of the most influential books of the late nineteenth century. According to Shi, Riis's attempt to make the suffering of the poor of the Lower East Side visible to the middle and upper classes “remains a classic example of the genre, and his career epitomizes the fact-worshiping strand of reformist realism.” If Riis served as the spokesman for the urban poor, Hamlin Garland was his counterpart in the countryside. His collections of stories published in the early 1890s exposed the plight of the rural poor on Midwestern farms, creating a sub-genre known as prairie realism.

Closely associated with prairie realism was the local color literary movement, which emphasized specific, detailed descriptions of actual places and reproduced regional dialects in the characters' dialogue. Scholars have been divided on whether local color literature qualifies as part of the realist tradition given that it does not necessarily address contemporary social and ethical issues; nevertheless, many critics have included local color as a subset of realism based on its utilization of similar literary techniques. For his part, Berthoff has maintained that a major element of American Realism is “a haunting sense of loss, as at some irreversible falling away from a golden time,” and claims that local color literature is most especially associated with this loss. Josephine Donovan (1983) has argued that women's local color literature can be firmly situated within the anti-romantic tradition of women's realism, which sought to represent the actual conditions of women's lives, no matter how grim. Habegger, however, has claimed that while realism and local color “were born together and remained in close touch … the difference—local color's adherence to old times rather than the passing scene—cannot be too much emphasized.” Habegger insists that local color should be treated as a separate aesthetic since it fails to deal with contemporary realities.

Commentators have generally maintained that William Dean Howells and Henry James were the foremost practitioners of American Realism, although many have included Mark Twain as part of the “great authorial triumvirate” of the realist movement, as Benardete has put it. An advocate for realism in his fictional works and as editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly, Howells equated romanticism with the Old World aristocracy and therefore considered realism to be the appropriate aesthetic for the emerging institution of American literature. Further, he believed that American Realism should concentrate on common life experiences which could instruct and inform readers rather than on the gross, immoral subject matter and pessimistic tone of European Realist literature. Howells's works include A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). James was perhaps the most technically refined novelist and short story writer of the American Realist movement. He has been admired by many scholars as a true student of the craft, creating highly sophisticated narratives and inventing psychologically complex characters. For James, an artist did not need to gather information and employ factual events and situations to produce realistic literature; rather, an artist only needed to rely on the limitless imagination to recreate realistic characters, scenes, and circumstances. Some of James's most significant contributions to realism were The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and What Maisie Knew (1897). Twain had been widely regarded as the most celebrated late nineteenth-century American author to contribute to the realist movement. While some critics have taken exception to including Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) within the opus of American Realism, others have pointed out that this tour de force addresses many of the same nineteenth-century social and ethical issues as other realist writers but with less pessimism and more of Twain's trademark caustic humor and acerbic wit.

SOURCE: Bates, H. E. The Modern Short Story: A Critical Survey, pp. 72-121. Boston: The Writer, Inc. Publishers, 1941.

[In the following excerpt, Bates provides an overview of nineteenth-century European realist short fiction writers Anton Chekhov (here spelled Tchehov), Guy de Maupassant, and Leo Tolstoy.]


In nineteenth-century America the short story took a series of halting steps forward, its performance rather resembling that of a child learning to walk. If at times it walked badly it could at least be said to be walking by itself; if it did not walk far it could also be said that vast continents are not explored in a day. It needs little perception to note the main defects of the American short story from Poe to Crane. It was often raw, facile, journalistic, prosy, cheap; it was unexperimental, and, except in rare instances, unpoetical. It was all these things, and much more; so that beside the European (not English) short story of the same day it appears to suffer from one huge and common defect. It lacked culture.

In Europe, on the other hand, culture rose readily and naturally to the top of artistic life like so much cream. By contrast with the saloon-bar back-cloths of Bret Harte, the Bowery of Crane, the embittered etchings of Bierce, the literary life and output of Europe appeared richly civilized, smooth, and settled. In France Flaubert could spend years polishing and perfecting the periods of Madame Bovary; in Russia Turgenev and Tolstoy were bringing the art of the novel to the state where it was becoming what has been called “the great means of cosmopolitan culture”; these writers worked in, depicted, and appealed to a more or less settled civilization, with more or less fixed boundaries. In America the writers of the day appear to suffer from a certain common, and quite natural, bewilderment; half their continent is undeveloped, much unexplored; they have not found their feet, and they give the natural impression of needing not only a pen but a compass in their hands. The literature of that America is amateurish, unorganized, still in its working clothes; that of Europe is civilized, centralized, well dressed.

Under these circumstances it would be strange if Europe had not something to offer, in the short-story as well as in literature generally, that America did not and could not possess. It would be surprising indeed if it had not produced at least one short-story writer greater than Poe or O. Henry. It did in fact produce several; but from many distinguished names two stand out as the pillars of the entire structure of the modern short story: Guy de Maupassant, born in 1850, and Anton Pavlovitch Tchehov, born ten years later.

During recent years it has become the fashion to divide both exponents and devotees of the short story into two camps, Maupassant fans on the one side, Tchehovites on the other. On the one side we are asked to contemplate the decisive virtues of the clear, acid, realistic straightforwardness of the French mind, which tells a story with masterly simplicity and naturalism, producing such masterpieces as “Boule de Suif” on the other hand we are asked to marvel at the workings of a mind which saw life as it were obliquely, unobtrusively, touching it almost by remote control, telling its stories by an apparently aimless arrangement of casual incidents and producing such masterpieces as “The Darling.” From one side emerges a certain derision for the peasant vulgarity of the man who was preoccupied with the fundamental passions; from the other comes the tired sneer for the man in whose stories nothing ever happens except conversations, the drinking of tea and vodka, and an infinite number of boring resolutions about the soul and work that never gets done. To some, Maupassant's stories leave a nasty taste in the mouth; to others Tchehov's are unintelligible. To some the Maupassant method of story-telling is the method par excellence; to others there is nothing like Tchehov. This sort of faction even found an exponent in Mr. Somerset Maugham, who devoted a large part of a preface to extolling Maupassant at the expense of Tchehov, for no other reason apparently than that he had found in Maupassant a more natural model and master.

Odd as it may seem to the adherent of these two schools, there are many readers, as well as writers, by whom Tchehov and Maupassant are held in equal affection and esteem. Among these I like to number myself. I confess I cannot decide and never have been able to decide whether “Boule de Suif” or “The Steppe” is the finer story; whether “Mademoiselle Fifi” is superior to “The Party”; whether “Maison Tellier” is greater than “Ward No. 6.” In admiring them all I have learned from them almost equally. For me Tchehov has had many lessons; but it is significant to note that I learned none of them until I had learned others from Maupassant. I recall a period when both were held for hours under the microscope; and in consequence I have never had any sympathy with the mind that is enthusiastic for one but impatient of the other. Much of their achievement and life bears an astonishing similarity; the force of their influence, almost equally powerful, has extended farther than that of any other two short-story writers in the world. Both were popular in their lifetime; both were held in sedate horror by what are known as decent people. Tchehov, they said, would die in a ditch, and it is notable that Maupassant still holds a lurid attraction for the ill-balanced.

The differences of Tchehov and Maupassant have therefore, I think, been over-laboured, and in no point so much as that of technique. Their real point of difference is indeed fundamental, and arises directly not from what they did, but from what they were. For in the final analysis it is not the writer that is important, but the man; not the technician but the character. Technical competence, even what appears to be revolutionary technical competence, can be, and in fact always is, in some way acquired; and since writing is an artificial process there is no such thing as a “born writer.” The technician responds to analysis, to certain tests of the critical laboratory. The personality behind the technician, imposing itself upon the shaping of every technical gesture and yet itself elusive of analysis, is the thing for which there exists no abiding or common formula. There is no sort of prescription which, however remorselessly followed, will produce a preconceived personality.

Thus Tchehov and Maupassant, so alike in many things, are fundamentally worlds apart. Almost each point of similarity, indeed, throws into relief a corresponding point of difference. Both, for example, sprang from peasant stock; both excelled in the delineation of peasant types. But whereas Maupassant's peasants give the repeated impression of being an avaricious, hard, logical, meanly passionate, and highly suspicious race, Tchehov's give the impression of good-humoured laziness, dreamy ignorance, kindliness, of being the victims of fatalism, of not knowing quite what life is all about. Again, one of their favourite themes was the crushing or exploitation of a kindly, innocent man by a woman of strong and remorseless personality; in Maupassant the woman would be relentlessly drawn, sharp and heartless as glass; in Tchehov the woman would be seen indirectly through the eyes of a secondary, softer personality, perhaps the man himself. Similarly both liked to portray a certain type of weak, stupid, thoughtless woman, a sort of yes-woman who can unwittingly impose tragedy or happiness on others. Maupassant had no patience with the type; but in Olenka, in “The Darling,” it is precisely a quality of tender patience, the judgment of the heart and not the head, that gives Tchehov's story its effect of uncommon understanding and radiance. Both writers knew a very wide world teeming with a vast number of types: not only peasants but aristocrats, artisans, school teachers, government clerks, prostitutes, ladies of the bored middle-class, waiters, doctors, lovers, priests, murderers, children, thieves, the very poor and the very ignorant, artists, the very rich and the very ignorant, students, business men, lawyers, adolescents, the very old, and so on. Their clientele was enormous; yet the attitude of Maupassant towards that clientele gives the impression, constantly, of being that of a lawyer; his interest and sympathy are detached, cold, objectively directed; the impression is often that, in spite of his energy and carefully simulated interest, he is really wondering if there is not something he can get out of it. Is the woman frail? Has the man money? It is not uncommon for Maupassant to laugh at his people, or to give the impression of despising them, both effects being slightly repellent. “What they are doing,” he seems to say, “is entirely their own responsibility. I only present them as they are.” Tchehov, on the other hand, without closely identifying himself with his characters, sometimes in an unobtrusive way assumes responsibility. His is by no means the attitude of the lawyer, but of the doctor—very naturally, since his first profession was medicine—holding the patient's hand by the bedside. His receptivity, his capacity for compassion, are both enormous. Of his characters he seems to say, “I know what they are doing is their own responsibility. But how did they come to this, how did it happen? There may be some trivial thing that will explain.” That triviality, discovered, held for a moment in the light, is the key to Tchehov's emotional solution. In Maupassant's case the importance of that key would have been inexorably driven home; but as we turn to ask of Tchehov if we have caught his meaning aright it is to discover that we must answer that question for ourselves—for Tchehov has gone.

Inquisitiveness, the tireless exercise of a sublime curiosity about human affairs, is one of the foremost essentials of the writer. It is a gift which both Maupassant and Tchehov possessed in abundance. But both possessed, in a very fine degree, a second dominant quality, a sort of corrective, which may be defined as a refined sense of impatience. One of the directest results of inquisitiveness is garrulity; perhaps the worst of society's minor parasites are not nosey-parkers, but those who will not stop talking. We are all gossips by nature; it is an excellent gift to know when to hold the tongue. Too few writers have a sense of personal impatience with their own voice, but it was a sixth sense to Maupassant and Tchehov, as it is in some degree to every short-story writer of importance at all. Both knew to perfection when they had said enough; an acute instinct continually reminded them of the fatal tedium of explanation, of going on a second too long. In Tchehov this sense of impatience, almost a fear, caused him frequently to stop speaking, as it were, in mid-air. It was this which gave his stories an air of remaining unfinished, of leaving the reader to his own explanations, of imposing on each story's end a note of suspense so abrupt and yet refined that it produced on the reader an effect of delayed shock.

It is very unlikely, of course, that Tchehov was wholly unaware of this gift, or that he did not use it consciously. Yet if writers are only partly conscious of the means by which they create their effects, as it seems fairly obvious they are, then what appears to be one of Tchehov's supreme technical gifts may only be the natural manifestation of something in the man. From his letters you get the impression that Tchehov was a man of the highest intelligence, personal charm, and sensibility, a man who was extremely wise and patient with the failings of others, but who above all hated the thought of boring others by the imposition of his own personality. Most of his life he was a sick man, deprived for long intervals of the intellectual stimulus and gaiety he loved so much, yet he never gives an impression of self-pity but rather of self-effacement. He was beautifully modest about himself, and “during the last six years of his life—growing weaker in body and stronger in spirit—taking a marvellously simple, wise and beautiful attitude to his bodily dissolution, because ‘God has put a bacillus into me.’”1 Contrast that quality with the story of Maupassant who, at the height of his success, used ostentatiously to bank his large weekly cheque at a certain provincial bank, holding it so that those at his elbow might not miss the size of the amount.

Tchehov's charm, the light balance of his mind, and his natural gift of corrective impatience were bound to be reflected in the style he used, and it is impossible to imagine Tchehov writing in that heavy, indigestible, cold-pork fashion so characteristic of much English fiction of his own day. In describing the countryside, the scenery, the weather, for example, Tchehov again exhibits a natural impatience with the obvious prevailing mode of scenic description; in his letters he shows this to be a conscious impatience, and condemns what he calls anthropomorphism: “the frequent personification … when the sea breathes, the sky gazes, the steppe barks, Nature whispers, speaks, mourns and so on … Beauty and expressiveness in Nature are attained only by simplicity, by some such simple phrase as ‘The sun set,’ ‘It was dark,’ ‘It began to rain’ and so on,”2 To Maupassant the necessity of creating effects by the use of the most natural simplicity must also have been obvious. In that sense, perhaps more than any other, Maupassant and Tchehov are much alike. Both are masters in what might be called the art of distillation, of compressing into the fewest, clearest possible syllables the spirit and essence of a scene. Both were capable in a very fine degree of a highly sensuous reaction to place. Both, more important still, were capable of transmitting it to the page:

The tall grass, among which the yellow dandelions rose up like streaks of yellow light, was of a vivid fresh spring green.

Beyond the poplar stretches of wheat extended like a bright yellow carpet from the road to the top of the hills.

Of these two descriptions, so simple and yet so vivid pictorially and atmospherically, each creating its effect in the same number of words, it would be hard to say at random which was Tchehov and which Maupassant: the effect in both is beautifully and swiftly transmitted; no fuss, no grandiose staying of the scene, no elaborate signalling that the reader is about to be the victim of a description of nature. The words are like clear, warm, delicate paint.

Contrast their effect with what Mr. E. M. Forster has called “Scott's laborious mountains and carefully scooped out glens and carefully ruined abbeys,”3 or with Hardy, who was writing side by side with Maupassant and Tchehov, as he struggles for six pages to convey the gloomy impression of Egdon Heath:

It was a spot which returned upon the memory of those who loved it with an aspect of peculiar and kindly congruity. Smiling champaigns of flowers and fruit hardly do this, for they are permanently harmonious only with the existence of better reputation as to its issues than the present.

What are we listening to?—for it is clear at once that we are listening and not looking—a guide-book? a sermon? a windy report? Hardy is not painting a picture, but is talking about what he sincerely believes to be a description of a picture. His failure is highly pompous, entirely uninstructive, and unconsciously amusing. It is not even the failure of a man trying to paint a small canvas with a whitewash brush; it is the failure of a man trying to paint a picture with a dictionary.

Neither Maupassant nor Tchehov was ever guilty of this mistake; neither was a dictionary man. From both one gets the impression that they might never have kept such a thing as a dictionary in the house. The style of both conforms consistently to a beautiful standard of simplicity—direct, apparently artless, sometimes almost child-like, but never superficial. In Maupassant it is a simplicity that is brittle, swift, logical, brilliant, and hard as a gem; in Tchehov it is clear, casual, conversational, sketchy, and delicate as lace. Both, however, were capable of genuine elaboration, as and when the theme demanded it, so that both are masters in a wide range not only of subjects, moods, and pictures, but of forms also. In such stories as “The Steppe,” “Ward No. 6,” “The Black Monk,” “Yvette,” “The Story of a Farm Girl,” and so on, they are masters of the longer story; at the same time both brought to the very short sketch, the significant impressionistic trifle of a few pages, an artistry it had never known.

It is indisputable that both were great writers, but if we look for a common and insistent characteristic, or lack of one, which sets them apart from English writers of their own time, we are faced with the fact that they were not gentlemen. In further discussing Scott, Mr. Forster makes the point that he lacks passion and “only has a temperate heart and gentlemanly feelings.” But if there is one thing that Maupassant and Tchehov possess, though in highly contrasting forms, it is passion; and if there was one condition which neither imposed on his work it was gentlemanly feelings. To the English novel a certain moral attitude, or at very least the recognition of the governing force of morality, has always seemed indispensable. One of its most luscious crops is that of the bitter fruits of sin. Not until Samuel Butler turned up, with The Way of All Flesh, had any writer of the nineteenth century the courage to suggest that the fruits of sin are more often than not quite pleasant enough. Neither Maupassant nor Tchehov had much truck with sin; both declined to entangle themselves or their characters in the coils of an artificial and contemporary morality; both set down life and people as nearly as possible as they saw them, pure or sinful, pleasant or revolting, admirable or vicious, feeling that that process needed neither explanation nor apology. To the old, old criticism that such a process produced a literature that was disgusting Tchehov rightly and properly replied, “No literature can outdo real life in its cynicism”; and went on:

To a chemist nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist, he must lay aside his personal subjective standpoint and must understand that muck-heaps play a very respectable part in the...

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