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