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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. To do this, they wrote more open

about society s problems in a more open manner usually using nature as

a symbol for society. Naturalistic literature, like realistic,

served as a catalyst for change but, in contrast, was a little more

like propaganda.

Even though only twenty years may have separated them, the

transformation from realism/naturalism to modernism was a long one in

terms of how much society had changed. The aforementioned rapid

change in American society and America s relation with the rest of the

world left America in disarray. After the first World War, American

society was divided and left without definition. This called for a

new age of literary expression to control and document the

isolationist fears , corruption , and disenchantment (Bradley

1339-1340) caused by the war. Authors looked to explain their

generation and to respond to the social and moral confusions (1340).

The World War broke down America s fundamental institutions by

dehumanizing the people that provided their strong foundations (1339).

War diminished the individual identity and the society as a whole.

The human personality was dwarfed as much by the …dehumanizing

magnitude of modern events… as by natural laws that con!

trolled man to their own destiny.

Authors after World War I created a new literature of

enduring merit…that shattered conventional taboos in their

expression of physical and psychological actuality. (Bradley 1339)

This was the beginning of modernism. Modernism, although strongly

influenced by realism and often referred to as an extension of

naturalistic values, was the answer to America s new-found problems.

Modernism promoted and combined the scientific aspects of naturalism

along with a psychological examination of the individual and the

culture. By being so experimental (1340) and intense(1337), modernism

was able to unite America after a period of crisis. Modernism

centered on explorations into the spiritual nature of men and the

value of his society and institutions. (1337) Like realism,

modernists focused on changes on society (Elliott 699) and used

symbolism, although in this case spiritual, to draw their fiction

(Bradley 1340). Modernist writers, like most Americans, were amazed

at the destructive power of war on the common man.

Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F.

Scott Fitzgerald spearheaded the modernistic renaissance by employing

realistic and naturalistic techniques. Hemingway s The Sun Also Rises

details the principle of an alienation from society that had been

forced upon by the circumstances of the time (Spiller 271). In this

case, it describes a young boy alienated from society because of his

involvement in World War I, the …loss of faith and hope… , and

…collapse of former values… that occurs (Hart 284). His

earlier works can sometimes be described as containing characteristic

influences of naturalism (Bradley 1339). This can be reflected in

his presentation of the strict relations between environment and

fate… (1339). Later in his career, Hemingway once again took the

alienation from society route. This time, in the spirit of realist

Henry James, he separates himself from American society to better

judge it. With his novel The Rolling Hills of Africa, Hemingway

compares American culture to that of another. At times, Hemingway

…began to seem like a little more than a modern realist…

(Spiller Lit His 1300).

William Faulkner, producer of some of the most important books

of the twentieth-century, also draws the connection between

environment and fate strongly. He combines naturalism and

primitivism, a literary technique involving clear imagery, to create a

sometimes confusing and complex detailed reading that involves

…people of all sorts wealthy and poor, evil and good, slave and

free come into sharp focus in his writing. ( Faulkner Compton s)

This idea, much like that of realist James, provides the reader with

the whole picture of society.

The novels and short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald are famous

for portraying the “lost generation” of the post-World War I era.

Faulkner’s moral values were social rather than personal

( Fitzgerald Compton s). He believes that his writing should address

the problems that society has and the problems that he has with

society. Faulkner’s prose is ornate and complex. His sentences are

long and complicated, and many nouns and adjectives are used.

Hemingway’s style is quite the opposite. His sentences are short and

pointed, and adjectives are used sparingly. The effect is one of great

power and compression. By compressing his literary ideas in his

writing, he makes his literature easily understood and direct to his


Many connections can be made between the literature of the

late 19th century realism and naturalism and that of post-World War I

modernism. First and most importantly of all, modernists, like

realists and naturalists, attacked society s problems by using

symbolism to make their own judgments of the basic foundations of

American life. Modernists, such as Ernest Hemingway, looked at

American society and compared to that of other cultures of the world.

This technique had been extensively employed by such realists as

Henry James. Modernism used the naturalist method of scientifically

exploring the individual and the society. Stylistically, modernists,

with the exception of Hemingway, wrote in a very formal, defined form.

Modernists and realists both attacked the moral dilemmas in society.

The only difference was that these dilemmas were different.

While that realists attempted to give a comprehensive picture

of modern life… (502), modernists wished express the whole

experience of modern life. (Elliott 598). These authors of the

realistic and modernistic period had the same goals so naturally they

wrote using the same ideas, methods, and principles. Realists focused

on different literary aspects to detail how American culture was

effected by these changes. They detailed characters shaped by society

and tried to convey the good and evil aspects of life. Mirroring this

technique, modernists portrayed people alienated and rejected from

society because of the effects of the first World War. Both focused

on detailing problems facing their characters, externally and

internally, while not focusing on plot development. Thematically,

both groups of authors conveyed the good and bad aspects of a

changing American society. Both rallied for change and both asked for

the unification of society, but both still lingered more on the

presence of corruption in America.

The only thing that separated the two movements was the

societies around them. While both societies were experiencing major

change quickly, they were so different. The two literatures had to be

distinguished not because of their content and character, which was

for the most part the same, but instead because of the differing

conditions that existed around the literature. Even though both

wanted to accurately depict life, they were written in two very

distinct times in American history. In one, American culture was

expanding and adapting. In the other, life was being oppressed by the

dehumanizing agents of warfare on a large scale. As we know, culture

influences literature. Even though these two literary movements may

have only been separated by about twenty years, in these twenty years,

focus shifted from the interior of American society to how American

society was effected by a conflict created as a result of opposing

cultures. This idea of differing cultures produc!

ing differing literatures provides the basis for the differences in

the movements.

Modernism after World War I was influenced by the

realistic/naturalistic movement of the late Nineteenth century. The

literary goals, techniques, and principles of the modernists and

realists/naturalists were the same. Both wanted to paint an unbiased,

accurate picture of society by confronting the problems of the

individual and of the society. To do this, most of the time they

resorted to the same techniques. They created literature that

combined scientific reasoning, unidealistic views, and physical and

psychological examination that painted a portrait of society that

could be used to help American society adjust, define, and heal.

Realists of the late Nineteenth century and modernists of the 1920 s

wrote alike but were divided on the basis that their respective

societies were so different.

American Literature . Compton s Interactive Encyclopedia (Computer

Program) 1995 Bradley, Sculley. The American Tradition in Literature.

New York City: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1967: 1336-1342

Elliott, Emory. Columbia Literary History of the United States. New

York City:Columbia University Press:1988, 502-504, 599

Faulkner, William . Compton s Interactive Encyclopedia (Computer

Program) 1995

“Fitzgerald, Scott F.”. Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia (Computer

Program) 1995 Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American

Literature. New York City:Oxford University Press, 1995: 284-285

Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois

University Press, 1966: 3, 10-11

Spiller, Robert E. The Cycle of American Literature. New York City:

The MacMillan Company, 1966: 269-303

Spiller, Robert E. et al. Literary History of the United States. New

York City: The MacMillan Publishing Company, 1974: 1300

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