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Conclusion: realisms after realism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Phillip J. Barrish
University of Texas, Austin
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This book has focused on the period during which realism rose to eminence as the cutting edge of literary innovation in the United States and enjoyed arguably its high point of critical prestige and creative productivity: from about 1865, when the American Civil War ended, to about 1914, when the First World War began. Realism has continued to play a major role in American fiction since then as well. Even in recent decades, several of the United States’ most successful writers of literary fiction have chosen to work primarily in the modes of realism, regionalism, and naturalism (including intersections and overlaps among these) first developed in America by writers this book has discussed. A short list – which might easily be expanded – of recent and contemporary fiction authors who write mostly in such modes would include (in no particular order): John Updike, Eudora Welty, Barbara Kingsolver, Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Russell Banks, Junot Diaz, and, especially in her early novels, Nobel-prize winner Toni Morrison.

In the years following the First World War, however, realism as a genre began to lose the high-culture luster that it had earlier accrued through, for instance, its association with such prestigious nineteenth-century publishing institutions as the Atlantic Monthly. Realism’s status as a prominent object of controversy in the pages of elite magazines, especially during the 1880s, the decade of the “war” fought between realism’s advocates and critics who rejected it as vulgar and mundane, had significantly contributed to its public recognition as an “advanced” form of literature even by those who disliked it. The years during and after the First World War, however, brought forth new fiction by young American and European writers – much of it first published in avant-garde “little magazines” devoted to Art with a capital A (including the Chap-Book, Poetry, and the Dial) – that struck reviewers and critics, many of them associated with universities, not only as more daring in content but also as far more radically innovative in form than earlier styles of realism that, by the 1920s, seemed commonplace (Glazener, Reading for Realism 237). Indeed, for many writers of this period whom we now classify as “modernist,” the realism that had emerged into visibility on the American literary scene during the latter decades of the nineteenth century signified a worn-out tradition, one they lumped with other middle-class bourgeois conventions it was past time to jettison – including, for instance, traditional religious observances, hypocritical attitudes toward sexuality, and a naïve belief in the progress of Western civilization. All of these, to literary modernists, papered over what was actually most primal and authentic about human experience. This new generation rejected what they saw as artificial systems of meaning, including both the false sense of order that traditional realism seemed to impose on the flux and chaos of individual experience, especially in a fragmented modern world, and the legitimacy that such realism, in their view, too often accorded to hollow social conventions. Modernists wished to re-conceive art – in the words of poet Ezra Pound to “make it new!” – and in so doing to revitalize both individuals and society.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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