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Introduction: American literary realism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Phillip J. Barrish
Affiliation:
University of Texas, Austin
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Summary

Heated debates about realism and art often take place outside of university classrooms. After watching a movie, for example, we may find ourselves questioning – perhaps even arguing over – how “realistic” the movie seemed. We praise certain films for how closely they appear to reflect actual, off-screen life, even if the “real life” they depict is quite distant from our own experiences. Other movies we reject for their implausible plot twists, over-the-top acting, contrived dialogue, or clumsy special effects. Sometimes we don’t mind admitting that a movie isn’t realistic and defend it on other grounds, perhaps for its beauty, romance, suspense, or humor. Regardless, evaluating a work’s realism (or lack of realism) has become close to second nature for most movie viewers today, maybe because the only expertise it seems to require is something we all possess: the ability to observe the world around us.

Has it always been second nature for people to comment on how close to actual experience a work of narrative art seems? Aspects of realism as a literary mode, of course, can be traced at least as far back in Western literature as Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, where Olympian gods with supernatural powers coexist with graphic depictions of battlefield mayhem that still ring true. The Iliad also includes notably detailed accounts of rituals, weaponry, and some aspects of daily life among the Greek army. Similarly, many of Shakespeare’s characterizations have long been praised for their likeness to life. The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism focuses on the surprisingly recent moment in American literary history, however, when realism – as opposed, for example, to universal Truth – came to be regarded as a paramount value in fictional narratives: something to be striven for by fiction writers, celebrated or criticized by reviewers, and judged by readers. Over the course of this book we will explore the historical causes underlying literary realism’s rise to prominence in the United States. We will also examine the different, and often contradictory, forms realism took in literary works by different authors; technical and stylistic questions involving how fiction writers actually go about creating what theorist Roland Barthes has called “the reality effect” (Rustle of Language 141); the philosophical issue of what relationship, if any, exists between realism produced on the page and reality outside the book; and, finally, literary realism’s relationship with powerful, often violent conflicts in late-nineteenth-century America involving race, gender, social class, national origin, and geographic region, among other factors. As we will see, American realism’s intense engagement with its social and cultural context has always been integral to its power as literature.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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