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.

Works Cited

"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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