Realism: a literary Movement and Its Effects on Modern Writing

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Realism: A Literary Movement and Its Effects on Modern Writing

Kayla Cirak

South Newton High School


This paper explores many articles definition of Realism in American Literature. What caused this literary movement and also the length of time it lived is also discussed. All articles agree on the time period of 1865 to 1890 but they differ on what caused its creation. The role Realism plays in modern literature in the United States and the rest of the world are discussed below. This paper also shows how Realism relates to the everyday life. According to Campbell Realism is a technique widely used in many different schools of writing.

Keywords: Realism, literary movement, American Literature

Realism: A Literary Movement and Its Effects on Modern Writing

In the history of American literature, readers have seen many movements and techniques, but one that contains many well-known authors and works is Realism. American Realism not only affected the writings created during its time but continue to show effects now. Realism and the literary movements that helped shape it have affected the way we write today, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

Realism showed the first accurate portrayal of life in literature. According to Campbell, it is “the faithful representation of reality” (Campbell, 2013). Before realism everyone wanted to believe in an idealized “American Dream” and it was expressed in the literature of the time. Mark Twain was one of the authors that wrote in a realistic fashion. Twain rejected the idealized dream and showed life the way he saw it, harsh and unforgiving. Realism showed life the way it was instead of the irreproachable way life was previously viewed. Campbell states that, “In its own time, realism was the subject of controversy,” due to the shocking nature of the writings (Campbell, 2013). Beginning around 1865 and ending around 1890, realism was a short yet impacting movement in American literature. By showing life accurately in literature they opposed the preexisting precedents set by the Romantics and Naturalists, who wrote, “about everything in its ideal form.” (Ph.D. C. S., 2007). Although recovering from the Civil War, the country wasn’t exactly peaceful. There was a “literary civil war” raging on between the many different techniques (American Realism: 1865-1910, n.d.). All the groups disagreed on how people should be portrayed in literature. People held “verbal battles over the ways that fictional characters were presented in relation to their external world” (American Realism: 1865-1910, n.d.). Romantics and Naturalists portrayed their characters as heroes, or people with super human qualities, while the Realists focused on creating a more everyday character. By making characters more believable, with character flaws and realistic qualities, the authors enabled the readers to sympathize more with the stories. Feeling a sense of connection with a story allows a reader to enjoy the story to a higher level than they would if they didn’t have that sense of connection. On one side the Romanticists were giving society a way to distract themselves from everyday problems, meanwhile on the other side the Realists were showing society exactly what it looked like from an unbiased point of view. This struggle for character type was the beginning of what we now know as realism.

One cause of the rise of Realism was the Civil War. American authors and scholars believed the previous styles of writing were partially to blame. This causing them to start turning away from the vanity and irrational beliefs of Romanticism, thinking that it may have caused a war. The main focus on idealism, chivalry and heroism, may have caused the United States to believe it was unstoppable. In turn, “causing Americans to fight when they might have negotiated,[and] to seek empty glory though it cost them their lives.” (American Realism, n.d.). Seeing how an unrealistic and fanciful view on life can cause strife and destruction in one’s country people started turning away from the previously accepted and frivolous writings to Realisms legitimate and honest portrayal of life.

The “American Dream”, the idealistic belief that people, “who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded,” wasn’t working out as planned (Meacham, J., 2012). As the Industrial Revolution began, people flocked to the cities expecting more jobs and homes to be available for new workers. The previously unknown and horrid conditions of lower class workers were exposed in realist writings. The realists didn’t shy away from the truth but embraced it and used their stories to make the truth known to all. Some Idealists and Romanticists even thought the truth a little too harsh for the middle to high class citizens. The low and middle class that had been ignored was finally getting recognition. Focusing on the true facts, “and the growing plight of the new urban poor,” Realism finally allowed the real state of the country to be known to all (American Realism: 1865-1910, n.d.). Due to Realism, people could no longer live in ignorant bliss, ignoring the conditions around them by pretending it wasn’t real. Before, many people chose to ignore the harsh facts of American life including slavery and poverty. Many lived in a state of denial and refused to admit things weren’t perfect or even remotely acceptable. Almost as if citizens ignored the problem, the reality would disappear leaving everyone happy and taking away all the dark shadows hidden in the alleys across the United States. On the other hand many citizens were drawn to the new writings because they “were attracted to the realists because they saw their own struggles in print” (American Realism: 1865-1910, n.d.). For once the daily struggle to stay alive in the ever changing world was apparent for all to see no matter their social class. Books have an amazing way of teaching us things that we can’t learn on our own. We can learn things in books that we cannot by going outside or going to school. Books also allow us to discover things in more detail that we might have discovered before. This was when readers first began relating books to their own lives.

Realist authors brought a new version of writing that still influences writers today. Most books, whether they are adventure, sci-fi or crime novels still have traces of Realism. People today don’t run from the truth, they embrace the truth. Before, Realism was almost controversial but now it seems to be expected. Readers now embrace informative, blunt and honest writings instead of yearning for fairy tale endings common of childhood. They crave the truth, no matter how harsh, because that is what related to us as a society. Although Realism began in the late 1800s and greatly changed the chosen style of writing then, the effect is still seen in today’s writings. The reach of Realism is ongoing and seems to have no clear end.


American Realism. (n.d.). enotes. Retrieved November 6, 2013, from

American Realism: 1865-1910. (n.d.). American Realism: 1865-1910. Retrieved November 6, 2013, from

Campbell, D. M. (2013, July 4). Realism in American Literature. Literary Movements. Retrieved November 6, 2013, from

Meacham, J. (2012, June 21). Keeping the Dream Alive. time, 1. Retrieved November 8, 2013, from,28804,2117662_2117682,00.html

Ph.D., C. S. (2007, August 14). Realism. Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism. Retrieved November 6, 2013, from

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