Broadly defined as “the faithful representation of reality” or “verisimilitude,” Realism is a literary technique practiced by many schools of writing. Although strictly speaking, Realism is a technique, it also denotes a particular kind of subject matter, especially the representation of middle class life. A reaction against Romanticism, an interest in scientific method, the systematizing of the study of documentary history, and the influence of rational philosophy all affected the rise of Realism. According to William Harmon and Hugh Holman, “Where Romantics transcend the immediate to find their ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual or superficial to find the scientific laws that control its actions, Realists center their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequence” (A Handbook to Literature, 428).
Many critics have suggest that there is no clear distinction between Realism and its related late nineteenth-century movement Naturalism. As Donald Pizer notes in his introduction to the Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howell’s to London, the term “Realism” is difficult to define, in part because it is used different in European contexts than in American literature. Pizer suggests that “whatever was being produced in fiction during the 1870s and 1880s that was new, interesting and roughly similar in a number of was can be designated as Realism, and that an equally new, interesting, and roughly similar body of writing produced at the turn of the century can be designated as Naturalism” (5). Put rather simplistically, one rough distinction made by critics is that Realist literature that espoused a deterministic philosophy and focused on the lower classes could be considered Naturalist.
In American literature, the term “Realism” encompasses the period of time from the Civil War to the turn of the century during which William Dean Howells, Rebecca Harding Davis, Henry James, Mark Twain, and others wrote fiction devoted to accurate representation and an exploration of American lives in various contexts. As the United States grew rapidly after the Civil War, the increasing rates of democracy and literacy, the rapid growth in industrialism and urbanization, and expanding population base due to immigration and relative rise in middle class affluence provided a fertile literary environment for readers interested in understanding these shifts in culture. In drawing attention to this connection, Kaplan has called Realism a “strategy for imagining and managing the threats of social change.”
Realism was a movement that encompassed the entire country, particularly the Midwest and south, although many of the writers and critics associated with Realism were based in New England. The Realist writers of the north tended to focus on the cultural changes brought on by technological and industrial advances: the settlement of large groups of people into the cities leading to crowded environments and increased crime; the scarcity of work for the increasing number of residents, immigration, and organized labor. Southern Realists examined the consequences of the Civil War on the idyllic plantation life of the South. Their stories focused on loss, displacement, and destitution; however, they tried to maintain the sensibilities of the South, infusing their stories with the distinctive genteelism and hospitality of the Southern life.