Seminar in 19th Century American Literature: Realism and Naturalism

English 8310
Realism and Naturalism
Section 1
John Evelev

The literature of the last third of the American nineteenth century is something of a problem: it tends to exist on the margins of the larger narratives constructed about our national literature. 

--It’s engagement with the rough materiality and the conflicts within American life has led to its exclusion from narratives of a cohesive and unified America

--It’s avoidance of elaborate literary forms (part of its project to depict the world as it really is) has led to it being held to be less artistic, less worthy of literary study.

But both in its forms and its interests, this literature addresses central questions of modern American life, questions that seem ever more pressing in our present day and remind us that the greater portion of contemporary American "literary" writing remains firmly within the tradition of realism.  Some of the concerns we will explore (with an eye both to the U.S. past and the present) include:

--industrialization/corporatization, with its transformation of labor and the worker and relations between workers and capital came under scrutiny as a source of social conflict.  What is to become of work and what is the relation of the individual to others through technology and the corporation?

--urbanization, both in the increased densification of urban population and distinct class stratification in the city and the more stark contrast between urban centers and rural zones which became more exotic and of more interest in the period as a result.  Amidst this tension between urban and rural America is also the place of immigrants, who are strongly associated with urban poverty in the period. How do we address the problem of social inequality?

--women's place in American life: demographic and economic changes brought women out of the domestic sphere without clarifying what sorts of roles they might have aside from wives and mothers. 

--racial Justice: the ending of the Civil War offered new opportunities for African-Americans, but the rapid collapse of Reconstruction revealed that politics did not guarantee fair treatment.

--imperialism: the closing of the Frontier marked a terminal point in domestic expansionist ideology which found a substitution in new imperialist ventures in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific.

We will read authors whose works explore these themes, primarily through fiction, but also poetry and non-fiction.  Authors to be studied may include: Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Charles Chesnutt, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jack London, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Zitkala-Sa, Sui Sin Far, Celia Thaxter and William James.

This course is recommended not only for students who want to deepen their understanding of nineteenth-century American literature: students focusing on 20th and 21st century American literature will find this period a useful teaching resource and helpful for thinking through more contemporary literary responses to these still-present social, political and cultural concerns.