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American Literature, 1865–1914

The Transformation of a Nation

  • The Civil War, and the enormous devastation and loss of life it caused, left the United States morally exhausted at its conclusion. At the same time, the war stimulated innovations that helped the country prosper materially for the next five decades.
  • The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 with the use of poorly paid laborers from China. The railroad made it possible for people and goods to cross the country quickly and inexpensively, thereby moving the American economy into the industrial age.
  • The telegraph, electricity, and the telephone began to revolutionize daily life.
  • Historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared in 1893 that the Western frontier no longer existed as a “frontier,” but was instead settled. He set forth the theory that the frontier was crucial to American dynamism and to the formation of a distinctive, democratic American identity.
  • Eager to compete with European nations, the United States sought to expand its influence and land holdings beyond its continental borders, engaging in conflicts in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii.
  • American expansionism continued to impinge on the rights and cultures of Native American peoples as U.S. government policies forced them off their traditional lands. By the late nineteenth century, well-meaning but misguided white philanthropists began agitating for the assimilation of Native Americans into the white mainstream by imposing white schooling, white patterns of town settlement and agriculture, and white religion.
  • Industrialization and manufacturing on an unprecedented scale emerged in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century.
  • Major industries were consolidated into monopolies, allowing a small number of men to control enormously profitable enterprises in steel, oil, railroads, meatpacking, banking, and finance. Called “robber barons” by some and celebrated as captains of industry by others, these men squeezed out competitors and accumulated vast wealth and power.
  • Immigration exploded between 1870 and 1920, especially with the arrival of millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Immigrants often settled in urban centers, increasing the relative populations of cities versus rural areas in the United States.
  • Rural farmers cultivating traditional family-run operations found it difficult to compete as railroads and land speculators drove up the price of land. Large-scale farming soon took over from the family farm, increasing agricultural yields but displacing many farmers.
  • Industrial workers received low wages, labored in inhumane and dangerous conditions, and had few legal protections regulating safety and working hours.
  • Neither farmers nor urban laborers organized effectively to protect their own interests.

The Literary Marketplace

  • Rapid transcontinental settlement and changing urban industrial conditions introduced new themes, new forms, new subjects, new characters, new regions, and new authors in the half century following the Civil War.
  • The numbers, circulation, and influence of newspapers and magazines grew in this period. Many of the noted authors of the era started as newspaper journalists and/or published in magazines.
  • American writers of this period increasingly adopted the form of realism in their fiction. Critically praised writers such as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton used literary realism to different effect and to address different concerns, though all were interested in constructing distinctively American protagonists.
  • Though the focus of the era was mostly on prose fiction, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson wrote important poetry in this period.

Forms of Realism and Naturalism

  • The term “realism” refers to a movement in English, European, and American literature that emphasized the “truthful treatment of material,” as William Dean Howells put it. Most realist fiction focused on the observable surfaces of the world in which fictional characters lived, and strove to make those surfaces seem lifelike to readers.
  • Some realist writers strove to represent the experiences of poor or outsider characters, while others emphasized the interior moral and psychological lives of elite, wealthy characters.
  • “Naturalism” can be thought of as a version of realism or as an alternative to it. Literary naturalists, unlike the realists, for whom human beings defined themselves within recognizable settings, wrote about human life as it was shaped by forces beyond human control.
  • Naturalism often introduced characters from the fringes and depths of society whose lives spin out of control. Naturalists wanted to explore how biology, environment, and other natural forces shaped lives—particularly the lives of lower-class people.
  • Naturalist writers thought of their work as scientific in its exploration of deterministic effects—and thus truly realistic—rather than romantic.

Regional Writing

  • Another expression of the realist impulse, regional writing arose out of the desire both to record distinctive ways of life and to come to terms with the new world that seemed to be replacing earlier, regional ways of life. “Local colorists” were dedicated to capturing the natural, social, and linguistic features of particular regions.
  • Many women writers initially associated with regionalism expanded their interests to write more broadly about the world of women.
  • Native American writers described their lives and traditions, especially as these were imperiled by white advances into their territories. In so doing, they widened public appreciation of literary models outside the European tradition while also challenging the dominant culture’s identification of the West with the imaginary line of the frontier.

Realism as Argument

  • Realism in fiction was an important spur to the development of nonfiction, which described, analyzed, and critiqued the social, economic, and political institutions that emerged between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I.
  • Nonfiction writers penned articles and books on such topics as women’s rights, political corruption, the degradation of the natural world, economic inequity, business deceptions, the exploitation of labor, and tenement housing.
  • Of all the issues of the day, perhaps the most persistent and resistant to solution was racial inequality.
  • The end of Reconstruction in 1877 saw the withdrawal of federal troops from the southern states and the shift to segregationist Jim Crow laws following the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Black Americans saw a considerable erosion of the Constitutional amendments that had promised to guarantee their civil rights.
  • Among the many African American writers addressing issues of black community and racial inequity, W. E. B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington emerged as important advocates of different strategies to hasten equality for blacks in the United States. Du Bois largely rejected Washington’s more conciliatory and assimilationist philosophy.