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Literature Online

American PassagesVisit our companion site,
American Passages. Produced in conjunction with Oregon Public Broadcasting, this rich site includes an archive featuring over 3,000 images, audio clips, presentation software, and more.

Norton Gradebook

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Topic Clusters

Realism and Naturalism

As you have probably figured out, scholars like to organize cultural history into eras that are supposedly defined by some dominant aesthetic, and the names we prefer can be misleading. “The Age of Enlightenment” seems to imply that everybody who wrote literature in the eighteenth century was an amateur scientist or a secular philosopher; “the Age of Romanticism” hints that every poet was deep in the forest or up on a crag sighing into thunderstorms; likewise, from a widely used heading like “Realism and Naturalism,” you can get the idea that everyone worth reading was reading Darwin, thinking about the rising urban bourgeoisie, and holding a mirror up to ordinary life. You can also get the impression that when World War I began, all of that came to an end. The questions below are intended to help you enrich your thinking about realism and naturalism as modes in our culture, and also about the practice of dividing up the past on the basis of modes and themes.

1. By the mid 1920s, after the deaths of William Dean Howells, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Joseph Conrad, and long after the early deaths of the most famous literary naturalists (Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, Frank Norris, and Jack London), the world had supposedly passed from the Age of Realism and Naturalism to the Age of Modernism. How thorough was that transformation? Take a look at lists of the best-selling novels from four different years over the course the twentieth century (for example, 1930, 1940, 1950, and last year). Choose half a dozen of these novels and find them in the library, reading a few pages to see if they carry onward some of the values that were important to the realists and naturalists. Where do you see these modes flourishing now, and with what kinds of refreshment or transformation?

2. As in the nineteenth century, “realism” and “naturalism” can be practiced in the twenty-first century with moral or political intentions—and they can also be practiced as aesthetic experiments, more concerned with form or style, or with playing with their own traditions. There are, for example, famous graphic films that intend to teach us lessons about history, human nature, or current events; but graphic violence on film can also be a meaningless ballet of blood and fire—cool, predictable, voyeuristic. Choose a handful of films or plays that you would assign to each category; and with a few classmates or friends, compare your findings and defend your choices.

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Debates over “Americanization”

Over the course of American history, conversations about this subject have tended to heat up when worries proliferate that some substantial, and new, segment of the national public is not acclimating—enough, or at all—to cultural values and practices that prevail elsewhere in the nation. After the Revolution, some of the founders of the republic were concerned that the large German-speaking population in the Middle Colonies would never learn English or behave like Boston merchants or Virginia gentlemen; the large-scale migrations at the end of the nineteenth century, from Southern and Eastern Europe and also from China into American cities triggered anxieties that these multitudes would change something precious in our culture or character. In today’s heated debate about immigration, especially from Mexico and Latin America, some of these same concerns are coming to the fore. Because you are probably reading NAAL for an experience in literature, let’s stay with the literary and cultural dimensions of this theme.

1. Comedy, wit, humor, and laughter: these play a major role in expressing, satirizing, and accommodating cultural difference. Sometimes the laughter is at the immigrant minority; sometimes it serves as a defense against the pressures of the larger culture; sometimes laughter can be a mode of ingratiation, an attempt to cross ethnic or cultural boundaries in an affirmation of common humanity. In the works you have read thus far in NAAL, where have you seen comic moments or characterizations used for one or more of these purposes?

2. Contemporary culture in the United States is brimming with art and literature about the immigrant experience: the close encounter of different peoples in modern settings, and conflicts and resolutions unfolding in those encounters. Choose five new “texts” that attempt to explore or exploit issues of this sort—plays, films, television comedies and dramatic series, novels, collections of poetry. What differences do you perceive in the intentions, mood, and quality of these works, as they try to participate in this larger dialogue? What do you think we gain, as a culture, from negotiating these problems with literature, pop culture, and art, rather than primarily or exclusively with reportage and political dialogue?