Realism in American Literature. Mark Twain’s creative activities

Realism is the polar opposite of Romanticism. Realists depend on facts and reality, while Romantics embrace emotions, intuition, and individual freedoms of expression. In a “David and Goliath” scenario, Romantics root for David because he has a chance, while Realists know the data supports that Goliath will prevail. Realists account for the forces of nature, government, and war, which confront the common man. Similarly, Dark Romantics emphasize self-destructive forces, human fallibility and a “what can go wrong, will” philosophy. Gothic Fiction is similar to Realism in that both genres provide graphic details to support the story’s credibility. However, Gothics take this to an extreme by including elements of torment, morbidity, and the supernatural.

The genre of Realism is expressed around the world, in art, literature, and music, exposing the raw, naked, factual truths of life.

Early adopters of Realism include Russian authors, Alexsander Pushkin, who focused on human avarice, and later, Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov, who employed cynicism and social commentary about the destructive forces of all-powerful institutions, usually with ironic twist endings (satire can be helpful when coping with suppression and fear).


There are a few different types of literary realism, each with its own distinct characteristics.

Magical realism. A type of realism that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Magical realism portrays the world truthfully plus adds magical elements that are not found in our reality but are still considered normal in the world the story takes place. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967) is a magical realism novel about a man who invents a town according to his own perceptions. Learn more about magical realism here.

Social realism. A type of realism that focuses on the lives and living conditions of the working class and the poor. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862) is a social novel about class and politics in France in the early 1800s.

Kitchen sink realism. An offshoot of social realism that focuses on the lives of young working-class British men who spend their free time drinking in pubs. Room at the Top by John Braine (1957) is a kitchen sink realist novel about a young man with big ambitions who struggles to realize his dreams in post-war Britain.

Socialist realism. A type of realism created by Joseph Stalin and adopted by Communists. Socialist realism glorifies the struggles of the proletariat. Cement by Fyodor Gladkov (1925) is a socialist-realist novel about the struggles of reconstructing the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution.

Naturalism. An extreme form of realism influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Naturalism, founded by Émile Zola, explores the belief that science can explain all social and environmental phenomena. A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner (1930), a short story about a recluse with a mental illness whose fate is already determined, is an example of naturalism.

Psychological realism. A type of realism that’s character-driven, focusing on what motivates them to make certain decisions and why. Psychological realism sometimes uses characters to express commentary on social or political issues. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866) is a psychological realist novel about a man who hatches a plan to kill a man and take his money to get out of poverty — but feels immense guilt and paranoia after he does it.

Exemplary Realist American authors include: Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Henry James, Frederick Douglass, Ambrose Bierce, Thomas Nelson Page, and Anzia Yezierska.

Daisy Miller by Henry James is considered a masterpiece of American Realism.

The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells exemplifies Realism in his iconic “rags to riches” story, and ethical choices he must make in his rise to wealth and power.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson followed in Howells’ naturalist style, creating authentic character studies of fallable people with whom we can relate.

Tom Sawyer, and his semi-autobiography, Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain reveal his witty cynicism and commentary about race and social classes, particularly in the South. His flair for sarcasm covers a broad range of every day topics, as in About Barbers.

The Fat of the Land by Anzia Yezierska, a Jewish-American author relaying the immigrant experience in New York’s tenements, speaks of the many challenges in forging a new identify and achieve “The American Dream.”


The etymology of “Realism” is from the Latin word “realis.” It means “the faithful representation of reality.” The opposite of idealism (how we would like things to be), Realism values objectivity, free of emotions or interpretation.

American authors embraced Realism, particularly between 1860–1890, with a focus on the economic reality of middle-class life, the ordinary, the “here and now.” Character was more important than action and plot, complex ethical choices were emphasized rather than morality.

The increasing rates of democracy and literacy, the rise of industrialization and the Westward expansion, immigrants flooding into the country — all provided a broad range of American experiences to write about. In addition, America was attempting to recover and unify following the destructive and divisive American Civil War, the promises of the Reconstruction era remained fraught with inequalities and lack of access based on race, education, and wealth, and the festering dichotomies between Northern and Southern cultures.

Though the U.S. Constitution was amended (Reconstruction Amendments) to provide African-Americans the right to vote, equal access and parity with whites would remain illusive for another century. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Romantic, idealist literature fell out of favor, replaced by authors who could “tell it like it is” with Realism.

The term “realism” is difficult to define, in part because it is used differently 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 ways 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 too simplistically, one rough distinction made by critics is that realism espousing a deterministic philosophy and focusing on the lower classes is considered naturalism.


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, an expanding population base due to immigration, and a relative rise in middle-class affluence provided a fertile literary environment for readers interested in understanding these rapid shifts in culture. In drawing attention to this connection, Amy Kaplan has called realism a “strategy for imagining and managing the threats of social change” (Social Construction of American Realism ix).

Realism was a movement that encompassed the entire country, or at least the Midwest and South, although many of the writers and critics associated with realism (notably W. D. Howells) were based in New England. Among the Midwestern writers considered realists would be Joseph Kirkland, E. W. Howe, and Hamlin Garland; the Southern writer John W. DeForest’s Miss Ravenal’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty is often considered a realist novel, too.

· Characteristics of American realism:

(from Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition)

· Renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail. Selective presentation of reality with an emphasis on verisimilitude, even at the expense of a well-made plot

· Character is more important than action and plot; complex ethical choices are often the subject.

· Characters appear in their real complexity of temperament and motive; they are in explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past.

· Class is important; the novel has traditionally served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent middle class. (See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel)

· Events will usually be plausible. Realistic novels avoid the sensational, dramatic elements of naturalistic novels and romances.

· Diction is natural vernacular, not heightened or poetic; tone may be comic, satiric, or matter-of-fact.

· Objectivity in presentation becomes increasingly important: overt authorial comments or intrusions diminish as the century progresses.

· Interior or psychological realism a variant form.


Mark Twain

“You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives.” — Mark Twain, in an 1878 letter.

Controversial, brilliant, and ever witty, the man who would shape American literature was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in a small riverside town in Missouri in 1835. More than a century later, Mark Twain remains one of the best writers that America has ever produced. As an illustrious novelist, distinguished essayist, popular travel writer, beloved humorist, and astute literary critic, Twain casts an intimidatingly long shadow on any American author who dares to follow him. Not to mention, he was ridiculously prolific — writing 28 books and upwards of some 100 short stories!

Twain’s greatest contribution to American literature is generally considered to be the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As Ernest Hemingway himself said: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. …all American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Also popular are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and The Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court and the non-fictional Life on the Mississippi.

Twain began as a writer of light humorous verse; he ended as a grim, almost profane chronicler of the vanities, hypocrisies and acts of killing committed by mankind. At mid-career, with Huckleberry Finn, he combined rich humor, sturdy narrative and social criticism in a way almost unrivaled in world literature.

Twain was a master at rendering colloquial speech, and helped to create and popularize a distinctive American literature, built on American themes and language.

Twain had a fascination with science and scientific inquiry. Twain developed a close and lasting friendship with Nikola Tesla. They spent quite a bit of time together from time to time (in Tesla’s laboratory, among other places). A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court featured a time traveller from the America of Twain’s day who used his knowledge of science to introduce modern technology to Arthurian England. Twain also patented an improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments.

Twain was a major figure in the American Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the annexation of the Philippines by the United States. He wrote Incident in the Philippines, posthumously published in 1924, in response to the Moro Crater Massacre, in which six hundred Moros were killed.

In recent years, there have been occasional attempts to ban Huckleberry Finn from various libraries, because Twain’s use of local color offends some people. Although Twain was against racism and imperialism far in front of public sentiment of his time, some with only superficial familiarity of his work have condemned it as racist for its accurate depiction of the language in common use in the United States in the 19th century. Expressions that were used casually and unselfconsciously then are often perceived today as racism (in present times, such racial epithets are far more visible and condemned). Twain himself would probably be amused by these attempts; in 1885, when a library in Massachusetts banned the book, he wrote to his publisher, “They have expelled Huck from their library as ‘trash suitable only for the slums’, that will sell 25,000 copies for us for sure.”

Many of Mark Twain’s works have been suppressed at times for one reason or another. 1880 saw the publication of an anonymous slim volume entitled 1601: Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors. Twain was among those rumored to be the author, but the issue was not settled until 1906, when Twain acknowledged his literary paternity of this scatological masterpiece.

Twain at least saw 1601 published during his lifetime. Twain wrote an anti-war article entitled The War Prayer during the Spanish-American War. It was submitted for publication, but on March 22, 1905, Harper’s Bazaar rejected it as “not quite suited to a woman’s magazine.” Eight days later, Twain wrote to his friend Dan Beard, to whom he had read the story, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.” Because he had an exclusive contract with Harper & Brothers, Mark Twain could not publish The War Prayer elsewhere and it remained unpublished until 1923.


“…a day’s work in all my life. What I have done I have done because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn’t have done it. Who was it who said, ‘Blessed is the man who has found his work?’ Whoever it was he had the right idea in his mind…When we talk about the great workers of the world, we really mean the great players of the world. The fellows who groan and sweat under the weary load of toil that they bear never can hope to do anything great.” — PLAYFULNESS (the 1st)

“Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.” — SIMPLICITY (the 2nd)

It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.” — ORIGINALITY (the 3rd)

Intellectual “work” is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation and its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer, is constructively in heaven when he is at work; — HAPPINESS (the 4th)

In his later life Twain’s family suppressed some of his work which was especially irreverent toward conventional religion, notably Letters From the Earth, which was not published until 1962. The anti-religious The Mysterious Stranger was published in 1916.

After his death, one of the prominent figures who paid public tribute to him was the President of the United States at the time, William H. Taft. In his words, “Mark Twain gave real intellectual enjoyment to millions, and his works will continue to give such pleasures to millions yet to come. He never wrote a line that a father could not read to a daughter.” (Taft was presumably unaware of 1601).



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