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This was painful. This is the written version of a class presentation. I hated this topic, and as my presentation was the first due, I had no idea what anyone expected. A very helpful classmate suggested I show examples of realist and romanticist paintings. I am deeply in her debt for that. I've pasted those photos at the beginning of this document.


My actual conclusion, which was not included in this paper, is that the term "Realism" is applied to a great number of styles and subjects and has no steadfast definition. I wrote the paper the way I did purely to satisfy academic requirements.


An interesting note: due to a version control problem and poor proofreading, I made an enourmous error in this paper. I used the same quote twice. The teacher's notes simply said: "Another good quote!" I appreciated his generosity.

Romantic Style

Dante and Virgil in Hell
Eugene Delacroix

Realist Style

Eel Spearing at Setauket
William Sidney Mount

Jeffrey J. Wagg
30 November 2000
Society in Crisis: Mark Twain. s America
Professor R. Johnson

Mark Twain and
the school of American Realism

As a response to romanticism, French artists and writers gave birth to the realist movement in the mid 19th century. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition defines realism as . The representation in art or literature of objects, actions, or social conditions as they actually are, without idealization or presentation in abstract form.. Literary realism started in 19th century France with Flaubert and Balzac. George Ellis brought the movement to England and William Dean Howells introduced realism to America. (Realism in Literature, The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Edition) A famous author, Howells treated realism as a call to action. He prevailed upon contemporary writers to . . . . let fiction cease to lie about life. . . let it not put on fine literary airs; let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know the language of unaffected people everywhere. . . .. (Berthoff, The Ferment of Realism, p. xxii ) Howells was the father of American Realism, and he had a great influence on the work of Mark Twain.

Literate society treated realism with scorn. It was seen as common, indecent, and vulgar. In his Incorporation of America, Trachtenberg summarizes the sentiment of Hamilton Wright Mabie, critic for the Christian Union, with . . . . art should protect itself from common life, should concern itself with . ideal. characters, pure thoughts, and noble emotions.. The Boston Brahmins of the time viewed realism as an intrusion of the commonplace into the higher stations of society and a betrayal of the ideal of fine literature. Howell. s response to this sentiment is that the realist novel is . made for the benefit of people who have no true use of their eyes.. (Trachtenberg, pp.185-186) Howells, like Twain, tried to make the wrongs of society obvious through writing rather than outright preach against them.

Howell. s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham, regarded by some as the first realist novel published in America, criticized the moral effects of capitalism and cultural elitism on the masses. (Martin, Harvests of Change, p. 227) Howells believed in the righteousness of the working class, and it was his mission to show how capitalism enslaved the many for the benefit of the few. Realism was a moral movement as well as a literary one.

As editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Howells used his position to promote the works of writers that agreed with his sensibilities. Among them were Henry James, Brett Harte and Mark Twain.   He prevailed upon contemporary writers to . . . . let fiction cease to lie about life. . . let it not put on fine literary airs; let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans knowthe language of unaffected people everywhere. . . .. (Berthoff, The Ferment of Realism, p. xxii )

Regardless of Howells. support of realism in his essays, his fiction writing failed to embody its complete spirit. . I don. t think you go far enough, and you are haunted with romantic phantoms and a tendency to factitious glosses,. wrote realist writer and friend Henry James in a letter of 1884. (Berthoff, p. 51). It is possible that Howells was something of an apologist for the realist movement, and that he was afraid of offending the sensibilities of those he was criticizing. Though he had deep convictions, he preferred to temper his prose to gain acceptability as well as increase sales. The Rise of Silas Lapham had a realist tone, and though it received the scorn of Hamilton Wight Mabie, it was much milder than the realist work to come. Still, it was wildly popular with the novel reading public (Berthoff, pp. 52-53). Howells would counsel other realist writers to temper there prose as well, but he did so reluctantly for he found the frank style of Mark Twain. s unedited writing compelling.

Mark Twain penned his work in a realist style. The Innocents Abroad, the story of a voyage to Europe and the Holy Lands with a group of Christians, was compiled from letters Twain was contracted to write by the Alta California. In those letters, Twain wrote a frank description of the . hypocrites. with whom he was traveling. (Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, p. 56) As the book was a novelization of documentary letters, it contained a certain element of truth, but it was Twain. s wry description of commonplace events and biting criticism of polite society that made it realist. . I have seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written at least honestly, whether wisely or not.. Twain says in the foreword. Twain. s urging that the work was impartial only allows him to sink his contempt a little deeper in the readers. consciousness. Unlike other travelogues of the time, Twain wrote mostly about his reaction to the hypocrisy of his fellow travelers and failed to describe some of the sites he was ostensibly being paid to document. (Emerson, p. 48) His unflattering and sarcastic descriptions of the pilgrims and their behavior cast a realist moral judgment.

After reading a Howell. s positive review of  The Innocents Abroad,  Twain  traveled to the offices of The Atlantic Monthly to express his gratitude. Howell recognized Twain. s genius and became a mentor. (Emerson, p. 65) Howells at times thought Twain was too real, and though he made extensive comments on the manuscript of Tom Sawyer, he did so only to increase the novel. s salability. He secretly hoped Twain would not use them, as the original writing was much more . real.. (Emerson, pp. 94-95) Howells was concerned that such a coarse level of description would seem vulgar to the buying public, and hurt the novel. s acceptance.

Apparently, Howells comments were effective for the novel sold well and still maintained its realist vernacular and depiction of life. More importantly, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer opened the door for realist writing in mainstream literature. For the first time, the speech and actions of the common folk were shown as something interesting and beautiful, rather than edited into something deemed appropriate for the cultural elite. There was no apology here, but there was little of the morality that was the heart of the Howell. s realist movement. At any rate, the success of Tom Sawyer opened the door for other realist writers, and imitation soon followed.

Though Twain produced other well-read works in the intervening years, It was the emergence of Huckleberry Finn in 1885 that established him as a pillar of realism. Actually begun before The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, this first person narrative of an orphan boy and a runaway slave had a profound effect on the future of American literature. Twain showed the moral decrepitude of slavery and racism in vivid color. He did so not by preaching, but by portraying the world as it really was. Howells shows his influence here as well, suggesting that Twain write this sequel to Tom Sawyer in first person. (Emerson, 141-142)

Throughout Twain. s literary career, Howells was an influence. In 1875, he suggested that Twain drop the last chapter of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Emerson goes so far as to say that Howells suggested Twain replace it with what turned into the first chapter of Huckleberry Finn. (Emerson, p.141). Through their decades long correspondence, we know that Howells and Twain were confidants and comrades in arms. It is clear from Howells. writing that he regarded Twain in the highest terms. After Twain. s death, Howells wrote, . [he] was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of literature.. (Berthoff, p.61).

As Twain aged, the realist movement took a turn to the stark, and many writers influenced by he and Howells turned to naturalism. Perhaps more . real. than realism, naturalism depicted an amoral world where nature was unforgiving and man. s ultimate purpose was survival. While writers such as Stephen Crane and Jack London are considered part of the realist movement, their work lacks the lesson of social change essential to realist writing. In contrast, Twain. s work retained its moralistic message as the turn of the century approached. Howells tended toward Utopianism in his later years.

Even in the 20th century, renowned writers credit Twain for establishing the format of the modern novel. . All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,. said Ernest Hemingway. William Faulkner called Twain . the father of American literature.. (Fishkin, Was Huck Black? p. 9).

Mark Twain. s commitment to realism went even beyond the grave. In the preface to his autobiography, Twain, knowing the book will be published posthumously, states:

      . I speak from the grave rather than with my living tongue, for a good reason: I can speak thence freely. When a man is writing a book dealing with the privacies of his life - a book which is to be read while he is still alive - he shrinks from speaking his whole frank mind; all his attempts to do it fail, he recognizes that he is trying to do a thing which is wholly impossible to a human being. The frankest and freest and privatest product of the human mind and heart is a love letter; the writer gets his limitless freedom of statement and expression from his sense that no stranger is going to see what he is writing. Sometimes there is a breach-of-promise case by and by; and when he sees his letter in print it makes him cruelly uncomfortable and he perceives that he never would have unbosomed himself to that large and honest degree if he had known that he was writing for the public. He cannot find anything in the letter that was not true, honest, and respectworthy; but no matter, he would have been very much more reserved if he had known he was writing for print..

Some modern critics have a hard time putting Twain into any one category. His unique style employed techniques from many different schools including romanticism and certainly satire. One critic states . The term . realist. seems stretched to the breaking point when applied to writers so different as (Mark Twain) and Henry James.. (McElderry, The Realistic Movement in American Writing, p. 13) Another believes . . . .(critics have) been inclined to turn quickly to psychoanalysis; nothing else seems likely to penetrate (his) baffling artistry.. (Berthoff, p. 63) Whatever else he may have been, Twain brought the ideal of realist writing to fruition in America



1.   The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Edition. New York:  Columbia University Press, 2000.

2.   American Heritage Dictionaries, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition.  New York:  Houghton, Mifflin Co., 2000.

3.   Emerson, Everett, Mark Twain: A Literary Life.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

4.   Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, Was Huck Black?  New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1993.

5.   Trachtenberg, Alan, The Incorporation of America.  New York:  Hill and Wang, 1982.

6.   Kaplan, Justin, Mister Clemens and Mark Twain.  New York:  Touchstone, 1966.

7.   De Voto, Bernard, ed., The Portable Mark Twain.  New York:  Viking Penguin Inc., 1968.

8.   Berthoff, Warner, The Ferment of Realism.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1965.

9.   Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  New York:  Penguin Group, 1959.

10. Bureau Development, ed, Twain. s World (CD-ROM).  Parsippany, NJ, Bureau Development, Inc., 1993.

11. McElderry, Bruce R. ed., The Realistic Movement in American Writing.  New York:  The Odyssey Press, 1965.

12. Martin, Jay, Harvests of Change: American Literature 1865-1914.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967