Historical and Social aspects preceding the movements of Realism and Naturalism in American writing

By | May 8, 2018

The change from Romanticism to Realism in American fiction was initially the Civil War and what followed. Less than a century after their independence from Britain, the  War that  divided the nation broke out in 1861 ; this conflict was mainly fought to maintain the Union as a whole and four years later it ended by the surrender of the Southern slave owning states and the assassination of Lincoln. This struggle  was the inevitable result of the growing economic, political, social, and cultural divisions between the North and the South and lasted for four years resulting in the loss of hundreds and  thousands of lives. The  War of Secession also presented a breach in the writings of the North and the South for in New England nearly every writer was for the abolitionist cause while the South saw slavery as important and essential for its economic growth and survival. Major writers of this generation like Henry James, Mark Twain or even Stephen Crane were never involved directly and personally in the war  hence there was a relative absence of literary expression as far as the War was concerned.

The War of Secession was indeed a crucial point in the history of the American people and with its end in 1865 slavery was abolished but ironically the slaves found themselves caught up in a different kind of bondage with the era of Jim Crow ; though they were free they still had to face segregation which did not completely come to an end until the following century in 1964. There was also a rise in African-American writing which was one of the most striking developments during and after the Civil War era but actually the full impact of African-American literary achievement  found its esteem only after the turn of the century and beyond. Consequently it was also one of the dominant  turning points in history with the country now emerging as a matured and an united  nation. In many ways these literary movements of Realism and Naturalism were the outcome of the deplorable war, fought between the Northern and the Southern States and also a direct deviation from Romanticism and  Surrealism of the previous age which were portrayed with  important changes in writing. The old entrepreneurial democracy of the North and the South feudalism were replaced by modernism and westward expansion. Reconciliation between the States was important for the union of the nation and the conquest of the West was crucial and imperative to divert attention from the wounds caused by the war and thus  the repercussion brought about by the moving frontier was also indispensable  to the rise of realism.  Many moved towards the West for a fresh start and people were encouraged to conquer the wilderness which led to a lust for gold and land, sustained by the philosophy of the “Manifest Destiny” which was the conviction that Americans had a Divine right to conquer the land and the people living there.


 Industrialization and technology which played a significant role to mechanize the war now favored and maintained the energy for Reconstruction. The evident proof of progress was the growing success of technology with the important discoveries like the electricity, the telephone, the light bulb and the phonograph. With the end of the Civil War and its peacetime discourse, people’s interest in scientific advance grew rapidly. The country began its geographical and industrial expansion and for seven decades these two processes were parallel while postwar industrialism attracted people from farm to town which then became cities. As the urbanization of the population overcrowded the cities more flats were constructed in skyscrapers and consequently the changing American landscape began to grow higher and higher. Overcrowded housing and unsanitary conditions along with low pay and difficult working conditions led to strikes and labor unions grew. Along with this farmers found themselves striving against the “money interests” of the East with the so-called “robber-barons” and  consequently the country began to change from a small agricultural colony to a huge industrial nation and this led to an alienation between people and these changes were replicated in the novels of the time.


The Civil War ended in victory for the Northern States from where emerged capitalism with its bureaucracy, its network of railroads and significantly its factories. During the post-bellum years business exploded for war production had increased industry in the North and gave it prestige and political domination. It also gave industrial leaders important experience in the management of men and machines  while mineral and natural resources like iron, coal, gold and silver of the American land benefited these enterprises. All these led to a division that the nation had two contrary images of itself – one as an ever moving westward pioneer land of nature and big space and the other an urban nation where immigrants toiled and sweated in huge factories with the skyline pushing higher and higher. The departure of thousands of people from the southern and eastern Europe who crossed the Atlantic to settle in the USA while Asians from Japan and China  emigrating  in masses to the United States led to a cultural diversity that has never stopped increasing and this permanent flow of immigrants resulted in cheap labor.



These and several more distinct social and political changes transformed the country in a fundamental manner and as such the Civil War can be determined as a critical turning point which revolutionized the United States  towards Modernism  while the romantic movement of the previous century ceded to these new movements of Realism and Naturalism. Early authors of the bygone era significantly Melville and Hawthorne already wrote of an America which was moving towards a technological and a mechanical future. The powerful new establishments reflected already the significance of an age committing itself to utilitarianism, mechanism, secularism and urbanism. After the Civil War the movements of realism and later naturalism in writing began to take decisive roles and expanded as nowhere else. Yet although American writers emulated their European counterparts, these movements took altogether a different and more meaningful amplitude in the United States.

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