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Reality and Realism in Late 19th Century America

There is usually a close correlation between social and political developments and literature.

Utsnitt av Statue of Liberty. Foto.

In European literature of the late 19th century there was a strong tradition of critical realism. Writers like Ibsen, Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Hugo were all influenced by and critical to political misrule and abuse of power. But in the USA this tradition was never adopted. which is an interesting fact in itself. When we look at the American society of the late 19th century and the predominant literary production at the time, one may easily conclude that social criticism was not on the literary agenda. The intellectual spirit went in a different direction, and in society in general the motto seemed to be: money talks.


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America Post-Civil War

Signing of the Peace Treaty after the Civil War
Signing of the Peace Treaty after the Civil War

The Civil War was a massive set-back for the development of the young nation. It was a necessary step to put an end to slavery and save the union, but it came with a cost that would delay American progress by decades. The northern states were not so devastatingly affected by the Civil War as the South, where restoration was a resource-demanding and long process. There were recessions during the 1870s mainly due to ambitious overspending on the construction of the two transcontinental railway lines. The expansion of the nation was driven by “The Manifest Destiny” which proclaimed the Americans’ God-given right to occupy and inhabit the continent. This resulted in confrontations with the native population, but by the turn of the century this obstacle was eliminated. In 1898, the USA was at war with Spain over territories in the south, a war which Spain lost and the USA expanded its borders even more. The USA of the late 1800s was a nation characterized by expansion, progress, enterprise and optimism; it was the birth of modern America.

Trusts and Monopolies

Standard Oil Monopoly Political Cartoon with J.D.Rockefeller as king of the world
Standard Oil Monopoly Political Cartoon with J.D.Rockefeller as king of the world

The rise of Big Business was what defined the period and was to become the cornerstone of American economic and industrial progress. There were some evident catalysts that triggered American industrial development. One – the continent was rich with natural resources providing raw materials for an expanding domestic market. Two – industrious and inventive pioneers were eager to set up a business and were free to do so in an unregulated system. Three – transportation systems and infrastructure were rapidly developed. Four – there was a continuous supply of labour due to the immigration both from Europe and Asia. In addition, there were no tariff barriers between the states or regions which served as a protection against foreign competition. Small companies popped up everywhere in an expanding market driven by free enterprise and competition. Smart businessmen gradually saw the potential in creating organisations of competing companies to reduce costs and control prices. What was introduced as a seemingly good business idea was for the next five decades to become the basis of American private asset-building until it all crashed in 1929. Pools or trusts were organised on a large scale and gradually these corporations turned into monopolies that took complete control of the market. The Standard Oil Company emerged in 1882 as the first great trust. Businessmen like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were two of the ambitious tycoons who made themselves huge profits during this period. Carnegie was behind the big Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Steel Company, and Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870. Their aggressive business methods gave them a reputation for crushing competitors with any means, and for ruthlessly exploiting their workforce.

Free Enterprise

The federal government saw with concern that the country’s natural resources were being exploited and controlled for the benefit of a handful of men in a way that did not serve society. But the liberal and democratic traditions on which American legislation is founded made it difficult for the national government to take action. There were attempts to illegalize monopolies and to introduce an Interstate Commerce Act, but mostly these initiatives were either voted down in Congress or they were inefficiently practised by the state authorities. Even when the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in 1890, which in practice would outlaw trusts and monopolies, the courts resisted all efforts to enforce the law. The belief in individual freedom along with a legal system that supported the capitalists made it hard to combat the escalating profiteering in private hands. The stock exchange became a vibrant money-making scene where speculators could make millions overnight.

Transcendentalists and Critical Realism

One would imagine that in a society characterised by greed and materialism where there were more losers than winners, there would be surplus material and inspiration for creative and socially conscientious writers. But compared to Europe, social criticism is surprisingly absent in American literature of the late 19th century. Instead the writers turned inward in search of an understanding of man and nature. The cultural trend in the USA from the mid-19th century was to experience nature’s coherence with the human soul. The so-called New England Transcendentalists included writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. They were influenced by a romantic idealism and symbolism, and their vast literary production is also today highly acclaimed and ranks among the great classics in American literature. Another more obscure poet of the period is Emily Dickinson, whose minimalistic poetry is also among the most cherished in American literature. Her poems were not published until after her death.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) is without doubt the most prominent and popular American writer of the 19th century. He had a massive production of essays and fiction that sprang from his devotion to the great river, the Mississippi. His writing clearly belongs in what we would call American realism, and his books are great and cherished literature, but Clemens does not line up with the socio-critical generation of European realists and naturalists. However, there were some American novelists who focused on the social conditions for those who did not make it in the race for material success. These writers belong to what we call a critical realism, and the most famous names were William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, Stephen Crane and feminist writer Kate Chopin.

Follow these links for tasks to the article and more information about Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson.

American Realism - Tasks and Activities

Emily Dickinson - Life and Poetry

Mark Twain - An American Realist


American Literature in the 19th Century