American realism is a literary technique that was most commonly practiced between the years of 1865 to around 1910. It was largely a response to the romantics of the period who believed that man could overcome evil, that he was some type of God. The realists differed, believing a man to be simply a man. It’s writers usually originated from the South or Midwest and included Mark Twain, W.D. Howells, and Henry James. Twain’s “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyberg” is a fine example of realist literature and one that will be examined later in this essay.
Realism is often confused with another technique that sprung up during the late 1800’s, naturalism, but they are slightly different. According to Patricia Penrose, “American realists believed that humanity’s freedom of choice was limited by the power of outside forces… Naturalists argued that individuals have no choice because a person’s life is dictated by heredity and the external environment.” So, in the view of the realist, the universe had at least, in some part, control of their characters, but not complete control as a naturalist believes nor no control as the romantics might. In essence, a man is just a man within a world that is larger than he. Another distinction between the two can be made that naturalism often holds a deterministic philosophical view and focuses on lower classes. Realism is more widely known for focusing on the middle classes.
The key characteristics of American realism, however, include more than just man’s ability to choose. As Richard Chase notes, some of the other components are the importance of character, complex ethical choices as a subject, a focus on the middle class, plausible events, vernacular or colloquial language, objectivity, and the ability to write reality closely and with extreme attention to detail. Or as realist William Dean Howells simply put it, “Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.”
Realism was often told regionally as writers tried to capture the “local color” of their towns as they slowly dwindled into urbanization. It largely came from the South and Midwest regions, although Howells was from New England, Penrose points out. Other key writers of the movement, including Howells, were Mark Twain, Henry James, Rebecca Harding Davis, John W. DeForest, Joseph Kirkland, E.W. Howe and Hamlin Garland.
As noted above, Mark Twain was a realist and was one of the more celebrated of them all. His works include such classics as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Another story that Twain has written, which is very much realists in nature, is “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyberg.” The story is a good example of realism because it focuses on a middle class, it is character based, and it has a complex ethical choice as it’s subject.
The characters that the story focuses on who live in Hadleyberg are all middle class. The “nineteen” who fall prey to the stranger’s plan are apparently prominent enough to gain respect from the fellow townspeople, but they are also not rich enough to buy all they wish to buy. At the part in the story where the women dream of spending the money they think will be coming to them, each spends $7,000 that night. They are obviously not rich enough to own everything they want, but also they hold honest moneymaking jobs (Wilson is a lawyer, for instance). Twain also points out other low class individuals in the town, such as Jack Halliday and general characters noted as “the tanner” or “the hatter.” The town also features the super-rich, the high class, in Dr. Harkness.
Despite the noted caste system in the town, however, the story is entirely character based on the middle class. Yes, the story is about the sack of gold, but the sack acts merely as a catalyst and a reason for the characters to become what they are in the story. For Twain does not spend much more than a total of a paragraph of prose speaking of the sack, but the rest of the time writing on the nature of the characters, their reactions, their dialogues, their insecurities. Twain is much more interested in whether Richards has his hand on his lap or his head than where the sack is at any given time.
Thirdly, the entire story is one big ethical choice for each of the prominent nineteen as well as a few others, such as Burgess. The fact that the title gives way to a town being corrupted is a hint at the idea and theme of this story. The Richards, perhaps, are the biggest focus of these ethical choices, having had to make the original decision of whether to keep the sack or do what the stranger ordered. The whole story is full with ethical choices, do they keep the sack, do they write the remark, are they justified in writing that remark to Burgess, should Mr. Richards tell Burgess that he could have set him free, does being poor justify one to steal, or does anyone deserve the money? On top of that, the entire premise that leads to these ethical conundrums is plausible.
Twain’s story is undoubtedly realist because of these elements and others that follow. He uses vernacular language, never getting lofty or high in his diction. He also has an acute attention to detail and is very much objective. As one of the most celebrated Realists, Twain is also one of the closest practitioners of it.
Campbell, Donna M. “Realism in American Literature, 1860 – 1890.” Literary
Movements. 2007. http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/realism.htm.
(17 March 2008)
Penrose, Patricia. “American Realism: 1865 – 1910.” American Collection Educator’s Site. 2007. http://www.nctamericancollection.org/amer_realism.htm. (17 March 2008)