American Short Fiction

The Influence of Realism and Naturalism on 20th Century American Fiction After World War I
American people and the authors among them were left disillusioned by the effects that World War I had on their society. America needed a literature that would explain what had happened and what was happening to their society. American writers turned to what is now known as modernism. The influence of 19th Century realism and naturalism and their truthful representation of American life and people was evident in post World War I modernism. This paper will try to prove this by presenting the basic ideas and of these literary genres, literary examples of each, and then make connections between the two literary movements. Realism and Modernism not only depicted American society after World War I accurately and unbiasedly, but also tried to find the solutions brought upon by the suffering created by the war (Elliott 705).
The realistic movement of the late 19th century saw authors accurately depict life and its problems. Realists attempted to “give a comprehensive picture of modern life” (Elliott 502) by presenting many walks of life. They did not try to give one view of life but instead attempted to show the different classes, manners, and stratification of life in America. Realists created this picture of America by combining a wide variety of “details derived from observation and documentation” to “approach the norm of experience” (Elliot 503). Along with this technique, realists compared the “objective or absolute existence” in America to that of the “universal truths, or observed facts of life” (Harvey 12). In other words, realists objectively looked at American society and pointed out the aspects that it had in common with the general truths of existence. This realistic movement evolved as a result of many changes and transitions in American culture. In the late 1800’s, the United States was experiencing “swift growth and change” (Bradley114) as a result of a changing economy, society, and culture because of an influx in the number of immigrants into America. Realists such as Henry James and William Dean Howells, two of the most prolific writers of the Nineteenth century, used typical realistic methods to create an accurate depiction of changing American life. William Dean Howells made his “comic criticisms of society” (Bradley 114) by comparing American culture with those of other countries. In his “comic” writings, Howells criticized American morality and ethics but still managed to accurately portray life as it happened. He attacked and attempted to resolve “the moral difficulties of society by this rapid change” (Elliott 505). He believed that novels should “should present life as it is, not as it might be” (American Literature Compton’s). In the process of doing this, Howells demonstrated how life shaped the characters in his novels and their own motives and inspirations. By concentrating on these characters’ strengths as opposed to creating a strong plot, he thematically wrote of how life was more good than evil and, in return, wanted his literature to inspire more good. On the other hand, Henry James judged the world from a perspective “offered by society and history” (Bradley 704). He also separated himself from America to create an unbiased view of it as a “spectator and analyst rather than recorder” (Spiller 169) of the American social structure. He wrote from a perspective that allowed him to contrast American society with that of Europe by contrasting the peoples’ ideas. By contrasting social values and personal thought about America’s view of America, he presented to the people the differing motivational factors that stimulated the different social classes (Bradley 1143). Overall, these writers managed to very formally portray America as it was while adding their own criticisms about it in an attempt to stimulate change.
The naturalist movement slowly developed with most of the same ideals as those of the realists in that it attempted to find life’s truths. In contrast, Naturalists, extreme realists, saw the corrupt side of life and how environment “deprived individuals of responsibility” (Elliott 514). Literary naturalism invited writers to examine human beings objectively, as a “scientist studies nature” (“Am. Lit.” Compton’s). In portraying ugliness and cruelty, the authors refrained from preaching about them; rather they left readers to draw their own conclusions about the life they presented.