The Inevitableness of Realism

Uni-Essay im Jahr 2007, an der HU Berlin, im Hauptseminar „Realism and Naturalism in American Fiction“: Im Rückblick scheint der Realismus in der amerikanischen Literatur unausweichlich gewesen zu sein. Das Zusammenspiel aus sozialen Veränderungen, wissenschaftlichen Entdeckungen, wirtschaftlichen und künstlerischen Entwicklungen sowie das Aufkommen des Journalismus ließen quasi keine Alternative.


The end of the 19th century demanded a new kind of literature. This new kind of literature happened to be “Realism”. But Realism is not a mere coincidence, but rather a logical consequence of the literature development so far and the social environment in change.

To follow this deterministic, teleological path of argumentation, we have to agree on two assumptions. The first is that literature reacts – in any way – to social changes. Social changes include economic developments, historical events, scientific discoveries – nearly everything influencing and constituting the author’s life. The reaction of literature to such social changes is not necessarily clear, and hardly ever a one-to-one-causality can be detected, but we certainly can agree upon the notion, that social changes influence literature. The second assumption relates to the author. We assume that authors – not every author, but some of them – try to push the envelope, they try new, original.

If we can agree on these two assumptions, we have a good basis to have a closer look at the social changes at the end of the 19th century. So we can diagnose to what authors had to react to. As we will see, there was an enormous change on a great variety of levels taking place. In short, life got more factual, objective, scientific. Agreeing on the point that authors had to have to find a new way of dealing with all this change, we should have a look on the history of literature. Knowing that literature has emerged out of historiography and reached a high fictitious level, it is at first glance rather surprising, that literature now restricts itself to a reporting device. In a way, literature returns to its roots and does historiography on a small level. These two developments – social changes and realistic approach in literature – are mutually conditional.

In a way, my argument is influenced by the ‘New Historicism’ or ‘Poetics of Culture’, as it was framed by Stephen Greenblatt – not in the meaning of synchronous analysis of texts, but in the relation to the necessity of considering all aspects in reach. On a more abstract level, it is based on the phenomenon of Emergence. With emergent phenomena it is traceable why certain developments took place in retrospect, but it is never possible to forecast a certain development. So, in this essay, I try to trace several aspects that led to the existence of Realism and thereby gain a further look at the interdependence of culture and literature. By ranging Realism in the history of literature we can see how new demands result in new forms of literature.

Social Changes

In the 19th century, there have been a lot of changes taking place; urbanization, industrialization being the buzz-words. Industrialization leaves the manufacturing of single products behind and enables producers to make big amounts of one good. If we take shoes as an example, in former times, one went to a shoemaker and got one’s individual pair of shoes made. Now there are people in a factory who produce many shoes, and the person requiring a pair of shoes goes to a shop and selects the pair one likes. That leads to the establishment of size-tables. Before, one’s feet were measured and the shoes were made fitting. Now one had to find out which size one’s feet had and to select the appropriate shoe-model, the idea of getting individual shoes fitting one’s individual taste became obsolete. People became de-individualized by being reduced to the entry in a table; individual differences were neglected and pressed into the pattern. Anyone with “unusual” feet-size knows what that means, since the shoe-table considers only foot-length; if one has broader feet than the average shoe-customer one gets the feeling of being abnormal. The effect of industrialization on every-day-life of the workers, the social landscape – where now big factories were erected – and the dull working in such factories are easily imaginable. Of course, these effects did not affect the richer ones to the same extent as they affected the common people.

Being just the entry in a table is one of the most downbeat experiences a human soul being aware of its own individuality can learn. This table-entry-culture did not just occur in the aspect of shoes, but with any clothes, in sales-calculation, in housing. People did not live in their own houses any more, they rented a flat in a building. The once proud name-sign at the house-entry became a shy name-sign at the door among all the other doors; with some luck, people got their names listed in the entrance area of the apartment-building.

In an urban area, people became de-individualized, but – as anyone knows – people remain individuals. The economic forces of working in a factory left few space for individual gratification. No, I do not romanticize pre-urbanized culture, but to a greater account than in industrialized and urbanized life and culture, one had ways and chances to feel individual in every-day-life. The impression of being the best shoemaker in town, the feeling of living in a good house where one fixed the roof oneself, being personally addressed by the shopkeeper when buying things – all these small experience got lost.

The never-ending stream of immigrants filled the urban areas, expanded them, and made the masses speechless. The social connections of former towns and villages broke apart, the different cultures clashed and established small communities in the growing cities, the uprooted men, women, children tried to adjust to the new world. To leave one’s small community – which occurred quite often in every days-life – heightened the impression of being alienated, of being just an anonymous element in the human masses. Immigration politics and implications did not cause any of the social consequences I sketched, but they amplified the effect.

To put it negatively: one became part of the masses and had to struggle to remain individually recognizable.

Scientific Discoveries

In 1858, Darwin published his “The Origin of Species” after hesitating twenty years. What was to become the theory of evolution, unsettled not only religious people, but anyone, since the idea of eternal change and selection had implications on everybody. Everyone could see that the world around was changing. Big factories were erected, small towns became huge cities, railroads pervaded the country, rich people got richer, the gentry often impoverished. Alfred Russel Wallace’s “Survival of the Fittest”-dogma mirrored every-day-experience and was, in many aspects, comparable to Darwin’s theories.

The discovery of people’s inner life, known as psychology, split the human being into – as we now can describe it – hardware and software. One can not work without the other. Inner operations and processes were explored, described and offered access to hidden parts and mechanisms of every-day-life. In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the x-ray. This device offered another – more scientific – way to make inner life visible.

Improvements on the steam-machine enabled a whole society to rely on this power. In opposition to the mechanical steam-machine, electricity appeared like alien forces; all the power of driving engines came – kind of miraculously – out of a cable. To put it more poetic: A lot of invisible forces were detected and tried to make use of them.

Artistic Developments

For centuries, painters had struggled to depict reality. In 1837, Louis Daguerre made their struggle pointless. By inventing photography, he was able to record the optic aspects of reality to a never known accurateness. In 1895, photography was motionized by Thomas Alva Edison and his “kinematograph”. The visible reality was by these devices accurate and factual depictable. Painting abandoned the idea of retaining reality in pictures and looked for new ways to depict a “felt reality”, which sometimes felt more real to the viewer than the “real reality”. But the difference between “felt” and “real reality” would open up a new discussion that does not lead us very far in our topic now. Since anyone can relate to the terms “felt reality” and “real reality” – the first meaning a depiction that “feels” correct and “real”, the second one meaning a depiction, that is scientific and factual correct – I use these terms to distinguish, which I believe is essential to realism.

It did not take long for photography to become the popular device for saving the visible conditions of the time. The sound-reality became recordable, when Thomas Alva Edison – the same – in 1877 invented the phonograph. Science discovered forces that were unperceivable for human beings – the long-term evolution, the invisible inner life, the electric power –, the art was able to record anything visible and hearable. The intervention here may be, that photography and sound-recording are more craftsmen-tools than artistic devices, but the point is, that they pushed the “conventional” arts like painting, reciting, music playing to new areas. The artistic aspects of visual and acoustic recording were still to be used, but the 20th century was to become satisfying in that respect.

Economic Shifts

To run a factory one had to have money. Since a factory gives the owner a respectful amount of profit, the owner gets richer and richer. That was one way of becoming very rich. The ways to richdom that existed before were accompanied now by new opportunities. Making an invention and pushing it to the market – the patent laws were helpful for those people – could lead to sudden richness. Mining and processing natural resources could be another way. Since factories needed large amounts of resources, railroads offered easy transportation over long distances and telegraphy enabled easy long-distance communication, entrepreneurs no longer had to be near their customers. As long as one could offer enough goods, one was ‘in the business’.

The economic relations enlarged. A shoe factory needed lots of leather in contrast to a single shoe maker. For leather providers the factory was the better customer. For common people, there were few chances left. They seldom had estates where they could discover resources. They had their knowledge, abilities, and human strength – Karl Marx analyzed the new relations profoundly. The single craftsman had rare chances to do good deals in getting his material. He had even worse chances to sell his products at reasonable prices. Few rich people still could afford hand-made shoes, but common people bought the cheaper ones at the big warehouses. The whole ecosystem was interested in big deals, and the common man was swallowed by the mass. As a mass-member one was a valuable customer. As an individual, one was superfluous.

Short Conclusion

As we could see so far, industrialization and urbanization led to de-individualization. The whole economy and culture was based on masses, not on individuals. Science was able to explain more and more phenomena by accessing the invisible world. Since reality was now recordable by new devices, arts searched for new ways of representing their ideas. Painters did no more “photorealistic” paintings, but invented a style that was to become “Impressionism”. What chances had literature to survive? What chances had literature to remain a relevant cultural device?


As said in the Introduction, I assume that there are always some authors who try to react to the new situation, who try to be original and “push the envelope”. Why they do so, is rather a psychological than a literary question. In short, I think they try to cope with the new situation, with the changes, with the changing world. And they try to portray aspects of the world around them and give the reader some thoughts or help them coping the world – the old combination of “delectare” and “prodesse”, joy and utility.

The world was changing so fast in the 19th century, so fast as it has never changed before. Nearly every aspect of the world had changed within this century, as I have shown in extracts. So, it was in a way necessary for literature to change likewise to keep up with the world.

The relation between the world and literature seems to be simplified in my argument, but nevertheless it is sufficient, and if you keep in mind that literature is produced by authors who are shaped by the world around them, and that some of these shaped authors struggled to find new ways to express themselves, you will have little ammunition left to effectively contradict my assumption.

History of Literature

In the beginning, man created signs to remember things. Cave-paintings recorded hunting successes, clay-tables recorded harvest results, carvings in wood or stone reminded of gods and goddesses. At a certain time, mankind was enabled to record any thought in writing. What did they record? They recorded facts. They recorded results on the battlefields, results of the harvest, earnings, names of the ruler’s family and their living over generations. Over centuries, these once factual stories became embroidered, beautified, enlarged or reduced according to the politics of the day. The inhabitants of heaven got their own stories, never to believed untrue – whether they were believed to be true is another question hard to answer; truthfulness in spite of truth seems to be a more appropriate category. So, in short, literature was historiography, sometimes in the closest sometimes in the widest sense, but always truthful.

Since today, the Bible is referred to as historiography, maybe an allegorical historiography by several people. In medieval times there were two ways to prove the correctness of your telling – and true it had to be. Either you had seen and heard it yourself and wrote it down or you have read it. “As the book tells”, “as I have read” are common inserts of medieval authors. They tell about ancient centuries with great creativity, but they never forget to remind the audience, that they tell the truth. The relation of Catholicism to lying may be one of the reasons why authors never admitted their inventions and imaginations. But we can see a renunciation from facts and reality over the centuries. Until there came a time, when the author did no longer had to tell the truth and affirm it, but the telling had to be truthful in the sense of believable.

Daniel Defoe claimed in “Robinson Crusoe” to tell the truth. Thomas Morus argued to tell the truth in “Utopia” by the literary device of writing down, what the sailor told. So his writing remains true in the sense of recording the telling. Edgar Allan Poe just wrote what he imagined. He hardly ever needed or used an artificial proof of truth. He used the literary device of true-telling-affirmation, but not to claim his truthfulness, but to enhance the literary effect. The audience was used to fictitious writing in Poe’s time, novels and short-stories were not to be taken as historiographical correct. Literature has emancipated itself from the catholic truth-entitlement.

I admit the problem of truth, audience, author and truthfulness is rather complex and much to abbreviated presented to be fully agreeable in this fragmentary presentation. But my keypoint is the literary development starting at recording facts to historiography and “ending” at highly fictitious texts, as in Poe’s “The Red Death”, where historiographical remarks are just a literary device and have no factual value any more. If one author wrote historiography, one had to clearly say so. Usual texts were regarded as fictitious, but may have some concordances with reality, but hardly ever the pretence of being factual.

Literature as Journalism or vice versa

Everything said according to literature refers to Literature, that means novels, short stories, dramatic texts, poems. Of course, there were a lot of other texts, like chronicles, protocols, documents, reports. These texts culminated in journalistic genres and found their place in newspapers, specialized books and what we might call factual texts now. Two important factors caused the emergence of journalism: the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg (1435), accompanied by the increasing decline of paper costs, and the literacy of many people. In the 16th century the usual “newspaper” had the form of a flysheet. In the 19th century there was a wide range of journalistic publications established. Since newspapers and magazines were affordable for many people, since railroads allowed quickly accessing papers published far away, since being informed was essential, at least in the economic sphere, or at least useful in every day-life, the most common reading experience was that of reading newspapers or other texts belonging to journalistic genres.

In a simplified view, one could say that the poles of truth and truthfulness resp. factual report and fictitious imagination were occupied by journalism and literature – the two spheres were separated by their claim on factuality. Since most 19th century authors were both, journalists and literary authors, journalism was filled with literary devices and literature made heavy use of journalistic devices. Edgar Allan Poe is a strong example of a literary author who also worked as an journalist. Many works, like “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “The Pit and the Pendulum”, are romantic in the heaviest sense and stress the sublime, but “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and many of his landscape descriptions, like “The Domain of Arnheim” or “Landors Cottage”, appear to be the texts of rather a reporter than a literary author.

When a person like William Dean Howells, who wrote an acclaimed biography of Abraham Lincoln and worked as an magazine editor many years, sets his mind on to writing novels – with the romantic era far behind and no other strong literary drift having taken its place yet – we can imagine the results. The imagination is, of course, coined by our knowledge, but, nevertheless, he was the “father of realism”.

What have we learned so far about the circumstances leading to the “invention of realism”? The society, the culture became factual, the individual was struggling for its individuality, many people were able to read, and reading journalistic texts was a common occupation. And since all these developments took place within less than a century, we can truly speak of a major turn in cultural history.

Precise Observation

The journalistic virtue is reporting. Hanns-Joachim Friedrichs, a German journalist denied the emotional involvement by saying: “A journalist never gets involved with his subject, even it may be good.” (Ein Journalist macht sich nie mit einer Sache gemein, auch nicht mit einer guten.) A journalist reports what was to be seen, heard, experienced; he is not allowed to tell what he concludes, interprets, thinks of the matter – at least in the pure journalistic sense. So, what does William Dean Howells do in “The Rise of Silas Lapham”? He reports what happens. He never reports what is felt, what he as the author thinks about the actions taking place. By quoting what is said, by describing how one looks or behaves, the reader gets deep insights into the inner world, but the author never mentions what happens in the inner world of the protagonists. This artistic constriction leads to a common reading experience with new effect. Readers were never told what to think about a protagonist or an action, but anyhow Howells was effectively manipulative by making clear what the reader had to think of them.

I suggest that in another time Howells’ approach would not have met many readers willing to follow his way of writing. And with Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” we find an even more impressive text. There is an author who conducts his novel like a scientific experiment. He sets the elements and just observes what happens. He does not interfere or interpret what happens, he just describes how his protagonists behave and struggle to get along. According to the experimental approach not the protagonist is responsible for his or her behavior but the circumstances, the elements set by the author. So, in a way, Dreiser has a set of protagonists and by influencing their surrounding he gets them to behave in his way. So the leading question in this novel is not whether they are good people or bad ones, but what does it take to make a person behave like that.

This revolutionary approach on observing people is closely connected to the initial remarks about the changes in society. Since people became de-individualized, society, culture, surrounding etc. rule. The idea of a great person changing the world is literary obsolete. There are only persons left being twirled around by the world surrounding.

The Inevitability of Realism

The initial remarks on factuality led to a secularized view on the world. Natural sciences focused on facts, the paradigm was first to observe then to explain. God or other forces were no longer needed to explain the world. Actually, it was even possible now to contradict the common religious explanation like Darwin did. The ‘Age of Enlightenment’ prepared ground for a clinical, objective view on the world. The literary device of the “deus ex machina” – often used in medieval texts as the powerful king arriving and saving the hero or in ancient plays a god doing so – was no longer convincing. The rapidness of scientific and technological development left no room for divine forces, in fact, people got the impression that there is a cleft between religion and progress. Religion concerned ethical, moral questions and private life. It did no longer deliver fitting explications for what was going on in the world and why it was changing so fast.

No other era before has seen such strong stress on facts and reason, the Enlightenment being paraphrased as “the era of reason” starting this shift, the 19th century with its scientific and technological progresses substantiating it. The reading culture with its journalist background was ready for realist literature. Literature always had to be believable in the broadest sense. Now, since reality changed so fast, it obtained two additional duties. Like journalism, it got the task of being a chronicle, it had to be testable. The literary depiction of a place, of an event of a real person had to be correct. Like photographers authors only have a small range of deviance left; a painter’s range and an author’s range in former times was much wider. The second duty was to give an understanding of the time. Since anyone knew from every day-life experience that divine forces or sublime layers did hardly ever occur, there was no need for such in literature any more.

Coming to the final point, there is hardly anything left to say apart from the fact, that – since the historical situation was the one I sketched – there was no time before, when realist authors had the chance to gain success, that the emergence of realist literature was imaginable. From my point of view, in retrospect it had no other chance than becoming realist. Of course, not the whole literature at once became realist, but authors who tried changed American literature in the long-term. Modern successful authors like Stephen King or John Irving have in their own ways benefited from Realism. The former by adding horror to the realistic surface of his stories, the latter by celebrating the old tradition of “spinning a tale” (fabulieren) out of realistic material. The pure journalistic attitude of just observing was soon abandoned, and the successors of realist literature explored the inner life. For a short period of time, from the second half of the 19th century till the beginning of the 20th century, American literature, focused on observing the subsumable reality objectively. Outside the USA, Realism was a pure 19th-century-thing. Authors like Honoré de Balzac, Lew Tolstoi or Theodor Fontane wrote their famous works long before the Realists’ climax in the USA. But since I was speaking about American Realism in literature, the conjunction of Realism with the developments mentioned in the beginning and the overall factualization of life and culture is certainly not a mere coincidence.

The purpose was not to establish a new theory or suggesting that Realism developed out of a one-to-one-causality, but to locate it in its cultural era, and thereby gain a deeper understanding of its emergence, impact, and mode of functioning. As I said, my argument was influenced by the ‘Poetics of Culture’ and by the amusing – at least to me – notion that literature developed out of historiography and now returned to its roots. But realist literature did chronicle the world not on the large scale like historians but on the very small scale with the closest and most objective look imaginable.*


Realism (arts) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Realismus (Literatur) – Wikipedia:

Stephen Greenblatt, “Capitalist Culture and the Circulatory System”, in Murray Krieger (ed), “The Aims of Representation. Subject – Text – History”, New York Columbia UP, 1987

Stephen Greenblatt, “The Circulation of Social Energy”, in “Shakespearean Negotiations”, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988

New Historicism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Steven Johnson, “Emergence. The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software”, Scribner New York, 2001

Emergence – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Emergenz – Wikipedia:

Willi Paul Adams, Peter Lösche (ed), “Länderbericht USA”, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung Bonn 1998

James Monaco, “Film verstehen. Kunst, Technik, Sprache, Geschichte und Theorie des Films und der Medien, mit einer Einführung in Multimedia”, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1995

Evolution – Wikipedia:

Thomas Edison – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Complete Illustrated Stories and Poems”, Chancellor Press London, 1994

William Dean Howells, “The Rise of Silas Lapham”:

Theodore Dreiser, “Sister Carrie”:

All internet-sites last checked on august 5th 2007. Wikipedia-entries were only used to cross-check facts, not to develop the argument.

* “Chronicle” does not imply historical correctness – whether a person of the name Silas Lapham ever experienced a fate like the one Howells described, does not matter – but involves cultural correctness. The protagonists and plot may be – and often were – fictitious, but the surrounding wherein the plot was set was accurate and factual correct.

Alexander Florin: Alexander Florinein Kind der 70er • studierter Anglist/Amerikanist und Mediävist (M.A.) • wohnhaft in Berlin • Betreiber dieses Blogs • mehr über Alexanders Schaffen: ||  bei Google+ || auf Twitter folgen

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