There have been several ways of examining not only the emergence of American realism in literature, but how it has been sustained throughout the decades. One of the most important first steps to understanding realism is by contemplating how it was perceived originally when authors such as William Dean Howells and Henry James were producing work that would later be defined as quintessentially “realist" for a number of reasons. Several critics have offered their interpretations of the literary form by looking at its perception throughout its history and in order to gain a clearer understanding of how the movement began, what it meant to its to creators and original readers, and how it was critically received, it is useful to look at different approaches to the form.
It is useful to understand not only what realism was and meant to American literature in general, but also to grasp the first critical reactions to it when it began to appear consistently on the literary scene. To help readers comprehend the initial critical reactions and assess how they were important to our current understanding of American realism, the work of Dr. Link, a preeminent scholar in the fields of both American Literature and American studies, is vital. Dr. Eric Carl Link is a Hugh Schott Professor of English at North Georgia College and State University.
He received his PhD in American Literature from Purdue University in 1995 and began as a professor in 1996, teaching American literature as well as other associated classes. In addition to his teaching duties, Dr. Link has written a number of extensive texts detailing American realism and other literary topics. One of his most important works is entitled, The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century, although he writes for a number of academic journals as well.
Dr. Link is one of the foremost emerging scholars in the field of American literature and his article, “The War of 1893: Realism and Idealism in the Late Nineteenth Century" is a prime example of his knowledge of and research into the founding period of American literary realism. In this article, Dr. Link explores the many differing critical reactions that spawned during the late nineteenth century in response to the new mode of fiction writing that would come to be known as realism. Using journals from this period as well as quotes from a number of prominent literary figures and scholars on aesthetics who lived during this time, he compiles a list of many examples of how the critical world received realism, especially in terms of how it compared with romanticism. While the article does not present an arguable point and is mostly expository, it reveals how the ideas behind realism often clashed with established perceptions of the novel.
The nineteenth-century critics that Link cites often argue about the function of the novel and whether or not its primary duty is to explore the idealistic or the realistic and to what extent either way of writing is best for contemporary readers. “The precise relationship between romanticism and idealism varies from author to author. The critics were always mixed and tended to view romanticism as “idealism" because of what it represented and this spawned even more debates. As Link notes, “Some [critics] argue that the difference is that idealism [romanticism] is a purely philosophical position" (Link 1997; 309). Many seem to be stuck in the old canon of romantic literature and those who are tend to feel that literature’s duty is to not necessarily entertain, but to offer an idealized world that readers can strive to create.
In response to this notion, other critics argued in return that true art should represent a realistic portrayal of human action so that readers can judge and clearly perceive their world. Still other critics Link mentions felt that literature should be a blend of the old idealism in romantic literature with the sharper clarity of realism so that there would be a balance in perception. Again, while this is simply an expository piece about nineteenth-century understandings of realism in American literature, partially as a break from the literary movement of romanticism in American literature, the lack of a thesis is not a hindrance, but rather allows for a fuller realization of the complexity with which realism was initially received among the literary elite during the formation of the genre. One might be tempted to think that literary critics of the nineteenth century may have had a better grasp on the meaning and function of the new influx of realist text, but according to Link’s article and multiple sources, this was hardly the case. In fact, critics had heated debates that grew even more complex with the emergence of naturalism—a subset of realism.
Dr. Randall Knoper is an Associate Professor of American Literature and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has written a number of influential books and peer-reviewed articles discussing not only realism and American literature in general, but how these literary forms intersect with cognition and the workings of the brain. He is especially interested in realist writers such as William Dean Howells and Mark Twain (whom he has written a book about in terms of his works within the context of culture and performance) and is one of the foremost authorities on nineteenth-century literature and its cultural implications and perception.
In his article entitled, “American Literary Realism and Nervous ‘Reflexion’" he integrates his interest in cognition with his understanding of realism in both a nineteenth-century and modern context and argues that there is a clear intersection between literature (most notably, realism) and science. He asserts that there has been little scholarship about the parallels between the study of the human brain and perception with the development of realism and contends that both fields of study were interconnected. To expand his thesis, Knoper relates some of the greatest developments in nineteenth-century neurophysiology and discusses how some of the key findings about the senses, brain functions, and sympathetic nervous system are carried into the literature by means of realistic depiction.
In essence, Knoper is suggesting that throughout the various function of the brain and body, the whole of the self is integrated. In other words, the character or self is projected through these series of influences and impulses. He sees these influences as most clearly represented in the works of Mark Twainand Oliver Wendell Holmes; two realist authors with a penchant for the idea of reflex action or automatic responses to conditions, both within or outside the body. Many scholars tend to view realism as a reaction against romanticism but for Dr. Knoper, realism was almost a symptom of the scientific changes that were occurring in America and abroad. New realizations about the nature of the brain, cognition, and even mental disorders were given scientific credence and instead of people assuming (as they might into theromantic period) that a character was formed on almost supernatural principles and driven by godlike desires, human beings were merely reacting to biological and physical forces.
According to Knoper, “The literature that was so devoted to accurate representation grew in tandem with the science devoted to explaining how humans perceive and apprehend the world" (Knoper 2002; 715). This is a relatively singular theory about the early development of realism but it does explain quite a bit about the sudden change of authors who began to look for new, more realistic ways of presenting reality. In other words, the events of the turn of the century and beyond were beginning to have an influence on literature and thus the creation of realism in American literary circles. Knoper also notes that both scientists and nineteenth-century authors were making a simultaneous effort “to crystallize common cultural concerns; the preoccupation they all shared with questions of identification and duplicity, for example, replays familiar nineteenth-century anxieties about identity and dissimulation and about signification itself in urbanizing and modernizing societies" (Knoper 2002; 716). In other words, many of the themes that are manifested in realist American literature are not simply the result of a changing American landscape or new set of American desires per se, but rather that emerge because the psyche is being understood in new, more complex ways. In general, unlike other commentators on the American realism movement, Knoper is suggesting that science and literature and intertwined and thus it exists not simply as a political or philosophical reaction (as Link highlights using nineteenth-century criticism) but as something that developed almost organically from the arena of science