Post-Civil War American Literature saw a transition from the prominence of romance to the development of realism. In the late 1800’s, the United States was experiencing swift growth and change as a result of a changing economy, society, and culture because of an influx in the number of immigrants into America. (Spiller 35) Whereas authors previously sought to “idealize human beings, fall in love with a dream, and then, reject the real man or woman who had inspired the dream”, they now worked to accurately portray life and people as they really were. (Wagenknecht 68) 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
Henry James was one of five children of affulent, eccentric parents. While his birth in 1843 was in New York City, his parents were purposly rootless, and by the age of eighteen he had already crossed the Atlantic six times. He avoided participation in the Civil War because of a poor back and began a role which he would maintain throughout his life and writings, one of a detached observer rather than participant in the American social scene. (Matthiessen 14)
The first phase of James’ writing begins when he is twenty-one, in 1864 and continues until 1881. He was extremely popular during this time, especially during after publication of a short story Daisy Miller, which is concerned with the destruction of a naive American girl by European mores. James continues the theme of placing Americans without sufficient social experience into
the complex society and culture of Europe with The American, which chronicles a man whose finds himself unable to buy his way into French society. (Matthiessen 14)
For Henry James, the years of 1882 to 1895 brought less success. His novels now took on a more political tone. (Matthiessen 15) In 1886, he published The Bostonians, regarding the feminist movement in New England. Here, “he complained that women who wanted to become just like men were disregarding their own uniqueness.” (Norton 616) The Tragic Muse, published in 1890, continues this trend as it contrasts art with politics. After these works failed commerically , James turned to the British stage; he found no greater success there. (Matthiessen 15)
The period of James’ life recognized as the final phase, the one which Matthiessen calls the “Major Phase”, revolves around three novels with which James assured himself a place in American Literature. Released in 1902, The Wings of the Dove contrasts a rich young American with European fortune hunters that are ultimately shamed by the dying heroine’s tragedy.A year later, “The Ambassadors, which James’ called ‘the best, ‘all round’ of my productions’ describes the initiation of an aging American into the relativistic ethics of the Old World in ‘huge iridescent’ Paris. The Golden Bowl verbosly analyses father-daughter and adulturous relations.” (Matthiessen 16)
Ultimately, James’ genius was recognized by those who share his craft. His works explore psychological subtlies; he is renown for his use of ambiguity and dramatic characterisation. While his works lack the elements of middle-class American life, impeding acceptance by the general public. James’ contribtutions to literature are still felt today, as he influenced such authors as Wharton, Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner. (Matthiessen 19)
William Dean Howells, born in 1837, was the son of printer, and, because of this, his early life was devoted to the typecast word. He learned to set type before he was able to write, and many of his earliest composition came not from the pen, but rather from the press. Although his father’s lack of money prevented Howell from receiving a formal education, as a young boy he read a tremendous amount of material, providing a rich and diverse literary background for his later works. (Wagenknecht 1-2)
Howells began his career by writing for a number of mid-Western newspapers. He first appeared in the January 1860 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, a periodical he would later become editor-in-chief of, with a poem, Andenken”. That year, he also published an autobiographical work of Abraham Lincoln for the candidate’s campaign, which later won him an appointment as the American consulate at Venice. Howell returned to the United States in 1865 and worked for the Atlantic Monthly until 1881. (Wagenknecht 4)
After this, Howells began his first true novels, which were mostly based on his own travel experiences. These works provided the literary basis for his later works that his newspaper poems and serials had not. This climaxed in his works which began after 1887, when he risked his career writing a letter to the New York Tribune urging a pardon for the so-called Chicago anarchists, some of whom were executed for killings during the Haymarket Square riot which they were not believed to have committed. After his plea, a string of Tolstoy-influenced novels were released by Howells, which include A Hazard of New Fortune and The Quality of Mercy.
Howells, while opposing idealization, made his “comic criticisms of society” by comparing American culture with those of other countries.(Bradley 114) 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”. (Wagenknecht 31)In the process of doing this, Howells demonstrated how life shaped the characters of his novels and their own motives and inspirations. By concentrating on these characters’ strengths as opposed to 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…” .(Matthiessen 74) He also separated himself from America to create an unbiased view of it as a “spectator and analyst rather than recorder” of the American social structure. (Spiller 169) 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 though about America in America, he presented to the people the differing motivational factors that stimulated the different social classes. (Bradley 1143) Howell and James managed to very formally portray America as it was while adding their own criticisms about it in an attempt to stimulate change.