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American Realism

American realism was a style of writing, music, and art during the 20th century in the United States, specifically in New York.

The artists and writers associated with this movement were more interested in depicting everyday life in New York City than they were in displaying the wealth and prestige of the upper classes or natural landscapes. They wanted to define what was real about American life not what viewers would prefer to look at. This meant focusing on everyday scenes and darker ones, like views of the homeless, alleys, and more.

American Realism pronunciation: uh-mehr-ehh-can ree-uhl-ee-zum

American Realism definition and examples

Definition of American Realism

American realism was a style of painting, writing, and music that was popular during the 20th century. The authors who wrote during this period, like Mark Twain, were interested in depicting the world as it was, not as one might like it to be. They were interested in the urban, mundane, and every day and were able to find beauty and meaning in those settings. For writers like Twain, this was more than a style, it was a way of understanding the world and pushing aside worn-out images of what America was and instead show the beauty and difficulty of what it is.

Authors of American Realism

Some of the best-known authors of American Realism are:

  • Stephen Crane: one of the better-known American realist writers. He wrote The Red Badge of Courage inspired by the American Civil War.
  • William Dean Howells: was a fiction and essay writer. He worked as an editor for the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine. His books include A Modern Instance.
  • Mark Twain: by far the best-known of the American realists. He was born Samuel Clemens and grew up in Missouri. His writing was inspired by his youth. He had a very specific style, using colloquial language. He’s best-known for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Examples of American Realism Novels

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage is certainly Stephen Crane’s best-known work. It was published in 1895 and described the American Civil War. The book features Henry Fleming, An American soldier who flees from battle. He’s overcome with shame and tries to make up for it by getting a “red badge of courage” or a wound. The novel includes incredibly realistic battle sequences and an ironic tone that makes it incredibly memorable. Here are a few lines:

A man with a full stomach and the respect of his fellows had no business to scold about anything that he might think to be wrong in the ways of the universe, or even with the ways of society. Let the unfortunates rail; the others may play marbles.

Despite the fact that Crane was born after the Civil War, he did a remarkable job depicting it realistically and movingly.

Explore Stephen Crane’s poetry.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a well-loved American novel that was inspired by Twain’s youth in Missouri. It was first published in 1884 and is considered to be one of the most important American novels of all time, and certainly of the 19th/20th century. The book includes wonderful examples of imagery, written with a clarity that many readers were not used to. Here are a few lines from the book:

It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened- Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.”

It was widely criticized when it was first released due to Twain’s use of colloquial language. But, today, it’s considered a classic, read in schools throughout the United States and around the world.

Explore Mark Twain’s poetry.

The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

The Rise of Silas Lapham follows the title character as he goes through a rags-to-riches storyline. He earns a fortune, loses it, and struggles with moral decisions. He also worries about fitting into his new social class and tries, however he can, to avoid humiliating himself. Howells is considered to be the father of American realism, and this novel is one of his best-known. The Rise of Silas Lapham was serialized in The Century Magazine starting in 1884. Here are a few lines from the book:

All civilization comes through literature now, especially in our country. A Greek got his civilization by talking and looking, and in some measure a Parisian may still do it. But we, who live remote from history and monuments, we must read or we must barbarise.

The novel has been subject to several interpretations. Some scholars have suggested that it’s far more romantic than the author would’ve liked while others view the book as a satire on biography.

American Realism and Visual Art

American realism was just as important in the world of visual arts as it was in the literary world. Some of the best-known artists working during this period were

  • Edward Hopper: a well-loved American painter who is popular for his oil paintings that reflect everyday American life. He painted nudes, portraits, landscapes, and more.
  • John Sloan: a member of the Socialist Party and artist working in New York. He depicted the working class, focusing on women specifically.
  • George Benjamin Luks: another Ashcan artist who lived in New York. He is best known for his painting Hester Street, which depicts a man showing children a toy.
  • Everett Shinn: famous for his paintings of New York and the theater. His paintings draw connections between everyday life and the crowded setting of a busy theatre.

Their work, as a whole, was characterized by an attempt to capture the real world as it was during the 20th century in New York City. These artists and others were part of the Ashcan School. They were more interested in depicting everyday people, immigrants, and the lower classes than they were in the upper-class aristocracy. Their art often depicted alleys, taverns, and other places frequented by the lower classes. The above artists often cited influence from painters like John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase, and Thomas Eakins.


What are the characteristics of American realism?

The characteristics are a focus on everyday life, the use of colloquial language (that used by people on the street), willingness to depict dark and less than ideal situations. These writers were interested in moving away from an idealized image of American society.

Who founded American realism?

William Dean Howells is considered by some to be the father of American realism. Others include Twain, Rebecca Harding Davis, Henry James, and others as the founders of the movement.

How is realism different from romanticism?

Realism is different from romanticism as it explores the world as it really is. Romanticism depends on figurative language, including examples of hyperbole, metaphor, and personification. Realism is more interested in reality, while romanticism is more interested in fiction.

What influenced the shift to American realism?

The American Civil War was one of the biggest reasons that American authors shifted away from romanticism towards realism. The reality of war and everything that came after inspired authors to focus on what reality had to offer rather than depend on fiction.

  • Bildungsroman: a literary genre that focuses on coming of age stories, following a character’s progression towards adulthood.
  • Biography: an account or description of a person’s life, literary, fictional, historical, or popular in nature, written by a biographer.
  • Drama: a mode of storytelling that uses dialogue and performance. It’s one of several important literary genres that authors engage with.
  • Epistolary: a book made up of a series of documents, usually letters, diary entries, or newspaper clippings

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