Realism and Naturalism: Representing Reality in American Literature
In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson opined that American writers must use the materials at hand to produce a new art. “Instead of the sublime and beautiful, the near, the low, the common [must be] explored and poetized….I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia ,” observed Emerson, “I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.” This course will explore the emergence of a literature focused on authentic depictions of “everyday life” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the context of contemporaneous industrialization and modernization and the emergence of the new sciences of psychology and physics. We will examine the roots of American realism in the expose journalism of the mid-nineteenth century and consider what specific aspects of a fictional text contribute to our experience of it as “realistic.” We will also consider how later writers have combined the insights of the first realists with advances in representational technologies (e.g. photography) and how American writers have absorbed and transformed the representational strategies of Latin American artists in order to depict “real life” more authentically (e.g. magical realism).
Student Learning Outcomes
• To conceptualize the complex interaction between text and context by understanding how historical situations have shaped writing and, conversely, how writing has affected social and political structures.
• To learn to identify rhetorical and representational strategies associated with the “realistic” depiction of American life.
• To make connections between writers from different time periods and experiences, noting formal and thematic convergences and divergences.
• To learn to read a range of kinds of writing—literary and critical--carefully and critically.
• To write about course texts with clarity and precision.
My assessment of your work in the course will be based on your performance on a series of writing assignments, two exams, and your participation in class discussions.
• Expectations for Discussion
Make sure to leave enough time not only to read the assignments for each class, but also to think critically about each text, about how it speaks to the texts we’ve read previously, what new ideas it raises, its formal characteristics, or whatever interests you or confounds you about what you read. I expect you to come to class with ideas about what you’ve read. However, coming with ideas doesn’t mean that you have to come with all the answers. Questions and confusion will often spark the best conversations as we work through some of the difficulties of a text together.
• Expectations for Writing
I will give you specific instructions for each writing assignment, but in each assignment I will look for the following:
• A compelling argument
• Supporting evidence gleaned from the close analysis of texts
• Clear, precise, and elegant prose.
• Expectations for Exams
Each exam will cover half of the course material. The exams will give you an opportunity to demonstrate your grasp of the material by identifying and analyzing passages from the course texts.
• Grade Calculation
Four (4) 1-pg. papers 40% (10% each)
One (1) 2-3 pg. paper 15%
Exam I 15%
Exam II 20%
Class Participation 10%
I expect you to attend class and participate in our discussions. If you miss more than 2 classes, I will lower your grade.
Academic Honor Code
Participation in an academic community comes with responsibilities. Your responsibility is to produce your own work and to acknowledge the sources that inform that work. You have an obligation to adhere to the University Academic Honor Policy. Please see the UNCG Graduate Bulletin and the Policies for Students handbook.
The texts for the course include books available at the UNCG Bookstore (titles are listed below) and materials on e-reserve at Jackson Library. Please print copies of e-reserve materials and bring them to class. In addition, I have placed one copy of each of the books for the course (except Olsen) on reserve at Jackson.
Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham
Kate Chopin, The Awakening and Selected Stories
Frank Norris, McTeague
Tillie Olsen, Yonnondio
Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices
Louise Erdrich, Tracks
Schedule of Readings and Assignments
Aug. 16: Introduction
The Roots of American Realism: The Expose
18: George Foster, New York by Gas-Light (ER)
Davis, “Life in the Iron Mills”
“Classic” American Realism: Representing Ordinary People
23: Twain, Ch. 1-XVI
25: Twain, Ch. XVII-XXIV
30: Twain, Ch.XXV-XXXIV
Sept. 1: Twain, Ch. XXXV-End
2: Paper One Due (in my mailbox by 10:00 a.m.)
6: Howells, Ch I-V
8: Howells, Ch. VI-IX
13: Howells, Ch. X-XIII
15: Howells, Ch. XIV-XVIII
20: Howells, Ch. XIX-XXIII
22: Howells, Ch. XXIV-End
Howells, “Selected Essays” (ER)
“Classic” American Naturalism: Representing Motivation
27: Chopin, Ch. I-XVI
28: Paper Two Due (in my mailbox by 10:00 a.m.)
29: Chopin, Ch. XVII-XXV
Oct. 4: Chopin, XXVI-End
6: EXAM I
11: NO CLASS (Holiday)
13: Norris, Ch. I-IX
18: Norris, Ch. X-XV
20: Norris, Ch. XVI-XIX
25: Norris, Ch. XX-End
Norris, “A Plea for Romantic Fiction” and “The Mechanics of Fiction”
(both short essays) in Norton Critical Edition of McTeague
Realism and Social Action: Representing Injustice
27: Olsen, Ch. 1-3
28: Paper Three Due (in my mailbox by 10:00 a.m.)
Nov. 1: Olsen, Ch. 4-6
3: Olsen, Ch 7-End
Gold, “Proletarian Realism” (ER)
8: Wright, Read the entire book
10: Wright, Read the entire book again
11: Paper Four Due (in my mailbox by 10:00 a.m.)
Realism and the Oral Tradition: The “Americanization” of Magical
15: Erdrich, Ch. 1-3
17: Erdrich, Ch. 4-5
22: Erdrich, Ch. 6-7
29: Erdrich, Ch. 8-9
Dec. 1: EXAM II
2: Paper Five Due (in my mailbox by 10:00 a.m.)