Literature and Social Reality Essay
Literature and Social Reality
In this paper I will discuss and analyze the social forces of immigration and industrialization that shape literature during the period of 1865 to 1912. I will describe the major literary movements of the period. Additionally I will explain how Realism and Naturalism influenced the literature of the period, how immigration and industrialization contributed to the influences. I will illustrate using examples from some of the greatest authors of the period. Immigration and Industrialization The United States’ population grew quickly in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Baym (2008) et al. write that there were 38.5 million people in 1870 and had grown to 92 million in 1910. This growth resulted mostly from immigration. People came from countries all over the world but predominantly from European and Asian nations. Immigration was also the major cause for urbanization in the United States according to Baym et al. (2008) with a dramatic proportional shift from a mostly rural population to a larger city population. Simultaneously with this mass immigration industrialization was happening creating an abundance of factory jobs and building immense wealth for some while also creating dramatic divides in society.
Baym et al. (2008) describe the situation: “Long-settled white Americans faced newly arrived white people across divides of power, income, and privilege – worker against owner, farm against city, immigrant against native-born, leading to suspicion and social turbulence on a scale that the nation had not seen” (p. 3). The consequences were labor struggles resulting from terrible working conditions. Immigration brought an abundance of workers resulting in low wages as well as “inhumane and dangerous working conditions” (Baym et al. 2008, p.3).
Conflict also arose from farmers being pushed off their land by the railroads and competition between native-born citizens and immigrants. There was also increased suspicion and resentment between the social classes likely based on fear of losing their “part of the cake” for the upper and middle classes, whereas the lower class was resentful because of how they were treated. Major Literary Movements The major literary movements during this period were realism and naturalism emerging after a long period of idealism and romanticism.
Realism shifted literature to a way of describe life as it actually is instead of trying to present an idealized or romantic image. It was an objective style that offered detached perspectives on the everyday lives of the middle-class, working-class and the poor. This style worked well for describing the struggles of the period. Baym et al. (2008) describe W. D. Howells as the “chief American advocate” of realism (p. 6). Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and others also joined in this movement as well as some distinguished African American writers such as W. E.
B Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Baym et al. , 2008). The nature of Naturalism has been debated as being the opposite of realism or as “extension or intensification of realism” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 7). Naturalism usually describes more extreme settings and circumstances than realism and focuses on harsher conditions and poorer characters. Baym et al. (2008) suggest that while characters in realistic works often overcome difficulties, in naturalistic pieces the characters never stand a chance. It is a much more pessimistic literary style than realism.
Crane, Dreiser, London, and Norris are described by Baym et al. (2008) as the leading American naturalistic writers of the period. How Realism and Naturalism Influenced Literature Realism had an immense influence on the literature during this period. Mark Twain was one of the major authors and his “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is an excellent example of his style, which became regarded as a leading piece for the “American style” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 6). Twain used colloquial speech and his writing style puts the reader in the position of participant, almost as if in a dialogue with Huck.
It is a very intimate and informal way of writing. Huckleberry Finn is uneducated and sees the world through the lens of his own experience as well as the social circumstances and mores of the time. In chapter 23 of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” Huck ponders about Jim, his African American companion on his adventure: “He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks do for their’n.
It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it is so” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 204). This passage realistically illustrates the view of a young boy at the time who only knows the world through the social context of his time and place, which included slavery and a very derogatory view of African Americans. Twain was very critical and pessimistic about humankind and his writing often reflected this. However with Huck Finn he appears to be attempting to show that even an uneducated young boy in the 1840s could be open-minded and open-hearted enough to see that people are equals.
Henry James writes about “Daisy Miller,” a young American woman who is a new kind of modern girl. She does not appear to care about the established rules and mores of the time and is both bold and naive in her demeanor. Baym et al. (2008) write that James shows his nature as “a true cosmopolitan concerned with exploring American national character as it is tested by cultural displacement” (p. 317). James is painting a picture of the old and established strict rules of social class and position and how they become a hindrance in forming true connection between people.
The established upper- and middle-class look down on the lower class and the up-and-comers. The result is miscommunication, suspicion, and conflict. Jack London was one of the leading naturalist writers of his time. In his essay “What Life Means to me” he describes his own experience as a working class youngster who toiled in a variety of jobs until finally he had enough of heavy labor and became a vagrant for a while (Baym et al. , 2008).
He describes how he found himself at the bottom of society and how in that place “life offered nothing but sordidness and wretchedness, both of the flesh and the spirit; for here flesh and spirit were alike starved and tormented” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 582). He was keenly aware of the inequalities and injustice that industrialization had brought for the working class. He writes that he realizes that a laborer is finished and broken down at 45 or 50 while an intellectual, “a brain seller” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 584) comes into his prime at that age or later.
He decides to educate himself to make a difference both for himself and for the working class dear to his heart. London eventually encountered and the Socialist movement and describes in joyful terms finding “warm faith in then human, glowing idealism, sweetness of unselfishness, renunciation, and martyrdom – all the splendid, stinging things of the spirit” (Baym et al. , 2008, p. 584). He was a masterful naturalist writer describing in exquisite detail and with a detached, scientific narrative how the man slowly succumbs to the cold and freezes to death in his short story “To Build a Fire.
”Clearly his own experiences in Alaska had provided him with great fodder for this kind of story. Conclusion In this paper I discussed and analyzed the social forces of immigration and industrialization that shaped literature during the period of 1865 to 1912. I described the major literary movements of the period. Additionally I explained how Realism and Naturalism influenced the literature of the period and illustrated with examples from some of the greatest writers of that time. References Baym, N. (Ed. ). (2008). The Norton anthology of American literature (Shorter 7th ed. , Vol. 2). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.