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From Romanticism to Naturalism in 19th-Century American Literature

Elements of American Romanticism 1820-1865 Optimistic. God is benevolent. Human potential for positive progress is almost unlimited. America is the Promised Land. Subjective. Presents the world as the author wishes it were or imagines it to be. Emphasizes emotion. Plots and relationships among characters tend toward the sentimental, sensation, melodramatic. Exotic settings and subjects. The author writes about the long ago, fanciful, far away (such as the frontier). Believes that appropriate subjects for literature are extraordinary. Larger-than-life heroes. Protagonists tend toward the exceptional: powerful rulers, moral paragons, fearless heroes with unsurpassed strength and skill, or even supernatural abilities. Elements of American Realism 1855-1910 Pessimistic. If God exists, He doesn’t intervene in worldly affairs and is indifferent to the plight of humans. Human potential for evil often prevails. Objective. Presents the world truthfully as the author observes and experiences it. Emphasizes reason. Objective, critical observation and analysis curbs idealism Elements of American Naturalism 1890-1930 Cynical and skeptical. Rejects the notion of justice. Randomness and chance determine fate, and humankind’s animal nature prevails. Objective. The naturalist also strives to present experience objectively. Emphasizes destructive passions and irrationality. Human beings are the most advanced animals but animals nevertheless. Our animalistic qualities dominate, especially under stress. Impoverished, hostile settings and arbitrarily violent subjects. Raw, even revolting, experiences reduce characters to degrading behavior in a struggle to survive. Poor, uneducated, unsophisticated characters. Many naturalistic characters come from the dregs of society— prostitutes, criminals, (common infantrymen?), etc.

Common settings and subjects. The author writes about common everyday subjects. Believes that the ordinary is an appropriate subject for literature. Average persons as protagonists. Main characters come from middle or bottom social strata; their weaknesses and character flaws are on display.

Flat, one-dimensional characters. Characters are “good” or “evil”; they are identifiable stock characters or stereotypes. Reveres nature: Finds sublime beauty and awe-inspiring power in nature. It is a source for the knowledge of the primitive and for the revelation of the divine. Improbable plots. Authors have few qualms about asking readers to suspend disbelief and to accept that which offends plausibility. Ornate style. Characterized by elaborate sentences and formal syntax; flowery vocabulary.

Round, complex characters. Characters conflicted, full of contradictions; they are unique individuals, not stock characters. Respects nature: Knows nature can be indifferent to human condition. Respects the dangers it presents. Remains a refuge from the modern and urban. Plausible, motivated plots. Action falls within the realm of the possible with clear cause-and-effect relationships and outcomes. Plain style. Simple conversational syntax and sentences; common vocabulary. Dialogue appropriate to character and circumstance.

Round, complex characters. Despite being reduced to near-animalistic behaviors, Naturalistic characters retain their dignity by confronting injustice and arbitrary fate. Experiences nature as antagonist. Nature is the capriciously violent and constantly indifferent environment in which the characters live. Plausible but arbitrary plots. Can lack the motivation and cause-effect logic of realistic plots because characters have no free will and are at the mercy of fate. Coarse style. Diction may be rough or vulgar, sentences choppy or breathless, imagery graphic and offensive.