Date of Award
Master of Arts
William Dean Howells, poet, novelist and critic, and one of the most prolific American writers of the latter nineteenth century, set sail on the literary seas during the period of vast economic, social and political reforms in America. The master craftsmen of the industrial East were giving way to mass production in the The gay West, where individual miners, trappers, and settlers could once strike it rich, was now being taken over by big operators and gigantic companies. As Paul Revere, the master silversmith, was the symbol of the old East, and Jim Bridger, the footloose scout, a symbol of the old West, so the big men of this new America were Andrew Carnegie, who made steel, John D. Rockefeller, who pumped petroleum, Commodore Vanderbilt, who owned railroads, and J. P. Morgan, whose money power extended into a dozen different industries.
The country had gone big business, and by 1880, there was an inevitable reaction against the optimism and hope of the Early West. Farmers had settled too far out on the prairie, on land that was too dry for farming, and drought was beginning to drive them back. They were aware that most of the good western land was already taken up and most of the rich minerals were now owned by Companies. There was no longer the same chance of a fresh start which the West had offered for almost a century. Now there was no farther west to which they could move, no more get-rich-quick possibilities, no pot of gold behind the rainbow. Westerners began to realize that they had to fight it out where they were.
So it was that late in the century the West was losing its symbolic quality as an American symbol of opportunity, and becoming a world of hard facts. And out of this setting, realism came to literature. Realism— a feeling on the part of an author that the thing worth writing about was the real thing. "Let's forget the misty and glamourous past," people were saying. "Let's forget old optimism and hopefulness. Let's face things as they are. Let's quit writing about men who never existed—the ideal men, the unbeatable Americans, the Paul Bunyans, the great heroes. Let's write about the ordinary man, the average man, the little man. Our government, our business, our economic lives aren't perfect, let's show them as they are." That was the spirit in which Howells began to write fiction—realistic fiction.1
1Rewey B.Inglis, et, al., Adventures in American Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949), pp. 724-725.
F. B. Ledbetter
Prairie View A&M College
Rights© 2021 Prairie View A & M University
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Date of Digitization
John B Coleman Library
City of Publication
Gholston, A. A. (1957). Realism in Selected Works of William Dean Howells. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.pvamu.edu/pvamu-theses/524