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Routes into American Realism

Thompson, Graham



Realism is usually associated with American literature written after the Civil War. This essay argues that realism was also a significant force during the late-eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The argument proceeds in three parts. First, the close entanglement of British and American literary culture meant that many of the forces driving the emergence of realism in Britain were imported to the United States. This is evident in the popularity of British sentimental, gothic, and historical novelists and in the appetite for Charles Dickens and William M. Thackeray. The culture of reprinting, which dominated American publishing before 1850, ensured that Americans were more likely to read British rather than American writing. Second, realism established a foothold in American culture in non-novelistic forms, particularly the sketch and short story, which found outlets in a vibrant periodical culture. Third, the essay shows that even writers who self-consciously wrote romances rather than novels – Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville – relied on realist poetic techniques that critics have often underplayed in an effort to emphasize their romanticism. Realism in the United States had a long and diverse history and emerged prior to the major social and cultural changes that marked the period after the 1850s.


Thompson, G. (2021). Routes into American Realism. In Landscapes of Realism: Rethinking Literary Realism(s) in Global Comparative Perspective (213–230). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Online Publication Date Apr 15, 2021
Publication Date 2021
Deposit Date Apr 1, 2021
Publisher John Benjamins Publishing
Pages 213–230
Series Title Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages
Series Number 32
Book Title Landscapes of Realism: Rethinking Literary Realism(s) in Global Comparative Perspective
ISBN 9789027208064
Public URL
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