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American Literature after the Civil War

The devastation of the Civil War seriously challenged the faith in the power of sympathy, family, and God that undergirded sentimentalism as well as the romantic optimism that powered transcendentalism and the antebellum reform movements. These literary modes never really disappeared—Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), for example, drew on all three—but the rapid changes occurring in American life seemed to many to necessitate new forms of literary expression. Urbanization increased rapidly, as did immigration, Darwin’s theory of evolution shook up former certainties, and new technologies like the Transcontinental Railroad and the telephone altered how Americans connected with one another. In the place of sentimentalism and transcendentalism arose three related literary modes that dominated postbellum American fiction: realism, regionalism, and naturalism. The literary marketplace grew rapidly, allowing authorship to become a far more accessible career option than it had been, especially for African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and women. In an era in which slavery had been abolished but the rights of African Americans remained tentative at best, new black voices rose to national recognition, as did new Native American voices, protesting the continued encroachment on native lands and new educational policies that sought to strip Native Americans of their cultural identities.


The postbellum period saw the first publication of the poems of Emily Dickinson, a poet who, like Whitman, would fundamentally reshape American verse. Dickinson was little known in her own lifetime—only seven of her poems had been published, and these anonymously. (A more extensive collection of her poems appeared in 1890.) Her nearly 1800 surviving lyric poems frequently confront death, but she was also interested in nature, spirituality, and everyday life. Her poems are usually composed of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, the meter of nursery rhymes and many hymns. But though she wrote in meter, Dickinson wasn’t afraid to break the rules, building in pauses through her extensive use of dashes, writing in fragments and enjambed lines, and repeatedly using slant rhyme.


Realism was a literary movement that originated in Europe and became popular in United States. Its most voluble proponent in the U.S. was William Dean Howells, editor of the most prestigious literary periodical of the time, the Atlantic Monthly. According to Howells, realism “is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.” Realists found fault with the Romantic and the sentimental for what was perceived as untruthful idealizing, offering instead detailed portraits of the everyday. Rather than the remote or strange, realists wrote about the ordinary, the probable, about characters who seemed like real people in situations that real people routinely experience.

Rebecca Harding Davis is best known as a pioneering realist and the author of “Life in the Iron-Mills” (1861), an incredibly popular story about the plight of industrial workers, their lack of access to art, and their temptations to crime.

Mark Twain’s work demonstrates his commitment to realism as well as his desire to portray life in his native Missouri. Twain’s work also reminds us that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the golden age of children’s literature, when children’s books moved away from didactic moralizing and towards entertaining their child readers. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) provides a prime example of a new sort of child protagonist, the “bad boy,” whose badness and trickery (like cleverly conning his friends into whitewashing his aunt Polly’s fence) are signs of high spirits and wit, not of inner depravity. But it is the sequel to Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), which proved Twain’s most influential contribution to American literature. The story of Tom’s impoverished and abused friend Huck fleeing down the river with the unexpected companion of a slave man, Jim, broke ground. The novel was the first written entirely in vernacular language: it is told in Huck’s Missourian, childish dialect. Scholars continue to debate the novel’s racial politics, particularly its portrayal of Jim, whom Huck decides he would rather go to Hell than betray. Huck’s belief that doing right by Jim will damn him to Hell is just one example of Twain’s pointed critique of racial politics in nineteenth-century America.

Henry James was a prolific late nineteenth-century realist novelist. His novels are often psychologically probing narratives about upper class characters and the experiences of Americans in Europe. He gained fame with the publication of Daisy Miller (1878), the story of a naïve American girl who resists social norms. His other famous works include The Portrait of a Lady (1881), a novel about Isabel Archer, a young woman who attempts to escape an entrapping marriage without losing her principles or hurting others, and The Turn of the Screw (1898), the story of an English governess working to protect the children she cares for from the influence of ghosts who may or may not be real.

Edith Wharton, a close friend of Henry James, also wrote realist novels about high society, novels highly critical of the position of women in that society. Her most famous works include The House of Mirth (1905), the story of Lily Bart, a socialite who slowly but surely loses her social position, and eventually, her life, as she fails to marry or inherit wealth, and The Age of Innocence (1920).


Regionalism was the most significant literary mode after the Civil War, fueled by an explosion in magazine publication, postwar curiosity about the different parts of the United States, and a sense of nostalgia for a rural past that always already seemed to be slipping away. In regionalist texts, setting is central. Regionalist narratives document the unique ways of life of rural communities, offering readers distinctive visions of life in the South, New England, the Midwest, and the West. Regionalist fictions are invested in offering readers a realistic snapshot of the language, customs, habits, landscape, and social life of rural America. They often present characters as types, as representatives of the traits of a community or region. Though they are deeply invested in the local, regionalist stories are often narrated by outsiders who differ in class status or place of origin from the locals. This distance between the narrator and the other characters, as well as the fact that many of the readers of regionalism were urban, has led some scholars to contend that regionalism exploits the locations it represents, selling them to more privileged audiences as a kind of literary tourism.

Bret Harte, a groundbreaking regionalist, offered readers a romanticized vision of life during the California Gold Rush in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868). This story, of rough-and-tumble but warm-hearted miners who try to raise an orphaned baby until a flood sweeps them away, made Harte an international sensation and signaled the acceptance of regionalism by the literary establishment.

Sarah Orne Jewett was a New England regionalist best known for The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a collection of related stories of life in rural Maine told through the perspective of a summer visitor. The book offers a striking portrait of a strong female community.

Charles Chesnutt, the first African American fiction writer to be published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, wrote regionalist fiction about the South. His stories often feature ex-slave Uncle Julius McAdoo, a wise old man with remarkable skill for manipulating his white “superiors.” Chesnutt’s best-known short story collections are entitled The Conjure Woman (1899) and The Wife of His Youth (1899). His 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition registers strongly his anger at continuing racial injustice, telling the story of a white woman and her unacknowledged mixed race sister who find their lives torn apart during a race riot over an election in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Kate Chopin wrote regionalist fiction often set in New Orleans or rural Louisiana. Her most famous novel, The Awakening (1899), reflects her interest in the way women’s sexual desires came into conflict with social expectations. The novel tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a mother who attempts to escape her loveless marriage and find herself as a sexual and independent individual.


Naturalism is sometimes seen as a species of realism and sometimes as a separate literary movement. Naturalists focused on how our lives are shaped (and, often, misshapen) by forces beyond our control, like genetics, the economy, and the social system. The protagonists of naturalist texts futilely attempt to shape their own lives and usually succumb to unpleasant fates in the end. Naturalist texts very frequently focus on lower-class characters, those on the fringes of society, and are often fueled by rage at social injustices. While regionalism focused strongly on the rural, naturalism was most at home in urban environments.

Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is a strong example of naturalism. The novel centers on Civil War soldier Henry Fleming, but Fleming is not a conventional war hero. Instead, the novel focuses on the violence and chaos of war and his feelings of panic, triumph, and confusion. Crane also wrote Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1903), which tells the story of an impoverished girl in New York who is forced to become a prostitute.

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) also exemplifies the characteristics of naturalism. Sister Carrie tells the story of Carrie Meeber, a young woman who moves from the countryside to Chicago, where she is seduced first by a traveling salesman, Charles Drouet, then by the manager of a fashionable bar, George Hurstwood, with whom she runs away to New York. In New York, Hurstwood’s circumstances decline until he commits suicide, while Carrie gains fame, but not happiness, on the New York stage.


The changing literary marketplace, especially the rise of regionalism, and the end of slavery offered new opportunities for black writers in America, like Charles Chesnutt, discussed above. During this period, Zitkala-Sa also became the first Native American writer to be embraced by the literary establishment, having her work published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly.

The two best-known black writers and leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington’s most famous work, Up from Slavery (1900), offers an autobiographical account of Washington’s experience of slavery, with special focus on his thirst for literacy, as well as his rise to social power after emancipation. Washington was a proponent of an assimilationist philosophy, urging black Americans to “cast down [their] buckets where [they] are” and to work slowly toward social and economic equality with whites. As such, he advocated vocational training for African Americans. W.E.B. Du Bois was strongly opposed to Washington’s views, especially his willingness to accept limited intellectual opportunities for blacks. His most famous work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), took aim at Washington’s politics, offering a sociological view of the life of poor African Americans in the South mingled with fiction and personal narratives. The book introduces the idea of “double-consciousness,” Du Bois’s term for the conflicting experience of African Americans as both Americans and black people.

Paul Laurence Dunbar, who published poetry, novels, songs, and essays around the turn of the century, was one of the first African American professional writers. His most famous volume of poetry, Lyrics of the Lowly Life (1895), displayed his affinity for both black dialect and Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson. His novel The Sport of the Gods (1903) offers an unhappy story of a black family who moves from the rural South to New York.

A lifelong activist for Native American and women’s rights, Zitkala-Sa penned essays and narratives that registered the costs of the federal government’s policy of “detribalization” and continuing encroachment on native lands. Among her best-known works are “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” (1900) and “The School Days of an Indian Girl” (1900), which recounts her days in a school established by whites to erase native cultures through education, as well as “Why I Am a Pagan” (1902).


To craft this document, I consulted Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury’s From Puritanism to Postmodernism, the Norton Anthology of American Literature (shortened eighth edition), and American History Through Literature, 1870-1920, ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst.