Special Announcement! Now available on Readgreatliterature.com: a new reading list covering American literature from the “Gilded Age,” the period from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the beginning of WW I in 1914. Click HERE to see the new reading list—but before you click, you might want to take a moment to read in this post about three important literary trends that happened during these years: Regionalism, Realism, and American Naturalism.
What is the Gilded Age?
First, what is the Gilded Age? These years between the ending of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of WW I in 1914 ushered sweeping changes into American life and culture: rapid industrialization, large numbers of people moving from the country into cities, an explosion in immigration numbers (over 20 million immigrants between 1880 and 1920), increasing wealth, and pursuit of material success shown through conspicuous consumption. The era got its name from The Gilded Age, a novel published in 1873 by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The novel satirized greed and political corruption that suddenly seemed more common in American life than it had before.
Three Trends in 19th Century Fiction
Perhaps not surprising in a world swept by dizzying change, the most popular genre of fiction in this era was Regionalism. Often driven by nostalgia and the sense that isolated, distinctive rural American cultures were beginning to disappear, readers turned to Regionalist fiction that tried to capture and preserve the characters, dialect, customs, topography, and other features that are particular to a specific region of the United States. Examples of regionalist writers on our Gilded Age reading list are Joel Chandler Harris, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Kate Chopin.
The Post Civil War years were also known for the rise of Realism, championed especially by William Dean Howells, novelist and editor of The Atlantic Monthly and later, Harper’s. Turning from romantic tales of horror, suspense, or the uncanny, like those of the earlier writers Poe or Hawthorne, or of adventure, like those of Melville, realists sought to depict ordinary American life through creating representative, mixed and complex characters undergoing probable, ordinary events. The two Howells novels on the Gilded Age reading list, A Hazard of New Fortunes and The Rise of Silas Lapham, are great examples of American fiction just trying to “tell it like it was.”
Realists were not just reporters, however; often they had their eye on promoting some type of reform, telling their story in support of some worthy cause. Greed, unfair business practices, political corruption, oppression of women, and racism were all targets of realistic fictions.
Akin to Realism, the nineteenth century also produced psychological realism, and Henry James, its master, as well as his friend and fellow novelist, Edith Wharton. Psychological realism increases readers’ interest in the psychology of people, in the interior mechanics of interpersonal relationships. James and Wharton portrayed in detail how people influence one another when they interact, showing how conversation can be translated as a bid for power. They also observe how difficult even willing people find it to communicate clearly to another person what they think or feel.
By the end of the 19th century and in to the 20th, America could count many Naturalists among their writers. Naturalism in literature does not refer to a love of nature, like that manifested in earlier writers like Bryant, Emerson, Thoreau, or Whitman. Actually, the Naturalist’s view of nature is more the opposite. Far from Emerson’s belief that Nature is the source of divine life and spirituality for people, Nature is seen rather as a hostile and indifferent force. People are threatened and outclassed by the powers of Nature, and are largely controlled by primitive, unconscious forces hidden deep inside their own psyches.
Some Naturalist writers interpreted society as a thin veneer of civility barely covering an environment that operates by the laws of the jungle: kill or be killed, triumph or be trampled. As terrible as this sounds, all is not negative, since many Naturalists observed and described the simple courage and dignity of humans when facing unbeatable odds. Stories by naturalist writers such as Stephen Crane and Jack London can be thrilling to read, and uplifting in spite of their dark view of the world.
More Kinds of Writing–More Riches
So, these three types of fiction were trending in the Gilded Age, but there were also other kinds of writing besides fiction. Memoirs and essays by African Americans such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, and by Native Americans such as Zitkala Sa, brought issues of race and injustice before the public. Poetry was rich and varied, ranging from the cosmic themes of edgy poet Emily Dickinson to the heartfelt lyrics of African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar about the experience of being black in 19th century America.
Literary works from America’s Gilded Age are numerous, rich, and varied. Why not head on over now to see the list of some of the most well-known and recommended works from this rich time in American literary history. What will you be reading next? I’d love to see a comment on this post about any of the works you sample from our latest reading list.
For other photo credits, see Gilded Age Reading List Page.