Critical Essays on American Literature Series - Sylvia Plath
Variously defined as distinct philosophical approaches, complementary aesthetic strategies, or broad literary movements, realism and naturalism emerged as the dominant categories applied to American fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Included under the broad umbrella of realism are a diverse set of authors, including Henry James, W. D. Howells, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, George Washington Cable, Rebecca Harding Davis, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Hamlin Garland. Often categorized as regionalists or local colorists, many of these writers produced work that emphasized geographically distinct dialects and customs. Others offered satirical fiction or novels of manners that exposed the excesses, hypocrisies, or shortcomings of a culture undergoing radical social change. A subsequent generation of writers, including Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, and Jack London, are most often cited as the American inheritors of the naturalist approach practiced by Emile Zola, whose 1880 treatise applied the experimental methods of medical science to the construction of the novel. Governed by a combination of heredity, environment, and chance, the typical characters of naturalist fiction find themselves constrained from achieving the transcendent goals suggested by a false ideology of romantic individualism. Over the past century, critics and literary historians have alternately viewed realist and naturalist texts as explicit condemnations of the economic, cultural, or ethical deficiencies of the industrialized age or as representations of the very ideological forces they purport to critique. Accordingly, an exploration of these texts raises important questions about the relationship between literature and society, and about our understanding of the “real” or the “natural” as cultural and literary phenomena. Though of little regard in the wake of the New Critics’ emphasis on metaphysics and formal innovation, a revived interest in realism as the American adaptation of an international movement aligned with egalitarian and democratic ideology emerged in the 1960s, as did an effort to redefine naturalist fiction as a more complex form belonging to the broader mainstream of American literary history. More recently, the emergence of deconstructive, Marxist, and new historicist criticism in the 1980s afforded a revised, and often skeptical, reevaluation of realism and naturalism as more conflicted forms, itself defined or constructed by hegemonic forces and offering insight into late-19th- and early-20th-century ideologies of class, race, and gender.
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The nineteenth century also stressed the cult of domesticity, especially motherhood, and the flourishing of Romantic ideas in America emphasized and even fetishized death in literature. Gothic romances and graveyard poetry enjoyed unprecedented popularity. Many critics have suggested that the scene in which little Eva dies in Harriet Beecher Stowe's represents the quintessential moment in nineteenth-century American literature, since all who witness her death are moved and eventually changed by that experience. In addition to poetic laments, elegies took the form of narratives describing the deceased's illness and moment of death, personal meditations on the meaning of death, essays written to offer support to others experiencing the death of someone close to them, and even first-person narratives from the point of view of the deceased, usually children. Consolation would be provided in terms of reminders of the cyclicality of nature itself, expressions of disbelief, and exhortations to view death as a part of a larger Christian framework. Wendy Simonds, Barbara Katz Rothman, and Laurence Lerner have studied consolation poetry and have characterized it as the sole domain of women, a world apart from the writing of men, where they could express themselves freely and enjoy a sense of sisterly solidarity. Recent studies have focused on the feminist aspects of this genre and on the subtle ways in which women exerted their influence and power through these texts.
What Is a Critical Essay? - ThoughtCo
The different extant versions of this opening essay are described in Armin Arnold’s D. H. LAWRENCE AND AMERICA. The general argument of the essay, developed in the book, is typically an exhortation to Americans to become Americans by responding to the spirit of the place, America; this spirit was represented variously in “classic American literature” but has since become obscured; one way of regaining such a response is to reread the American classics as Lawrence would have us read them, without any first-hand experience of America or Americans, as impressionistic criticism valuable to Lawrence in coping with his love-hate relationship to the Old World. The argument uses Lawrence’s common notion that Christianity imposed on the simple blood-knowledge of primitive peoples a mild-body antagonism, a crux represented by the...