Postbellum America, 1866-1913



  • Isabel Archer 
  • Huckleberry Finn 
  • Tom Sawyer 


  • Boston, Massachusetts 
  • New York, New York 
  • Mississippi River 
  • New Orleans, Louisiana 


  • naturalism 
  • realism 
  • regionalism 


  • bildungsroman 
  • critical essay 
  • realistic novel 
  • lyric poem 

  • regional short story 




By Mark Canada
Professor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Whereas Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne,
 Ralph Waldo Emerson and other antebellum writers in some ways
 detached themselves from the world around them, nearly all of the
 major postbellum writers immersed themselves in it. As journalists,
 Rebecca Harding Davis, William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane,
 Theodore Dreiser, and others traveled widely and came in close
 contact with real people, including some who were suffering the
 negative effects of industrialization and urbanization. Mark Twain's
 career as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River gave him similar
 contact with the world. Equally immersed in the culture were these
 writers' works, which they published in magazines such as the
 Atlantic Monthly and in subscription books sold door to door. 

 These writers' worldly experiences and perspectives shaped the
 postbellum period's three major literary movements: realism,
 regionalism, and naturalism. Reacting against the extravangances of
 literary romance, which recounted the glorious adventures of
 larger-than-life characters, the realists tried to portray life accurately
 rather than idealistically. A character in Howells's novel The Rise of
 Silas Lapham states the realists' credo when he points out that "the
 novelists would be best to us if they painted life as it is." Thus,
 Howells, Twain, and Henry James depicted the aspirations, conflicts,
 and triumphs of convincing characters, such as a coarse orphan, a
 simple businessman, or a young woman in search of her identity.
 The writers of regional fiction, sometimes called "local color," also
 strove for authenticity. Capitalizing on the popularity of magazines,
 Bret Harte, Kate Chopin, and many other writers used details of
 landscape, dialect, and character to transport readers to distant,
 exotic American locales, such as the West, New Orleans, and the
 rural South. Finally, French naturalism, which depicts realistic
 characters struggling with social and other forces, caught on in
 America perhaps because the journalistic experiences of Stephen
 Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser put them in touch with
 the struggles of lower-class figures. 

 Study Questions

    1.One of the most important literary developments to take place
      in this century is the transition from romanticism to realism.
      Citing several examples, describe the major characteristics of
      each movement and explain why this change took place. 
    2.Citing works published both before and after the Civil War,
      trace the emphasis on the self in this century.