An Analysis of the Post-Civil War American Literature

Post-Civil War American Literature saw a transition from the prominence of romance to the development of realism. In the late 1800’s, the United States was experiencing swift growth and change as a result of a changing economy, society, and culture because of an influx in the number of immigrants into America. (Spiller 35) Whereas authors previously sought to “idealize human beings, fall in love with a dream, and then, reject the real man or woman who had inspired the dream”, they now worked to accurately portray life and people as they really were.

(Wagenknecht 68) Realists such as, two of the most prolific writers of the nineteenth-century, used typical realistic methods to create an accurate depiction of changing American life Henry James was one of five children of affluent, eccentric parents. While his birth in 1843 was in New York City, his parents were purposely rootless, and by the age of eighteen he had already crossed the Atlantic six times.

He avoided participation in the Civil War because of a poor back and began a role which he would maintain throughout his life and writings, one of a detached observer rather than participant in the American social scene.

(Matthiessen 14) The first phase of James’ writing begins when he is twenty-one, in 1864 and continues until 1881. He was extremely popular during this time, especially during after publication of a short story Daisy Miller, which is concerned with the destruction of a naive American girl by European mores. James continues the theme of placing Americans without sufficient social experience into the complex society and culture of Europe with The American, which chronicles a man whose finds himself unable to buy his way into French society.

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(Matthiessen 14) For Henry James, the years of 1882 to 1895 brought less success. His novels now took on a more political tone. (Matthiessen 15)

In 1886, he published The Bostonians, regarding the feminist movement in New England. Here, “he complained that women who wanted to become just like men were disregarding their own uniqueness.” (Norton 616) The Tragic Muse, published in 1890, continues this trend as it contrasts art with politics. After these works failed commerically , James turned to the British stage; he found no greater success there. (Matthiessen 15) The period of James’ life recognized as the final phase, the one which Matthiessen calls the “Major Phase”, revolves around three novels with which James assured himself a place in American Literature. Released in 1902, The Wings of the Dove contrasts a rich young American with European fortune hunters that are ultimately shamed by the dying heroine’s tragedy. A year later, “The Ambassadors, which James’ called ‘the best, ‘all round’ of my productions’ describes the initiation of an aging American into the relativistic ethics of the Old World in ‘huge iridescent’ Paris. The Golden Bowl verbosly analyses father-daughter and adulturous relations.” (Matthiessen 16) Ultimately, James’ genius was recognized by those who share his craft.

His works explore psychological subtlies; he is renown for his use of ambiguity and dramatic characterisation. While his works lack the elements of middle-class American life, impeding acceptance by the general public. James’ contributions to literature are still felt today, as he influenced such authors as Wharton, Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner. (Matthiessen 19) William Dean Howells, born in 1837, was the son of printer, and, because of this, his early life was devoted to the typecast word. He learned to set type before he was able to write, and many of his earliest composition came not from the pen, but rather from the press. Although his father’s lack of money prevented Howell from receiving a formal education, as a young boy he read a tremendous amount of material, providing a rich and diverse literary background for his later works. (Wagenknecht 1-2)

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An Analysis of the Post-Civil War American Literature. (2022, Sep 29). Retrieved from

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