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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism

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Class Consciousness in American Literature, 1875-1920

This program presents the authors of the American Gilded Age, such as Edith Wharton, and juxtaposes them with social realists like Anzia Yezierska. These writers expose the double world that made up turn-of-the-century New York: that of the elite and that of the poorest of the poor. Which of these realities is the more truly American?

Instructor Overview

In 1884, Henry James announced that the “supreme virtue” of fiction, and the quality by which its success should be judged, resides in its ability to produce an “air of reality,” or an “illusion of life.” James, like many other American writers of the late nineteenth century, embraced an aesthetic of realism, which valued unsparing, accurate representations of the psychological and material realities of American life. Some realist writers, known as “social realists,” were interested in exploring problems of economic inequality and in accurately capturing the experience of urban life that was transforming the nation at the end of the nineteenth century. Others, known as “psychological realists,” were more concerned with delving beneath the surface of social life to probe the complex motivations and unconscious desires that shape their characters’ perceptions. In their commitment to documenting the realities of everyday life in America, both social and psychological realists offered penetrating insight into the repression, instabilities, and inequalities that structured late-nineteenth-century American society.

Before the Civil War, America had been a nation made up primarily of farms and small towns. Most citizens worked in agriculture or in small, family-owned shops and businesses. By the 1870s, however, the growth of industrialism had transformed American lifestyles: more people lived in cities and worked in factories than ever before. Lured by economic opportunities, millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and China flooded urban centers like New York and San Francisco. Multiplying in size and serving as home to both wealthy socialites and impoverished immigrants, these cities reflected the astonishing diversity of the millions of people who lived and worked in them. While this confluence of people from radically different economic, social, and ethnic backgrounds created a rich and vibrant urban culture, it also led to social tensions and brought into relief the discrepancies between the very wealthy and the very poor. Socially conscious writers committed themselves to exploring and representing the impact of social class and ethnicity on American life, developing literary techniques designed to lend their texts an air of objective reality and psychological authenticity in the process. Some of these social realist authors wrote in order to protest the inequalities and exploitation that characterized American industrialization. Their work contributed to the growing Progressive political movements dedicated to eradicating social problems, including the oppression of women, prejudice against immigrants, discrimination against racial minorities, unsafe housing conditions, and exploitative labor practices. Other writers, such as Henry James and Edith Wharton, wrote about the experiences of the upper class.

All of the writers featured in Unit 9, “Social Realism: Class Consciousness in American Literature, 1875-1920,” share an interest in realistically depicting American life at the close of the nineteenth century, though they focus on very different social classes and ethnic groups and deploy very different literary strategies. This unit surveys works composed by Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt, Henry James, Booker T. Washington, Abraham Cahan, Edith Wharton, Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton), W. E. B. Du Bois, Theodore Dreiser, Henry Adams, and Anzia Yezierska. It provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the way these writers represented the impact of social class and ethnicity on urban life around the turn of the twentieth century. The video for Unit 9 focuses on two writers who chronicled life at opposite ends of the social stratum in New York City: Edith Wharton created realistic, psychologically nuanced portraits of people enmeshed in urban high society, while Anzia Yezierska explored the tensions inherent in Jewish immigrant life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Although their depictions of New York and its inhabitants are radically different, both of these writers exposed the inconsistencies and inequalities of American urban life, with a special emphasis on the difficulties faced by women.

In its coverage of Wharton’s and Yezierska’s contrasting New York experiences, the video introduces students to the literary categories of social and psychological realism and foregrounds the relationship of these movements to the problems facing an increasingly industrialized and urbanized America. The video asks students to consider the connections between the literary aesthetic of realism and the historical circumstances of late-nineteenth-century America. How did social class emerge as a focus for American writers? What role did immigration play in the development of American urban culture? How did literary realists depict the tensions and conflicts inherent in an industrialized economy? What effect did social realist writers hope to have on the problems they exposed? How do issues of gender and ethnicity shape their accounts? How does the work of social realists relate to that of psychological realists? Unit 9 helps answer these questions by providing background and teaching suggestions intended to locate these writers within their cultural contexts and to connect them with other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials expand on the video’s introduction to social and psychological realism by exploring writers who developed different literary techniques and chronicled the experiences of different groups, such as Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (a poet who experimented with realist techniques by using polyvocality and dialogue in her poems), W. E. B. Du Bois (an activist for African American rights), and Sui Sin Far (a Eurasian woman who depicted life among Chinese immigrants on the West Coast).

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate these writers within several of the historical contexts that shaped their texts: (1) the explosion in immigration at the end of the nineteenth century; (2) the movement for woman suffrage; (3) ideas about capitalism and the “gospel of wealth” in newly industrialized America; (4) the creation of a vibrant immigrant community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan; and (5) African American activists’ strategies for achieving racial equality through education.

The archive and the curriculum materials suggest how the authors and texts featured in Unit 9 relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How do concerns about social class continue to inform American literature? What is the relationship between social class and ethnicity? How have later American writers drawn from the example of social realists to produce fiction and poetry designed to register social protest? How did the movement toward creating psychologically complex characters influence subsequent American writing? Do Americans still believe literature has the power to effect social change? How have ideas about “realism” and “accuracy” in fiction changed over time?

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. explain the distinguishing characteristics of literary realism;
  2. describe the social and economic conditions in turn-of-the-century America that gave rise to social realism;
  3. explain the difference between psychological and social realism;
  4. discuss the political debates and reforms engendered by and reflected in social realist literature.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
Edith Wharton, Anzia Yezierska

Who’s Interviewed:
Judith Baskin, professor of religious studies and director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies (University of Oregon); Bruce Michelson, professor of English (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Kathryn Oberdeck, associate professor of history (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Abby Werlock, author, former president and current member of the Edith Wharton Society

Points Covered:

  • Introduction to the clash of cultures and social classes that resulted from the forces of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration in America at the turn of the century. Two very different sides of the “Gilded Age,” as this period was called, were visible in New York. There, a few city blocks separated wealthy socialites from starving immigrants.
  • Edith Wharton, a member of wealthy New York society, chronicled the world of her exclusive social set in detail. Her realist novels and stories depict the frustration of people trapped by social conventions, often focusing on the plight of society women who were treated as commodities or ornaments to be purchased and bartered by men. Her attention to the complex psychological and emotional motivations of her characters marks her work as part of the “psychological realist” movement.
  • Anzia Yezierska wrote poignantly about her experiences as a Jewish immigrant in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In her social realist fiction, she attempted to explain immigrant culture to American-born readers and to broaden the boundaries of the American dream to include immigrants, the impoverished, and women. Yezierska’s stories and novels often examine the process of assimilation and acculturation, chronicling the tensions caused by immigrants’ desire to be part of both the Old World and the New.
  • While Wharton concentrated on psychological realism and Yezierska was more interested in social realism, both of these women writers explored the inconsistencies and inequities of American society at the turn of the century. In the process, they created complex characters who wrestled with the restraints of class and convention. Wharton and Yezierska left a lasting literary legacy in their willingness to depict realistically and to criticize American society.


  • Preview the video: Preview the video: In the decades between 1890 and 1920, America was transformed into an industrial, urban, consumer society. This transformation created unprecedented opportunities for the acquisition of wealth, but also enabled the exploitation of large classes of people. Immigrants arriving in waves from eastern and southern Europe had heard stories of a land where the streets were paved with gold, but in many cases they found only poverty and inequity in America. Writers responded to the rapidly shifting class and social structure they saw around them by producing texts that realistically depicted both the problems and the promise of industrial, urban America. In many cases, their goal was to educate readers and to stimulate reform. Edith Wharton, a member of elite New York society, explored the complexity of the social forms that governed her world in carefully crafted novels and stories. Her psychologically complex characters struggle with the conflict between their desires and the authority of social convention. Anzia Yezierska focused on a completely different social milieu, chronicling the lives of poor Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York. Her stories and novels work to broaden the boundaries of the myth of the American Dream and to make it available to women, immigrants, and the poor. While Wharton and Yezierska moved in very different social worlds and had very different concerns, they both were interested in the plight of women who struggled against the constraints of class and convention.
  • What to think about while watching: How do these authors challenge readers to grapple with difficult issues regarding social class, ethnic background, and gender? How do these writers react against romantic conventions and dedicate themselves to psychological and social realism? How does literary realism forward its goal of social action and reform? How do social realists broaden and transform the myth of the American Dream? How did Wharton’s and Yezierska’s attention to class and gender inform subsequent American fiction?
  • Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 9 expands on the issues featured in the video to explore the diversity of social realist writing in America in the late nineteenth century. The curriculum materials provide background on African American, Asian American, Jewish American and European American writers who chronicle the experiences of different social classes and ethnicities, and who advocate different ideas about social reform. The unit offers contextual background to further develop the video’s introduction to the historical events, economic and political issues, and literary styles that shaped social realist literature.

Suggested Author Pairings

Henry James, Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser
James, Wharton, and Dreiser are all considered masters of realist fiction. The short stories in The Norton Anthology of American Literature demonstrate the authors’ ability to construct psychologically complex characters as they explore the tension between old and new customs and manners. While James and Wharton focus on wealthy, aristocratic, or nouveau riche Americans at home or abroad, Dreiser attends to the immigrant and working-class experience in urban America. These authors also share an awareness of the social constraints that women faced in turn-of-the-century America, though they each had different perspectives on the nature and impact of those constraints.

Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois
Washington and Du Bois make a natural pairing since they were associates and rivals. Washington’s pragmatic, somewhat accommodationist approach to race relations makes a provocative contrast to the more uncompromising position Du Bois eventually adopted. Their opposed views on black education, in particular, make for revealing comparisons. Washington’s and Du Bois’s texts represent different stages in the struggle for African American rights, and reading them in tandem allows students to begin to gauge the evolution of the movement.

Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska and Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton)
While Cahan and Yezierska chronicled the experiences of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York, Sui Sin Far explored the stories of Chinese immigrants living in Chinatowns along the West Coast. Despite the enormous cultural (and geographical) differences between these immigrant groups, they both had to deal with exploitation, prejudice, and the tensions caused by the process of “Americanization.” Sui Sin Far and Yezierska both offer poignant–and at times ironic–examinations of immigrant women’s relationship to bourgeois domesticity.

Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt and Henry Adams
While Piatt’s complex poems and Adams’s elegant prose autobiography have little in common on the level of genre, these texts share a self-consciousness about–and willingness to experiment with–the formal possibilities of voice. Writing his autobiography in the third person, Adams almost seems to dissociate himself from this record of his own life in an effort to lend objectivity to its telling. Piatt adopts a different strategy, employing multiple voices and dialogue in her poetry rather than relying on a conventional single lyric voice. These writers’ experiments with voice seem at some level intended to infuse their work with realism.


Bintl Briv – A Yiddish, “Dear Abby”-style advice column introduced by Abraham Cahan in the Yiddish newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward. The Bintl Briv (or “Bundle of Letters”) printed questions from readers and offered authoritative advice on romantic, family, and social issues. (A selection of Bintl Briv columns can be found in Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology.)

limited third-person narration – A mode of narration that relies on narrators who are not omniscient but instead render descriptions and observations through the limitations of the central character. Henry James’s interest in psychology led him to develop the use of limited third-person narration, which is often regarded as one of his major contributions to American fiction. Readers must do more work – and involve themselves more in the process of meaning-making – to understand the relationship of the stories to their narration.

monopoly – monopoly Businesses that have exclusive control of a commodity or service and are thus able to manipulate the prices and availability of those commodities and services as well as to restrict potential competitors from entering the market.

“new woman” – A turn-of-the-century term for women who resisted the ideals of domesticity and “true womanhood” that had dominated women’s lives in the first part of the nineteenth century. Such women challenged traditional social conventions by acquiring an education, working in the business world, asserting some degree of sexual freedom, and living independently of men. “New women” were also associated with such radical behaviors as wearing trousers and smoking.

realism – The literary commitment to the truthful, accurate representation of American life as it was experienced by ordinary Americans. A “realist” aesthetic infused literature in the last half of the nineteenth century. Realism was characterized by its uncompromising, literal representations of the particularities of the material world and the human condition. This passion for finding and presenting the truth led many American practitioners of realism to explore characters, places, and events that had previously seemed inappropriate subject matter for literature.

robber baron – A derisive term for the handful of enormously wealthy men who enjoyed virtually exclusive control over such important industries as steel, oil, banking, and railroads in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Robber barons were criticized for their ruthless and often unscrupulous business practices.

“The Talented Tenth” – An elite group of gifted and polished individuals who, according to W. E. B. du Bois’s theory, could benefit from a rigorous classical education and then lead African Americans forward. Du Bois believed that the African American community should focus its resources on cultivating this group.

trust – A combination of companies held in common by a board of trustees, which controls most or all of the stock of the constituent companies. This kind of organization allows large corporations to centralize their concerns and thus economize on expenses, regulate production, and discourage competition. For all practical purposes, the formation of steel, oil, bank, and railroad trusts made competition virtually impossible, since the monopolies enjoyed such tight control of their markets .

woman suffrage – The movement for female enfranchisement. It took almost seventy-five years of activism before American women finally gained the right to vote in 1920.

Yiddish – A language spoken mainly by European Jews. Based on German, Yiddish was also inflected by Hebrew, Slavic, and eventually American vocabularies. Abraham Cahan frequently wrote in Yiddish, and Anzia Yezierska incorporated Yiddish phrases and captured the cadence and rhythm of Yiddish speech in her characters’ dialogue.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, eds. The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature.. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.

Baskin, Judith R. Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing.. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1994.

Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917.. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

DeMarco, Joseph P. The Social Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois. Lanham: UP of America, 1983.

Diner, Hasia R. Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America.. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

Graham, Sara Hunter. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy.. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Maffi, Mario. Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures on New York’s Lower East Side. New York: New York UP, 1995.

Oberdeck, Kathryn J. The Evangelist and the Impresario: Religion, Entertainment, and Cultural Politics in America, 1884-1914. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.

Sundquist, Eric. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1993.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruhill, ed. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. Troutdale: NewSage Press, 1995.

Further Resources
The Age of Innocence [videorecording]. Columbia Pictures; screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese; produced by Barbara De Fina; directed by Martin Scorsese. Burbank: Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1993.

Banta, Martha. Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History. New York: Columbia UP 1987.

Byron, Joseph. New York Interiors at the Turn of the Century in 131 Photographs by Joseph Byron from the Byron Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Text by Clay Lancaster. New York: Dover Publications, 1976.

Chametzky, Jules, et al., eds. Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

LeGates, Richard T., and Frederic Stout, eds. The City Reader, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Patton, Sharon F. African-American Art. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Rosten, Leo. The New Joys of Yiddish. Rev. by Lawrence Bush; illus. by R. O. Blechman. New York: Crown, 2001.

Sapoznik, Henry. Klezmer!: Jewish Music from Old World to Our World [book and sound recording]. New York: Schirmer Books, 1999.
Sears, Roebuck and Company. The 1902 Edition of the Sears Roebuck Catalogue. Intro. Cleveland Amory. New York: Bounty Books, 1969.

Yiddish Radio Project [broadcast]. Produced by Henry Sapoznik, Yair Reiner, and David Isay. Penguin Audiobooks; abridged edition (October 24, 2002).

Zurier, Rebecca. Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York. Washington, DC.: National Museum of American Art; New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6