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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

9. Social

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- Bibliography
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Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
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?

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