Finding your place in literature

This a work in progress. . .

This document provides an overview of the history of literature and its forms in the last one hundred and fifty years (or so), directing particular attention to the novel.


Romanticism began in the second half of the 18th century, gaining momentum with the rise of (and in reaction to) the industrial revolution. Romanticism is a reaction against Enlightenment ideas about the scientific rationalization of the natural world and Enlightenment's social and political norms. Romanticism stresses intuition, imagination, and strong emotion—especially trepidation, horror, and awe—as the source of aesthetic experience; this is often expressed as the sublime, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the immeasurable vastness of splendor (usually of nature). Romantic writers wanted to create an experience of the sublime in their readers. By the 1880's, Romanticism was in decline, as it faced increased competition from Realism.

Significant writers include: Poe, Hawthorne, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Stendhal, Dickinson, and Melville.

Realist literature

Realism attempts to depict subjects as they appear in everyday life, without embellishment. Realism, as an artistic movement, began in France in the 1850's, probably spurred by the growth of photography. Realism is also a reaction against Romanticism.

"The basic axiom of the realistic view of morality was that there could be no moralizing in the novel [ . . . ] The morality of the realists, then, was built upon what appears a paradox--morality with an abhorrence of moralizing. Their ethical beliefs called, first of all, for a rejection of scheme of moral behavior imposed, from without, upon the characters of fiction and their actions. Yet Howells always claimed for his works a deep moral purpose. What was it? It was based upon three propositions: that life, social life as lived in the world Howells knew, was valuable, and was permeated with morality; that its continued health depended upon the use of human reason to overcome the anarchic selfishness of human passions; that an objective portrayal of human life, by art, will illustrate the superior value of social, civilized man, of human reason over animal passion and primitive ignorance" (157). Everett Carter, Howells and the Age of Realism (Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1954).

"Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. It would apprehend in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature. Beneath the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, it detects and endeavors to trace the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there; tho measure the changes in their growth, to watch the symptoms of moral decay or regeneration, to fathom their histories of passionate or intellectual problems. In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worth of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance." -- George Parsons Lathrop, 'The Novel and its Future," Atlantic Monthly 34 (September 1874):313 24.

"Realism, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm." --Ambrose Bierce The Devil's Dictionary (1911)

Significant writers include: George Eliot, Flaubert, Maupassant, Twain, and Henry James.

Modernist literature

Modernist literature peaked between 1910 and 1920.

Postmodern literature

The beginnings of postmodernism are sometimes dated to 1941, the when both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf died.