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Realism in the Gilded Age Literature

Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

The time was the turn of the twentieth century. The world was transforming. As America was changing with new developments in technology, so was the cultural aspects of its life specifically in the world of literature.

On the pages with the written word, authors were taking a new look on life and how they communicated it to the readers. Through literature, writers used the written word to take a stand on various social and political issues.


Romantic Notions Shattered

Prior to the Civil War, most writing was romantic in nature, painting everything from life to war through rose colored glasses. The world was glorified. Honor and romance filled hearts and minds.

After the war, writers became more critical in nature and gave the readers a look into what real life looked like at various levels. Stephen Crane is well known for his book, The Red Badge of Courage, but it was in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets that readers got a glimpse into the life of a young girl in the lower levels of society who turned to prostitution to supply her most basic needs. Everything was not a life of roses. Instead of stories about lives that people only dreamed about, writers sought to portray “individuals in a landscape of material culture familiar to the readers, producing a literature of accurate description…, but also of protest.”[1] Writers found a chance to get their voices heard for many social and political reasons.


Women's Suffrage

The Gilded Age was a period of change. One of the biggest changes being championed was women’s suffrage. Through literature, women began to address issues that had gone ignored before. As mentioned before, Crane wrote on the road many women found themselves on ending up as prostitutes. But women also stepped into write about sensitive topics.

Kate Chopin wrote on various topics including that of the “repression of a woman’s desires” in her work, The Awakening.[2] Her main character faces the decision to have an affair. Unlike the typical stories previously read, readers found a heroine who had flaws and accepted them. They were used to “repentant heroines who would kill themselves rather than lose their virtue.”[3] Topics that had been ignored by society were now being brought to the forefront. They were being discussed through works of fiction. Though shocked, women could find more of themselves in the characters than they had been able to before.


Life for Women on the Street

Willa Cather also dove into subjects regarding women that were usually ignored by society. In her book, My Antonia, the main character is a hard working woman who is the daughter of immigrants. She goes through many ordeals including encounters with crooks, thieves and an unexpected pregnancy to a man she was not married to.

Throughout the story, she is faced with society beating her down, but the heroine survives and creates a life for her and her family that would have seemed impossible to her when she started out. Women were beginning to be seen as independent and tough in a world that did not treat them as gentle ladies.


Economy and Politics

Of the issues being opening discussed was the economic and political status of the country. Writers found themselves able to take a stance on topics and present it through a work of fiction in a most successful way. In his book, Looking Backward, 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy presented a “grim picture of the waste and immorality of capitalism and of the industrial strife.”[4]

The businesses might have appeared as successful ventures to be praised, but there was more to the story. There was a dark side of it that could no longer be ignored. As the country surged forward with the flag of capitalism, authors set out to reveal the makeup of the units carrying the flag.


Mark Twain's Opinion

One of the most famous writers of his time and in American history is Samuel Clemens who wrote under the pen name of Mark Twain. In his book which gave the period its title, The Gilded Age, Clemens ridiculed the federal government and its leaders.[5] He touched on “accidental murder resulting from justifiable insanity” while calling the political and economic leaders “big babies with beards.”[6]

Big business as well as politicians could verbally justify all of their actions, but the public was disgusted with what they saw. In The Octopus, author Norris wrote on “abusive power that a railroad could wield over people.”[7] The Gilded Age was one of shiny success on the outside but ugly power struggles on the inside.


[1] The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America, edited by Charles William Calhoun.

[2] The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

[3] Calhoun.

[4] Looking Backward, 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy

[5] The Gilded Age by Mark Twain

[6] Twain

[7]7 The Octopus by Norris

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