The Portable American Realism Reader Review

By Ross B. Lampert

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I was introduced to this collection of short stories about ten years ago, when it was one of the assigned books in one of my master’s degree classes. The 47 stories were published between 1865 and 1918 and were written by both famous authors—Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, to name a few—to writers not known outside of literary circles, like Sioux author Zitkala-Sä and Chinese immigrant Sui Sin Far.

The stories are divided into three general categories whose time-frames overlap: regionalism and local color (1865 and after), realism (1890 and after), and naturalism (also 1890 and after). As the names of the categories and their periods suggest, they illustrate the changing tenors and interests of the times. In the post-Civil War years, there was increasing interest among readers and writers in the interests and stories from all parts of the still-expanding—and still-recovering—United States. As time passed, that fascination changed as people became more aware of the realities and challenges of life, whether in the more settled areas along the East Coast or in the wilder lands in the west.

For writers, there’s one particular lesson to draw from many of these stories. Today, writers are taught to avoid using regional dialect, or trying to recreate the way people speak—the accents, the rhythms and patterns of a particular place or time—because doing so is often unsuccessful and it’s hard to read. That wasn’t the case for these authors, and many worked hard to translate the spoken word onto the page. Their attempts show why modern writers are warned away.

Most of these stories are excellent (although I’m not a fan of the verbose and plodding Henry James) and certainly deserve their places here. Selecting which stories to include is always a challenge for the people who assemble collections like these, but in the case of editors James Nagel and Tom Quirk, their rationales are clear in their introductory notes to each story. Many of the –isms of academic life—feminism, environmentalism, egalitarianism—had their influence on Nagel’s and Quirk’s choices. While I don’t have any problem with some of these philosophies, I can’t help but wonder what stories were left out of the collection because they didn’t fit with the editors’ prejudices.

Politics is never far from the surface of these stories. Many of the earlier ones deal with slavery and the after-effects of the Civil War. In the naturalist stories, poverty and the wide gaps between the rich and poor become central themes in some authors’ works, while the cruelty and unforgiving nature of Nature herself figure in others. Many of the stories also have a moralizing tone, sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, but almost always there.

This illustrates how academics can influence, even transform, the attitudes and opinions of the naïve college undergraduate, simply by selecting what to present to them, and how—which stories to place in an anthology like this one, which ones to teach, and how to teach them—and what to quietly put aside. Too often, the student is unarmed, or under-armed, to defend themselves against an academic’s well-planned and long-rehearsed positions (whether liberal or conservative); they (the students) simply don’t have the breadth and depth of knowledge or life experience to know they’re being manipulated, much less to stop or counteract that manipulation.

This complaint has little to do with the stories in the American Realism Reader themselves, however, and anyone who wants to read quality works from this time period could do worse than to pick up this volume. Recommended.

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