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Literature 4A: The Age of Realism: American Literature, 1865-1917


Admission requirements

Literature 1A and Literature 2, or equivalent.


The end of the American Civil War (1861-65) inaugurated a period of vast economic and industrial expansion in the U.S., attracting millions of immigrants in pursuit of the American Dream. The promise of social and economic betterment also lured masses of rural Americans to cities like Chicago, which almost overnight was transformed from a backwater into a metropolis. The expanding economy enabled large numbers of Americans to join the ranks of the middle class, while a happy few gained fortunes. For many others, however, facing long working hours in the factories and the squalor of city slums, America turned out to be a land of broken dreams. Widespread corruption earned the post-Civil War era the name of the Gilded Age. The Civil War ended slavery, but Jim Crow laws in the South relegated the newly freed blacks to second-class citizenship. These historical developments and the emergence of a consumer culture had a profound impact on the literary world, creating a mass market for fiction and changing literary tastes and ambitions. While regional literature offered an escape from the complexities and anxieties of modern life with nostalgic depictions of a simpler world in rural America, there was also a great demand for realistic accounts of life in the industrial age: literature, according to the influential novelist and editor William Dean Howells, should depict “life as it really is,” but Howells’s definition of “the real” was called into question by “naturalist” writers. We will be reading some of the classics of the age of literary realism and naturalism, as well as works by women and African American writers, whose voices challenged some of the assumptions and conventions of the dominant literary scene.

Course objectives

On completing this course, the student will have

  • Gained a survey of American literature from the Civil War to the First World War, with a focus on the rise of realism and naturalism

  • Gained insight into the ways the literature of this period critically reflects on cultural and social historical developments and debates (about slavery and the Civil War; the Reconstruction Era and racial segregation; gender and sexuality; and immigration);

  • Developed critical and analytical skills, e.g., recognition of and insight into genre, narrative strategies, and rhetorical devices

  • Developed and practised basic research skills

  • Developed and practised speaking and academic writing skills in English (discussion, essay, exam)


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

  • Research (Independent study by the student)

Assessment method


  • Essay(s):
    Two essays of 1200 words; or, one longer essay on a comparative subject (dealing with at least two texts featured on the syllabus) of 2500 words.

The essay/s is/are due in at the start of the exam period. Students who wish to do so may hand in the first short essay as a mid-term on the Monday following the study week.

  • Final Exam
    This exam will feature questions about the literature on the syllabus. The questions are designed to allow students to formulate informative answers based on critical insight into American literature from 1865-1920 and knowledge of the various important contexts gained during the tutorial discussion and individual study.


  • Essay(s) (50%):
    Two essays of 1200 words (25% each); or of 2500 words (50%).

  • Final Exam (50%)

As in all literature courses, students are graded according to the following criteria: the depth and sophistication (and, to some extent, the originality) of their analysis; the extent to which their essays argue a coherent case; the clarity and coherence of the structure; the sophistication, correctness and articulacy of the writing and the ability to produce formal academic prose; the intelligent use of a good range of relevant secondary material.

Attendance is compulsory. Missing more than two tutorials means that students will be excluded from the tutorials. Unauthorized absence also applies to being unprepared, not participating and/or not bringing the relevant course materials to class.


Only if the final grade is 5.0 or lower can the students do a resit.

Regular attendance, preparation for the class and participation in it are required elements of this course.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Titles of course books and/or syllabi

  • The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Ninth Edition (Volume C: 1865-1914) (for Mark Twain, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Charles W. Chesnutt, and James Weldon Johnson).

  • Henry James, The Bostonians (Oxford World’s Classics).

  • Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage and Other Stories (Penguin Classics).

  • Jack London, The Call of the Wild (Penguin English Library).

  • Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (Penguin).

  • Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics).

  • (Some stories by Jewett and Chesnutt will also be made available on Brightspace

Note: Purchase of these books is required and the assigned texts have to be brought to class. Make sure you have the right edition.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Studeren à la carte

Registration Contractonderwijs


Please contact Student administration Arsenaal or the coordinator of studies for questions.


This is the second of three survey courses in American literature (lit 3a, 4a, and 5a), which can also be taken individually. This course is an elective course for students taking the minor in American Studies.

WEEK ONE: Mark Twain, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn (to end of Chapter 17) (in NORTON C); WEEK TWO: Mark Twain, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn (to end of the novel) (in NORTON C); WEEK THREE: - Henry James, The Bostonians; WEEK FOUR: The Bostonians; WEEK FIVE: Herman Melville, Billy Budd // Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (in NORTON C); WEEK SIX: Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage; WEEK SEVEN: Study week; WEEK EIGHT: Sarah Orne Jewett, Stories (in Norton C and extra stories on Brightspace); WEEK NINE: Kate Chopin, The Awakening (in NORTON C); WEEK TEN: Jack London, The Call of the Wild; WEEK ELEVEN: Charles W. Chesnutt, Stories (in NORTON C and on Brightspace) // James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (excerpts in NORTON C); WEEK TWELVE: extra reading week; WEEK THIRTEEN: Willa Cather, O Pioneers!; WEEK FOURTEEN: Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Disclaimer: Please note that the course descriptions, in particular the assessment method, might be adjusted (timely) depending on the measures taken regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.