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


Admission requirements

Students of English: Successful completion of Literature 1A, 1B 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.
In this course we will be reading some of the classics of the age of literary realism and naturalism, as well as works by women, African American, and immigrant writers, whose voices challenged some of the assumptions and conventions of the dominant literary scene.

Course objectives

This course aims to give a survey of American literature in the context of intellectual, cultural, social and political developments in American society between the end of the Civil War to the beginning of WWI. Tracing the emergence of literary realism and naturalism and the transition toward modernism, this course also gives insight into cultural debates surrounding three main themes: 1. slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction; 2. nation and region, gender and ethnicity; and 3. immigration, the city, and the American Dream.


The timetable will be available by June 1st at

Mode of instruction

Lectures and seminar discussion

Assessment method

2500-word essay (50%) and written exam (50%)


At least two weeks before the course starts, the Blackboard site will be open for self-enrolment. There you can find the course syllabus.

Reading list

  • Norton Anthology of American Literature, 7th ed. vol. C.

  • Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (Penguin)

  • Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (Penguin)

  • Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (Penguin, Simon & Schuster or Barnes & Noble)


Students should register through uSis. Exchange students cannot register through uSis, but must see the director of studies and register with her. If you have any questions, please contact the departmental office, tel. 071 5272144 or mail:

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Contact information

Departmental Office English Language and Culture, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144; mail:
Studentcounsellor Bachelor: Ms. S.H.J. Bollen, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 103B.
Coordinator of Studies Master: Ms. K. van der Zeeuw-Filemon, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 103C.


It is possible to choose this course as part of the minor American Studies.