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Literature 4A: The Age of Realism


Admission requirements

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. We’ll start the course by reading some Civil War poems by Whitman and Melville, which mark the transition from Romanticism to realism. Subsequently 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

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

  • 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;
    and help students

  • develop critical and analytical skills, both orally (by participation in class discussion) and in writing (essay, written exams)

  • develop and practise basic research skills (find, use, and document at least four secondary sources)

  • develop and practise speaking and writing skills in English (discussion, essay, exam)


The timetable will be available by June 1st on the website

Mode of instruction seminar (with some lecturing)


Assessment method

  • A 2000-word essay

  • Final written exam with closed questions (10%) and essay questions (90%)


At least four weeks before the course starts, the Blackboard site will be open for self-enrolment. There you can find the course syllabus, as well as study questions, recommended critical articles, links to useful websites, essay topics, and sample exam questions. Please note that there is a reading assignment for week 1 (see syllabus on Blackboard). See Blackboard

Reading list

  • Norton Anthology of American Literature (NAAL), 7th or 8th ed. vol. C. (voor Huck Finn, The Awakening, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and other stories and poems)

  • Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (Penguin)

  • Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (Penguin)

  • Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (Penguin).


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

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Studeren à la carte
Registration Contractonderwijs


Departmental Office English Language and Culture, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144; mail:
Co-ordinator of Studies: Ms T.D. Obbens, MA, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 103C.


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.