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


Admission requirements

Literature 1A and/or 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

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, both orally (by participation in class discussion) and in writing (essay, written exams)

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

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


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

Mode of instruction


Course Load

The course load of this course is 140 hours

  • hours spent on attending lectures and seminars: 24 hours

  • time for studying the compulsory literature: 90 hours

  • time to prepare for the exam and write a paper (including reading / research) 26

Assessment method

  • Essay 2000 words

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

The final grade will be the average of the exam and essay grades.

Only if the final grade is 5 or less students may resit the insufficient course component(s).

Attendance is compulsory. Unauthorized absence will mean that you cannot take part in the relevant exam(s).


Blackboard will be used to provide students with an overview of current affairs, as well as specific information about (components of) the course.

Reading list

Titles of course books and/or syllabi

  • Norton Anthology of American Literature, 8th ed. vol. C. (voor o.a.Civil War gedichten, Huck Finn, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” en andere teksten)

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

  • Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth (Penguin)

  • London, Jack. The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and other stories (Penguin or other edition)

  • Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie (Penguin): be sure you have the unexpurgated edition!


Enrollement trough uSis is mandatory. If you have any questions, please contact the departmental office, tel. 071 5272144 or mail:

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Studeren à la carte.
Registration Contractonderwijs.

Contact details

English Language and Culture student administration, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144;
Coordinator 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.