The 'Real' America: Class and Culture in the American Gilded Age - ENGL7030

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Module delivery information

This module is not currently running in 2022 to 2023.


What is at stake when artists and writers decide to take the "real world" as the subject of their art? In the later nineteenth century, to depict “reality” in fiction and art became a radical act of social protest and critique. In an endeavour to locate the “truth” behind American society, realists moved well beyond pre-existing societal norms to investigate the squalid living conditions of immigrants in the New York slums, participate in Native American religious ceremonies, and probe the psychosexual neuroses of the middle classes. This module explores the American “ideology of realism” (Michael Elliot) in the late nineteenth- and early- twentieth centuries as expressed in a variety of forms and genres, including: the novel, painting, anthropology and photography. We will discuss the reasons behind the emergence of realism in the later nineteenth century, how it interacted with the new “mass culture”, whether it critiqued or reinforced dominant racial, sexual, ethnic and class-based prejudices, and, finally, why it declined in the twentieth century as the favoured aesthetic of the American avant-garde. On this module we will move far beyond seeing realism as merely a tame, neutral artistic style to investigate how it pointed to a radical “way of seeing” the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century world.


Contact hours

Total contact hours: 32
Private study hours: 268
Total study hours: 300

Method of assessment

Main assessment methods:

Written assignment 1 (3,000 words) (45%)
Written Assignment 2 (3,000 words) (45%)
Seminar Performance (10%)

Reassessment methods
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Indicative reading

Indicative Reading List:

Life in the Iron Mills (1861) – Rebecca Harding Davis (Boston and New York: Bedford Cultural Editions, 1998).
Electronic version available at
The Bostonians (1886) – Henry James (London: Penguin Classics, 2000)
A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) – William Dean Howells (Toronto: Modern Library Paperback, 2002)
Maggie (1893)– Stephen Crane (London:Norton Critical Editions 1979)
Realist American Paintings and Photography (Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, Ashcan School, Lewis Hine) Access via;;
Letters from New York (1880-1891) – José Martí in Jose Marti Selected Writings trans. Esther Allen (London: Penguin Books, 2002)

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

The intended subject specific learning outcomes.
On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

1. demonstrate a rich and nuanced understanding of key issues in discussions of "the real" during the American Gilded Age.
2. demonstrate interdisciplinary and contextual knowledge of Gilded Age and Progressive Era society that will enhance their critical readings of late-nineteenth-century literature and literary culture.
3. demonstrate an in-depth understanding of the social and political forces shaping nineteenth- and early-twentieth century American literature beyond that already covered in other areas of the degree.
4. critique "realist" writers' claim to objectivity and verisimilitude and question the applicability of notions such as "the real" and "the realistic" to literary texts.
5. demonstrate a greater depth of knowledge on the transatlantic networks of influence shaping literature and culture in the Gilded Age.

The intended generic learning outcomes.
On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

1. demonstrate the ability to synthesise complex information with precision and subtlety;
2. demonstrate enhanced skills at comprehending, analysing, and interrogating a variety of texts and assessing the value of diverse critical approaches and ideas;
3. demonstrate ability to communicate effectively to a variety of audiences and/or using a variety of methods;
4. demonstrate their capacity to carry out independent research.


  1. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  2. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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