Facing Facts
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Facing Facts : Realism in American Thought and Culture, 1850-1920

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"A true poem," Walt Whitman proclaimed in 1852, "is the daily newspaper"-and American culture was never the same again. Like a blast of cold air in a stuffy drawing room, Whitman's campaign to give artistic representation to gritty reality shocked the genteel artistic elite of the 1850s; but the brassy poet's efforts helped generate a revolution in American life and thought. Four decades later, Willa Cather could declare that the "public demands realism, and they will have it." In Facing Facts, David Shi provides the most comprehensive history to date of the rise of realism in American culture. He vividly captures the character and sweep of this all-encompassing movement-ranging from Winslow Homer to the rise of the Ash Can school, from Whitman to Henry James to Theodore Dreiser. He begins with a look at the idealist atmosphere of the antebellum years, when otherwordly themes were considered the only fit subject for art (Hawthorne wrote that "the grosser life is a dream, and the spiritual life is a reality"). Whitman's assault on these standards coincided with sweeping changes in American society: the bloody Civil War, the aggressive advance of a modern scientific spirit, the popularity of photography, the expansion of cities, capitalism, and the middle class-all worked to shake the foundations of genteel idealism and sentimental romanticism. Both artists and the public developed an ever-expanding appetite for hard facts, and for art that accurately depicted them. As Shi proceeds through the nineteenth century, he traces the realist revolution in each major area of arts and letters, combining an astute analysis of the movement's essential themes with incisive portraits of its leading practitioners. Here we see Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., shaken to stern realism by the horrors of the Civil War; the influence of Walt Whitman on painter Thomas Eakins and architect Louis Sullivan, a leader of the Chicago school; the local-color verisimilitude of Louisa May Alcott and Sarah Orne Jewett; and the impact of urban squalor on intrepid young writers such as Stephen Crane. In the process of surveying nineteenth-century cultural history, Shi provides fascinating insights into the specific concerns of the realist movement-in particular, the nation's growing obsession with gender roles. Realism, he writes, was in many respects an effort to revive masculine virtues in the face of declining virility. During the twentieth century, a new modernist sensibility challenged the now-orthodox tenets of realism: "Is it not time," one critic asked, "that we renounce the heresy that it is the function of art to record a fact?" Shi examines why so many Americans answered yes to this question, under influences ranging from psychoanalysis to the First World War. Nuanced, detailed, and comprehensive, Facing Facts provides the definitive account of the realist phenomenon, revealing why it played so great a role in American cultural history, and why it retains its perennial fascination.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 416 pages
  • 152 x 228 x 26mm | 621.42g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • Reprint
  • numerous halftones
  • 0195106539
  • 9780195106534

Review quote

"Shi's brisk and, at times, dizzying survey of the arts focusses on the American taste for realism."-The New Yorker (Recommended Reading) "A history of the shift of the American mind from romanticism to realism from just before the Civil War to the end of World War I."-The New York Times Book Review "Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Mr. Shi's timely reminder of this pragmatist faith in the transforming power of representation is how alien it feels in our own day; when relations between distinct groups within American society are weakening, and when the hope of changing the world by reimagining it is diminishing. One closes Mr. Shi's book with a sense of gratitude for writers who once tried to restore and sustain these relations and that hope."-The New York Times Book Review "An outstanding survey of Realism in American culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book analyzes the Realistic mentality in literature, painting, architecture and other cultural endeavors. It reveals a dynamic idea of Realism that both depicted and analyzed the realities of daily living. Realism left an enduring legacy, and is still functioning. This book is a welcome addition to the historical analysis of modern American culture."-H. Wayne Morgan, author of America's Road to Empire "An enviable combination of clarity and subtlety....I have frankly, up to now, not come across a truly clear and persuasive description of realism and exactly how it related to idealism, naturalism, and modernism in American art and literature. Shi's book performs that service. Because it covers such a long time span, deals with the most central cultural events, includes such a wide range of creative people, and is so unambiguously and engagingly written, it is bound to have a broad and lasting impact."-Walter Nugent, author of Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations and Structures of American Social History "A rich, brilliantly written discussion of the ideas, evolution and exposition of varieties of realism in American culture from slightly before the Civil War to the end of World War I....Shi's hand is so sure and his insights are so interesting that it transforms one's reading into a fresh encounter. I have been constantly intrigued by the twists and turns of his argument, by the juxtapositions and comparisons he makes, and by the way he weaves insights from one arena of culture into explorations of another. In this fashion, literary and art works, architecture, science, philosophy, and so forth are seen as text at one point and context at another. The result is a truly rich and fascinating exposition....I cannot name another historian of American culture whose prose is more forceful or inviting."-James Gilbert, author of Work Without Salvation and A Cycle of Outrageshow more

Back cover copy

In Facing Facts, David Shi provides the most comprehensive history to date of the rise of realism in American culture. He vividly captures the character and sweep of this all-encompassing movement - ranging from Winslow Homer to the rise of the Ash Can school, from Whitman to Henry James to Theodore Dreiser. He begins with a look at the antebellum years, when idealistic themes were considered the only fit subject for art (Hawthorne wrote that "the grosser life is a dream, and the spiritual life is a reality"). Whitman's assault on these otherworldly standards coincided with sweeping changes in American society: the bloody Civil War, the aggressive advance of a modern scientific spirit, the emergence of photography and penny newspapers, the expansion of cities, capitalism, and the middle class - all worked to shake the foundations of genteel idealism and sentimental romanticism. The public developed an ever-expanding appetite for concrete facts and for art that accurately depicted them. As Shi proceeds through the nineteenth century, he traces the realist impulse in each major area of arts and letters, combining an astute analysis of the movement's essential themes with incisive portraits of its leading practitioners. Here we see Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., shaken to stern realism by the horrors of the Civil War; the influence of Walt Whitman on painter Thomas Eakins and architect Louis Sullivan, a leader of the Chicago school; the local-color verisimilitude of Louisa May Alcott and Sarah Orne Jewett; and the impact of urban squalor on intrepid young writers such as Stephen Crane. In the process of surveying nineteenth-century cultural history, Shi provides fascinating insights into thespecific concerns of the realist movement - in particular, the nation's growing obsession with gender roles. Realism, he observes, was in part an effort to revive masculine virtues in the face of effeminate sentimentality and decorous gentility. By the end of the nineteenth century, realism had displaced idealism as the dominant approach in thought and the arts. During the next two decades, however, a new modernist sensibility challenged the fact-devouring emphasis of realism: "Is it not time", one critic asked, "that we renounce the heresy that it is the function of art to record a fact?" Shi examines why so many Americans answered yes to this question, under influences ranging from psychoanalysis to the First World War. Nuanced, detailed, and comprehensive, Facing Facts provides the definitive account of the realist phenomenon, revealing its essential causes, explaining why it played so great a role in American cultural history, and suggesting why it retains its perennial fascination.show more

About David E. Shi

About the Author: David Shi is President of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture and America: A Narrative History.show more

Rating details

12 ratings
3.75 out of 5 stars
5 17% (2)
4 58% (7)
3 8% (1)
2 17% (2)
1 0% (0)
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