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Posted on April 7th, 2012, by

Realism, Naturalism, and Modernism in African American literature

The period of Realism, Naturalism, and Modernism in African American literature has lasted approximately from 1940 to 1960. General characteristics of these literature styles were the same as in literatures of other countries and nations. Realism was the style describing the real life of common people. The specific feature of naturalism was an accent on the most rude and real details of the life and culture. Modernism is the experiment with existing literature styles.

Literature of Realism, Naturalism, and Modernism differed from the literature of Harlem Renaissance. The last one was aimed on the raise of Black ethnicity and African American identity formation. The literature of realism, modernism and naturalism didn’t have such ideological meaning. Instead this literature described the actual life of Black Americans, and in this way it was much more documentary importance.

Richard Wright was one of the major African American writers of this period. He wrote and published some of his works in the USA before he left for Paris and became the American expatriate till the end of his life. His works had a significant impact on the next generations of African American writers. Thus, the famous novel «The invisible man» by Ralph Ellison was inspired by the novel «A man who lived underground» by Richard Wright.

The writing style of Richard Wright is still the object of hot debates. Wright was self-educated person, and in his passion to reading he paid much attention to Theodore Dreiser and his «An American tragedy». Thus, the impact of Dreiser formed the writing style of Wright as realism. His characters, men and women, are common people, and the author describes them without the romantic exaggerations. The early life of the writer also gave him the impulse to be realistic. His poor and unhappy childhood, his sympathies to Communists also formed him as a realist. He wrote in his autobipgraphical novel «A Balck Boy»: «This was the culture from which i sprang. This was the terror from which I fled.» (Wright, p.257)

However, some critics found the allusions on Edgar Allan Poe and the elements of modernism in his writing, especially in the system of metaphors. The elements of modernism in the works of Wright are still under discussion, but the famous quote tells: «The artist must bow to the monster of his own imagination» (p.13) This metaphor obviously has something common with Gothic literature.

At last, the newest editions of Wright’s works contain more elements of naturalism. These elements were censored in the previous editions because of extremities of violence and horror. Wright wrote about his understanding of violence in his novel «A Native Son»:
«Violence is a personal necessity for the oppressed…It is not a strategy consciously devised. It is the deep, instinctive expression of a human being denied individuality» (Wright, p.138)

Thus, the writing style of Richard Wright is too complex to be included in one of the literary styles. Nevertheless, his works stay the perfect example of African American literature in the period 1940-1960.

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