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date: 18 August 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Critical accounts of American literary realism have often focused on how realism is an intervention in, rather than a simple representation of, reality. Truth, however, remains a powerful referent for realists and a particularly complex one for postbellum African American writers whose works exemplify, but also interrogate, realism as a mode of representation. This chapter argues that linking African American writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles Chesnutt to the realism of William Dean Howells reveals how for these writers, realism itself becomes a way to interrogate the power of stories to define what is true and to intervene in such assumptions. At the same time, these authors’ works increasingly show the limits of such interventions in relation to the intractability of racialized and racist discourse—and the racial disparities such discourse reinforces—at the turn of the twentieth century.

Keywords: American literary realism, racial inequality, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, William Dean Howells, postbellum American literature

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