Literary Perspective and Political Ideology

Realism vs. Naturalism

Carefully read the following excerpts from literary descriptions of the poor in New York City during the 1890’s. See if you can determine the writer’s political ideology from his narrative point of view. What details are selected? What diction is used? What metaphors? How do these literary techniques reveal different political stances?

From Charles Dickens, American Notes (1842)

Let us go on again; and passing this wilderness of an hotel with stores about its base, like some continental theatre, or the London Opera House shorn of its colonnade, plunge into the Five Points. But it is needful, first, that we take as our escort these two heads of the police, whom you would know for sharp and well-trained officers if you met them in the Great Desert. So true it is that certain pursuits, wherever carried on, will stamp men with the same character. These two might have been begotten, born, and bred in Bow Street.
We have seen no beggars in the streets by night or day; but of other kinds of strollers plenty. Poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife enough where we are going now. This is the place, these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?

From How the Other Half Lives (1888) Jacob Riis in the New York Sun 

Leaving the Elevated Railroad where it dives under the Brooklyn Bridge at Franklin Square, scarce a dozen steps will take you where we wish to go… with its rush and roar echoing yet in our ears we have turned the corner from prosperity to poverty. We stand upon the domain of the tenement… enough of them everywhere. Suppose we look into one? No? – Cherry Street. Be a little careful, please! The hall is dark and you might stumble over the children pitching pennies there. Not that it would hurt them; kicks and cuffs are their daily diet. They have little else. Here where the hall turns and dives into utter darkness is a step and another, another, a flight of stairs. You can feel your way, if you cannot see it. Close? Yes! What would you have? All the fresh air that ever enters these stairs comes from the hall door that is forever slamming and from the windows of the dark bedrooms that in turn we see from the stairs the sole supply of the elements God meant to be free, but that man deals out with such niggardly hand.

From New York Streets by William Dean Howells

The sidewalks swarm with children and the air rings with clamor as they fly back and forth at play; on the thresholds the mothers sit nursing their babes and the old women gossip together…. In a picture it would be most pleasingly effective, for then you could be in it and yet have the distance on it which it needs. [To be in it] is to inhale the stenches of the neglected street and to catch that yet fouler and dreadfuler poverty smell which breed from the open doorways. It is to see the children quarreling in their games and beating each other in the face and rolling each other in the gutter like the little savage outlaws they are.

From Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

Eventually they entered into a dark region where, from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter. A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust from cobbles and swirled it against an hundred windows. Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire-escapes. In all unhandy places there were buckets, brooms, rags and bottles. In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings, or screamed in frantic quarrels. Withered persons, in curious postures of submission to something, sat smoking pipes in obscure corners. A thousand odors of cooking food came forth to the street. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels.