Realism – Like so much else in the history of American culture and thought, "literary realism"
began in Europe a generation or so before it took hold here. 19th century French
fiction -- Stendahl, Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant -- provided the most influential precursors.
Probably every artist, in her or his own way, would claim to be representing "reality"
(the only word, Nabokov says, that means nothing without quotation marks around it), but
in histories of American literature the term "literary realism" is specifically applied
to the generation that emerged immediately after the Civil War. I used it as a
label for the works we read by Mark Twain, Henry James and Kate Chopin, and suggested that one way to recognize these works as "realist" was on the basis of a set of themes or
preoccupations they share. For example, these writers defined their project as an unwriting
of the idealizations of "romance," and so Huck and Jim go on board the sinking Walter
Scott (a writer of romances) to encounter a "real" robber gang that looks (and
smells) nothing like the picturesque robbers in the books Tom Sawyer has been reading.
The conflict between what Chopin calls "the realm of romance" (Edna's longings) and "the
world of reality" (the circumstances Edna cannot escape) is one of the axes around
which "realist" fiction turns. Another characteristic: rather than focus on the
encounter between "Self" (or mind/imagination/consciousness) and nature, they depicted
the "self" in conflict with society, and defined the "self" in terms of the way it is
shaped by social-historical circumstances (so Huck's conscience, for example, echoes the
values of his time and place, not the eternal divine truth). Similarly, where "romance"
uses ideal archetypes like "hero" or "villain" (categories which derive from a transcendent moral order),
"realists" claimed to be writing about men and women as they are. One other way to
identify the works we read as "realist" — mosquitoes! (Which may suggest that when Dickinson hears that fly buzzing when she dies, she is already expressing the conflict between material circumstances and transcendent longings, and so writing as a "realist" — which is a good reminder that we don't want to let labels keep us from seeing and thinking about "what's really there" in the works we read.)
Romanticism – The earliest Romantics were 18th century European writers like J-J. Rousseau and J. W. von Goethe. Most literary historians date "the Romantic Movement" in English from the publication by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798 of Lyrical Ballads. Romanticism came to American literature about a generation later, with writers like Bryant, Emerson and Poe as the first wave. The Romantics on our reading list are Whitman and Dickinson, but because they begin writing their poetry in the 1850s they are very late Romantics (and Dickinson a particularly skeptical one).
Characteristic themes by which you can recognize a Romantic text include: an emphasis on consciousness or the Self ("The key to the period," Emerson wrote, "was that the mind became aware of itself"); a belief in what Coleridge called the "esemplastic powers" of the imagination; the turn away from social and religious institutions to children, savages and especially to nature and intuition as sources of redemption and meaning; believing that the regeneration of the individual can lead to "a new heaven and a new earth" and defining the project of art as a means to that end.
"Of man, the voyage of his mind's return./To reason's early paradise,/Back, back to wisdom's birth, to innocent intuitions,/Again with fair creation" — when Whitman writes these quasi-Miltonic lines in "Passage to India" (Section 7), he sums up the high Romantic program, the faith that one way or another inspired and tortured the Romantics. You can hear the same aspiration, somewhat diminished, when Dickinson defines her poetic "occupation" as "The spreading wide my narrow Hands/To gather Paradise -"