Although its origins were European, naturalism was an important movement in American literature from the 1890s until the 1920s. While it is strongly associated with realism, in the shared emphasis on depicting surface reality, naturalism is more than a literary technique, involving as it does the philosophy of determinism. Naturalism is antiromantic in emphasizing the limited ability of humans to impose will upon their own destiny, and also in devaluing the imagination's embellishment of reality. For the naturalist, it is the duty of the writer to present to the reader reality without illusion, to offer a scientific, detached view of it rather than to adorn or mislead or simply please the reader. The writer is also seen to have a diagnostic function, scrutinizing the ills of society, and the scientific element of naturalism has its origins in the theories of Darwin and, after Marx, in the development of the social sciences during the nineteenth century. American naturalism developed broadly in two directions, one examining the social and political dynamics of American urban life and the other examining the biological aspects of deterministic thought. The influence of Marx is frequently evident in the former branch and that of Darwin in the second.
This diagnostic element of naturalism derives directly from the French novelist Émile Zola, the most important figure in the development of literary naturalism. American writers, notably Stephen Crane
, endorsed this view of the writer's responsibility to analyze, and Crane's novel MAGGIE, A GIRL OF THE STREETS (1893) is a classic of American naturalism. In it he shows that "environment is a tremendous thing in the world, and frequently shapes lives regardless." The novel presents the process of the disruption of Maggie's family, her descent into prostitution, and her eventual suicide, and considers this process as an inevitable consequence of the limited choices offered by the poverty of her New York environment. MAGGIE exemplifies much American naturalistic writing in its use of an urban setting, its refusal to condemn or sentimentalize Maggie's prostitution, its depiction of slum life, and its objective focus on scandalous or immoral subjects. The supposedly immoral nature of naturalistic writing should not be underestimated; as in France, much naturalistic writing in the United States was considered scandalous and liable to censorship or prohibition. Although Crane later moved away from classic naturalism, his work maintained its diagnostic anti-illusionist element.
The naturalistic emphasis on how economic and social forces determine human behavior was developed by novelists such as W. D. Howells
(1837-1920), Frank Norris
, and Theodore Dreiser
, while elements of naturalism are present in the works of Upton Sinclair
(1878-1968) and John Steinbeck
(1902-68), who both brought a progressive socialist political commitment to the movement. The novels of Dreiser, notably AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY
(1925), and of Norris (MCTEAGUE
, THE OCTOPUS , VANDOVER AND THE BRUTE [1895/1914]) were particularly significant in exploring the fate of the individual during the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the United States; naturalist writing is closely linked to American social change during a period of dramatic capitalist growth and the rise of big business. Social Darwinism forms an important part of naturalism at the end of the 19th century.
The deterministic concern with biological forces is generally less evident in American writing than it is elsewhere, although it emerges in the 1890s novels of Mark Twain
(especially PUDD'NHEAD WILSON ) and in some women's writing. For example, in spite of the romantic tradition in which she wrote, Kate Chopin
explored naturalistic ideas. This is especially so in THE AWAKENING
(1899), in which she expresses through the character Dr. Mandelet the naturalist view that romantic love is an illusion damaging to women's social status since it determines for them the biological role of motherhood. The illusion of love, he says, is "a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race." In spite of this, Chopin's heroine, Edna Pontellier, maintains a romantic view of experience and her suicide, in sharp contrast to that of Crane's Maggie, is a triumphant expression of individual will over circumstance. Other writers associated with naturalism include Jack London
(1876-1916), who often explored the Darwinian contiguity between humans and animals and how the otherwise buried animalistic survival instinct surfaces in extreme circumstances. This is exemplified in THE SEA-WOLF (1904), but is frequently a theme in London's Klondike stories, and distinctions between human and animal behavior were often blurred in his writing, as in THE CALL OF THE WILD
(1903) and WHITE FANG (1906).
Although naturalism was most influential in the period 1890-1925, aspects of it survived into modernism; Hemingway's early work, for instance, often uses the naturalistic concept of the individual who is being tested by extreme circumstance and learning to live without self-delusion, and realist writers such as Sherwood Anderson
(1876-1941) and Sinclair Lewis
(1885-1951) made use of naturalistic idioms in their analyses of human motivation and circumstance.
THE BEGINNINGS OF NATURALISM IN AMERICAN FICTION (1961) by Lars Ahnebrink; AMERICAN LITERARY NATURALISM AND ITS 20TH-CENTURY TRANSFORMATIONS (1994) by Paul Civello; DETERMINED FICTIONS (1989) by Lee Clark Mitchell; THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF AMERICAN LITERARY NATURALISM (1993) by Donald Pizer, and DOCUMENTS OF AMERICAN REALISM AND NATURALISM (1998), edited by Donald Pizer.
From THE ESSENTIAL GLOSSARY: AMERICAN LITERATURE by Stephen Matterson. © 2003 Stephen Matterson
. Reprinted by permission of the author.