American Naturalism in Short Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

American Naturalism in Short Fiction


American Naturalism in Short Fiction

American literary naturalism is a literary movement that became popular in late-nineteenth-century America and is often associated with literary realism. The term naturalism was initially coined by Emile Zola, the renowned French author who is also credited as a key figure in the development of French literary naturalism. In the late nineteenth century, the literary movement became popular all over Europe, from England to Russia. American writers were particularly influenced by the British and French models and began to adapt the form to reflect American social, economic, and cultural conditions. Viewed as a combination of realism and romanticism, critics contend that the American form is heavily influenced by the concept of determinism—the theory that heredity and environment influence determine human behavior. Although naturalism is often associated with realism, which also seeks to accurately represent human existence, the two movements are differentiated by the fact that naturalism is connected to the doctrine of biological, economic, and social determinism. In their short fiction, naturalist writers strive to depict life accurately through an exploration of the causal factors that have shaped a character's life as well as a deterministic approach to the character's thoughts and actions. Therefore, instead of free will, a naturalist depicts a character's actions as determined by environmental forces.

American literary naturalism came to the forefront of popular literature during a time of tremendous cultural and economic upheaval in the United States; in the late nineteenth century, industrialization, urbanization, mechanization, and an influx of immigrants from all over the world resulted in extreme changes on the American landscape. The short fiction of American literary naturalism depicts the experiences of impoverished and uneducated people living in squalor and struggling to survive in a harsh, indifferent world. Major thematic concerns of the form include the fight for survival—man against nature and man against society; violence; the consequences of sex and sex as a commodity; the waste of individual potential because of the conditioning forces of life; and man's struggle with his animalistic, base instincts. As a result, the short stories of this literary movement are often regarded as depressing, slice-of-life documentations of sad, unfulfilled lives. A handful of significant American authors, such as Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris, utilized the form, which noticeably declined in popularity by the early twentieth century. Critics note, however, the literary movement's continuing influence on contemporary American authors.

Representative Works

Ambrose Bierce
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (short stories) 1892

Willa Cather
The Troll Garden (short stories) 1905
Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 (short stories) 1965

Stephen Crane
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (novella) 1893
The Open Boat and Other Stories (short stories) 1898
Wounds in the Rain: A Collection of Stories Relating to the Spanish-American War of 1898 (short stories) 1900

Theodore Dreiser
Free and Other Stories (short stories) 1918
Chains (short stories) 1927

Harold Frederic
The Copperhead and Other Stories of the North During the American War 1894
Marsena and Other Stories of the Wartime 1894
Harold Frederic's Stories of York State 1966

Jack London
Lost Face (short stories) 1910
When God Laughs and Other Stories (short stories) 1911
Dutch Courage and Other Stories (short stories) 1922

Frank Norris
A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West (short stories) 1903
The Third Circle (short stories) 1909

William Sydney Porter (O. Henry)
The Four Million (short stories) 1906
The Voice of the City (short stories) 1916

Edith Wharton
The Greater Inclination (short stories and drama) 1899
The Descent of Man and Other Stories (short stories) 1904
Human Nature (short stories) 1933

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

June Howard (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Howard, June. “Preface and Casting Out the Outcast: Naturalism and the Brute.” In Documents of American Realism and Naturalism, edited by Donald Pizer, pp. 386-403. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Howard discusses the defining characteristics of American literary naturalism, describing it as a literary form “that unremittingly attends to the large social questions of its period.”]


The present study is a detailed reading of a single literary genre, American literary naturalism, as a distinctive response to its historical moment. As I make that statement its implications...

(The entire section is 9843 words.)

Stanley Wertheim (essay date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Wertheim, Stanley. “Frank Norris and Stephen Crane: Conviction and Uncertainty.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 24, no. 1 (fall 1991): 54-62.

[In the following essay, Wertheim contrasts the naturalism of Stephen Crane and Frank Norris.]

Frank Norris and Stephen Crane met in mid-May, 1898. Norris, a fledgling correspondent for McClure's Magazine, Crane, and his bureau chief Sylvester Scovel set forth aboard the New York World's dispatch tug Three Friends to garner what news they could of the stalled war from the American battleships blockading the coast of Cuba. They anxiously awaited the arrival of the missing Spanish Atlantic...

(The entire section is 3846 words.)

Louis J. Budd (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Budd, Louis J. “The American Background.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London, edited by Donald Pizer, pp. 21-46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Budd traces the origins and development of American literary naturalism.]


Although realism and naturalism could have sprung up independently in the United States, the historical fact is that they flourished earlier in the European countries all the way eastward to Russia and that American writers were especially stimulated by British and French models. On the other hand, though a still...

(The entire section is 10728 words.)