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.
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (short stories) 1892
The Troll Garden (short stories) 1905
Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 (short stories) 1965
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
Free and Other Stories (short stories) 1918
Chains (short stories) 1927
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
Lost Face (short stories) 1910
When God Laughs and Other Stories (short stories) 1911
Dutch Courage and Other Stories (short stories) 1922
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
The Greater Inclination (short stories and drama)...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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 clamor for annotation—I may not mean exactly what the reader expects when I speak of genre, of history, or of literary texts as responses to history. The chapters that follow make those discriminations; they proceed more or less inductively, working from within familiar formulations to reconstruct our ideas of genre criticism, of the relation between literary form and history, and of naturalism and American naturalism. Let me here suggest more summarily just where those arguments will lead us.
When Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries voiced their thoughts for contemporaries or recorded them for posterity they often reported that they felt themselves living in a perilous time, a period of change and...
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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 fleet of Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete, four creaky cruisers, and three torpedo boats. Norris, almost two years senior to the twenty-six-year-old Crane, was probably more than a little envious of the achievements of his only notable competitor in the field of American literary naturalism. He had written a parody of Maggie and The Red Badge of Courage entitled “The Green Stone of Unrest” for the San Francisco weekly magazine The Wave and may have been the author of a disparaging unsigned review of Maggie and George's Mother which complained that these novelettes were written “from the outside. There is a certain lack of sympathy apparent. Mr. Crane does not seem to know his...
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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 provincial, moralizing culture might have rejected realism and naturalism as alien or profane or harmful, nevertheless they did become established in the postbellum United States. Even Richard Chase, whose The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957) had argued that the romance was the quintessential mode of fiction in the United States, felt compelled to declare:
After all, realism, although it was there from the beginning, did “rise,” or at least became conscious of itself as a significant, liberalizing and forward-looking literary program. Whole areas of the American novel, both classic and modern, are closed to any reader who … thinks that it contains no meaningful element of realism. The...
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SOURCE: Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884-1919. New York: The Free Press, 1965.
[In the following excerpt, Berthoff provides a brief overview of Ambrose Bierce's short stories and compares his short fiction to that of Edgar Allan Poe.]
Ambrose Bierce … has maintained a curious kind of underground reputation, less as a maker of books than as a personal legend, a minority saint for the cynical and disenchanted. (A passion for taut, precise, desentimentalizing English is a special part of this legend.) Growing up into the holocaust of the Civil War, in which he served with honor and was badly wounded, he became a writer whose voice and outlook are more impressive than the literary uses he managed to put them to. He survives as a figure of bitter dissent and disaffiliation—from the bluster and prodigality of the Gilded Age, from its daydreams of comfort and success, from all its gross connivance in hypocrisy and untruth. It was as such, a scarifier of his times and an honest measure of their moral shabbiness, that the critic Percival Pollard celebrated Bierce in Their Day in Court (1909) as “the one commanding figure in our time.”
The very peremptoriness of his naysaying, however, limited Bierce's authority as a satirist and moral critic. Nonetheless his Fantastic Fables …, sardonically reviewing the rules and conditions for success...
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SOURCE: Cox, James Trammel. “Stephen Crane as Symbolic Naturalist: An Analysis of ‘The Blue Hotel’.” Modern Fiction Studies 3, no. 2 (summer 1957): 147-58.
[In the following essay, Cox offers an analysis of “The Blue Hotel” to illustrate his thesis that Stephen Crane is more of a symbolist than a naturalist.]
The limitations of labels are less apparent when the term, like naturalism, has clearly definable boundaries than when it suffers from an excess of meaning, as in the much discussed omnibus romanticism. But they are no less real, and no less critically inhibiting. In the case of naturalism I would say this is particularly true, and as it has been applied to the fiction of Stephen Crane the effect has been to encourage a view and a lethargy which Crane hardly deserves. R. W. Stallman is almost alone in perceiving a fundamental difference in the fictional method of Crane and that of other naturalists in American fiction; and the value of his work in the eyes of many of the critics of American literature has been obscured by the set features, like a comic mask, of French naturalism. As articulated by Zola in Le roman expérimental, it is a central doctrine that “le naturalisme, je le dis encore, consiste uniquement dans la méthode expérimentale, dans l'observation et l'expérience appliquees à la littérature” and that “la méthode atteint la...
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SOURCE: Monteiro, George. “Society and Nature in Stephen Crane's ‘The Men in the Storm’.” Prairie Schooner 45, no. 1 (spring 1971): 13-17.
[In the following essay, Monteiro views the major thematic concerns of Stephen Crane's “The Men in the Storm” to be violence against man by nature and society.]
Stephen Crane was a philosophical naturalist. This commonplace observation, so dear to the literary and cultural historian, is unfortunately less than accurate. For the truth is that at no time was Crane able to commit himself fully to the implications of the determinism he so much wanted to accept. The difficulty lay in his inability to resolve the conflict between his intellectual commitment to naturalism and his emotional tie to the nineteenth-century Protestantism of his family. If Crane could not embrace his ancestors' Methodism, with its strong emphasis on scriptural authority, neither could he free himself from its nagging influence. One of the early literary consequences of this dilemma is my subject: “The Men in the Storm,” a sketch published in The Arena when the author was twenty-three years old.
When Crane “researched” the facts that went into “The Men in the Storm” and even after the story was published in 1894, he was wont to regard it as no more than a bread-and-butter performance, at best, a competent piece of quotidian journalism. Scouring New...
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SOURCE: Krause, Sydney J. “The Surrealism of Crane's Naturalism in Maggie.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 16, no. 2 (autumn 1983): 253-61.
[In the following essay, Krause investigates the surrealism found in Stephen Crane's Maggie.]
The source of Maggie's plight is that her lack of toughness unfits her to withstand the animal callousness of real-life experience. Traumatized by betrayal in love and rejection at home, she sinks into psychic paralysis. In Crane's day, it was his subject that troubled readers; in ours, it is his method. Thus, while the modernist may find passing amusement in those early critics who were put off by Crane's obsession with the “depraved” and “disgusting”1—vindication, as it were, for Richard Watson Gilder2—he can also be less than convinced by Richard Chase, R. W. Stallman, and others who have found effectiveness in Crane's tendency to conventionalize and simplify, a technique augmented in the 1896 revision, and from which, we are told, the work takes on “a form of allegory.”3 Clearly one must ask: Is there not a point at which the simplicity becomes too simple, undisguised melodrama, in fact, as some critics have noted?4 Indeed, since a conversion to allegory still does not much raise the level of artistic sophistication, perhaps it is necessary to re-examine the operative form of this deceptively...
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SOURCE: Conder, John J. “Stephen Crane and the Necessary Fiction.” In Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase, pp. 22-42. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.
[In the following essay, Condor outlines Stephen Crane's naturalistic vision in “The Open Boat” and “The Blue Hotel.”]
“THE OPEN BOAT”
“The Open Boat” is the center of the Crane canon and the appropriate work with which to begin a discussion of Crane's naturalism. In its brilliant starkness, the central image portrays a naturalistic vision of man. Men adrift in a boat, a human creation, confront the sea, the world of nature. Unwillingly they receive an education whose terms are understood mainly by the correspondent. The lessons he learns are central to Crane's naturalistic vision, and they emerge with remarkable clarity.
Although the correspondent would like to think of nature as having purpose, he is soon divested of that comforting illusion, for his repeated invocations to “the seven mad gods who rule the sea”1 only lead him to a knowledge of her indifference. At first he “wishes to throw bricks at the temple” of nature to protest this injustice, but he can only settle for hating “deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.” He discovers nature is not symbolic, that man cannot think in teleological terms, even though the...
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SOURCE: Hakutani, Yoshinobu. “Early Short Stories.” In Young Dreiser: A Critical Study, pp. 151-68. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980.
[In the following excerpt, Hakutani discusses Theodore Dreiser's contribution to American literary naturalism and the influence of French naturalist authors upon his work.]
In the summer of 1899, shortly before the writing of Sister Carrie, Dreiser tried his hand at the short story, his first concentrated effort to write fiction.
During this period Dreiser managed to express himself on the concepts that had been latent in his mind for a long time. When he first read Herbert Spencer's work, Dreiser absorbed the technical theories of Spencerian determinism. … Seeing the proof of determinism in his own experience, Dreiser ignored Spencer's inherent theory of unending progress and chose to believe that man was a victim of natural forces. Dreiser's conclusion then was that “man was a mechanism, undevised and uncreated, and a badly and carelessly driven one at that.”
Dreiser was a thoroughgoing determinist. He observed human behavior in terms of natural laws: the complexities of individual life were to be explained by physical and chemical reactions.
Despite the pessimistic conclusion at which Dreiser arrived in his interpretation of deterministic theory, it is still possible to...
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SOURCE: Gammel, Irene. “Female Sexuality and the Naturalistic Crisis: ‘Emanuela’.” Sexualizing Power in Naturalism: Theodore Dreiser and Frederick Philip Grove, pp. 83-99. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Gammel examines the treatment of female sexuality in Theodore Dreiser's “Emanuela,” contending that in his work he “celebrates sexuality as the major driving force in life, holding it up as a force of progress endlessly engaged in battles against sexually repressive social conventions and institutions.”]
Surrounded by an aura of what Dreiser often calls a “pagan” sensuality, many of his female characters paradoxically also exude a strange sense of sexual abstinence, almost chastity. Philip Fisher has commented on Carrie Meeber's absence of sexual desires and “the lack of erotic quality” in her love relationships, at the same time that she enacts desires and eros very successfully on the theater stage.1 Leslie Fiedler, commenting on the chastity of the “unchurched nun,” Carrie Meeber, and on Jennie Gerhardt's almost asexual mothering of her two lovers, irreverently draws the conclusion that Dreiser “could never portray, for all his own later hectic career as a lover, any woman except the traditional seduced working girl of sentimental melodrama.”2 Yet, despite this penchant for the gender-stereotypical seduction...
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SOURCE: Wilcox, Earl J. “Overtures of Literary Naturalism in The Son of the Wolf and The God of His Fathers.” In Critical Essays on Jack London, edited by Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, pp. 105-13. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983.
[In the following essay, Wilcox assesses the extent of Jack London's literary naturalism through an examination of his The Son of the Wolf and The God of His Fathers.]
Two problems arise from the assertion that Jack London was a literary naturalist: lack of common agreement on a definition of the term “literary naturalism” and the need to demonstrate the precise ways in which London's fiction can be called “naturalistic.” Resolution of these two issues has been attempted, with but limited success, during the past fifty years. Research during the past decade owes an enormous debt to Donald Pizer, Larzer Ziff, Warner Berthoff, and others.1 Unfortunately, these critics and literary historians have not always made anyone's task easier in grappling with the issues. Indeed, they have frequently complicated it. No attempt will be made here to examine in detail the shortcomings and strengths of these studies, but in assessing London's naturalism one must be alert to the likelihood that London will be relegated to a place with the “primitivists” at best or with the “sci-fi” freaks if he is at all relevant.
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SOURCE: Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. “‘Never Travel Alone’: Naturalism, Jack London, and the White Silence.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 29, no. 2 (winter 1997): 33-49.
[In the following essay, Reesman explores the naturalistic nature of Jack London's fiction.]
The afternoon wore on, and with the awe, born of the White Silence, the voiceless travelers bent to their work. Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity,—the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven's artillery,—but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot's life, nothing more. Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of things strives for utterance. And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over him,—the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence,—it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.
—The Son of the Wolf (1900)1
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SOURCE: Hochman, Barbara. “Norris's Dubious Naturalism.” In The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller, pp. 1-19. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988.
[In the following essay, Hochman disputes Frank Norris's reputation as a naturalist, contending that the imaginative force of his work “is not to be sought in his naturalist concerns, but rather in a cluster of preoccupations that center on the vulnerability of the self.”]
“You don't understand. … It runs in my family to hate anything sticky. It's—it's—it's heredity.”
—Annixter in Norris's The Octopus
So you think Romance would stop in the front parlor and discuss medicated flannels and mineral waters with the ladies? Not for more than five minutes. … She would find a heart-ache (may-be) between the pillows of the mistress's bed, and a memory carefully secreted in the master's deedbox.
—Norris, “A Plea for Romantic Fiction”
This study grows out of the conviction that the imaginative force of Frank Norris's work is not to be sought in his naturalist concerns, but rather in a cluster of preoccupations that center on the vulnerability of the self. Norris's fiction generates an image of the self in perpetual engagement with life processes beyond its control, struggling for a...
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SOURCE: Campbell, Donna M. “Edith Wharton and the ‘Authoresses’: The Critique of Local Color in Wharton's Early Fiction.” Studies in American Fiction 22, no. 2 (autumn 1994): 169-83.
[In the following essay, Campbell maintains that in Edith Wharton's “Mrs. Manstey's View” and Bunner Sisters the author “interfuses the city landscapes of naturalism with the potent iconography and themes of local color, providing a chilling commentary upon the limitations of local color fiction in a naturalistic world that encroaches upon the threatens its ideals.”]
Edith Wharton's impatience with what she called the “rose and lavender pages” of the New England local color “authoresses” reverberates throughout her autobiography and informs such novels as Ethan Frome and Summer. In A Backward Glance she explains that Ethan Frome arose from her desire “to draw life as it really was in the derelict mountain villages of New England, a life … utterly unlike that seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of my predecessors, Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett.”1 The genre of women's local color fiction that Wharton thus disdained was in one sense, as Josephine Donovan has suggested, the culmination of a coherent feminine literary tradition whose practitioners had effectively seized the margins of realistic discourse and, within their self-imposed...
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SOURCE: Emmert, Scott. “Drawing-Room Naturalism in Edith Wharton's Early Short Stories.” Les Cahiers de la Nouvelle/Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 39 (autumn 2002): 57-71.
[In the following essay, Emmert elucidates the distinctive form of Wharton's literary naturalism, which he refers to as “drawing-room naturalism.”]
In her biography of Edith Wharton, Cynthia Griffin Wolff discusses the ways in which the nineteenth-century upper-class girl was encouraged to deny her feelings, particularly sexual ones. As a young girl of that class, Wharton was pressured into early self-denial. One of the primary lessons Wharton learned was that “[s]ociety had decreed that ‘nice’ young women didn't really have feelings to be explained: if you did have feelings—well, then, obviously you weren't ‘nice.’ Lady-like behavior demanded the total suppression of instinct.” As a reaction against her repressed upbringing, young Edith Jones turned to books and to “making up” stories. Her “lifelong love of words,” Wolff insists, “sprang from her early emotional impoverishment,” and nothing terrified young Edith more than the prospect of remaining forever mute, which was connected in her mind with the existence of “helpless” animals (Wolff 37, 27 and 25)1.
The notion of being seen and not heard was applied especially to female children of Wharton's...
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Adams, Richard P. “Naturalist Fiction: ‘The Open Boat’.” In Stephen Crane's Career: Perspectives and Evaluations, edited by Thomas A. Gullason, pp. 421-29. New York: New York University Press, 1972.
Discusses Stephen Crane's story “The Open Boat” as a prime example of literary naturalism.
Anesko, Michael. “Recent Critical Approaches.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London, edited by Donald Pizer, pp. 77-94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Traces recent critical interpretations of American literary naturalism.
Cargill, Oscar. “American Naturalism.” In Intellectual America: Ideas on the March, pp. 82-127. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1941.
Surveys the major authors of American literary naturalism.
Cazemajou, Jean. “Stephen Crane.” In Seven Novelists in the American Tradition: An Introduction, edited by Charles Child Walcutt, pp. 21-54. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963.
Overview of Stephen Crane's life and career.
Nagel, James. “Conclusion: Impressionist and Literary Chameleon.” In Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism, pp. 163-75. State College, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
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