Realistic Period in American Literature
Realism preceded Naturalism in American literature, and the two are closely related. Both aim for realistic portrayals of everyday life, and both incorporate a great deal of detail. Realism arose after the Civil War, a traumatic period in history in which Americans fought one another over basic issues such as unity and freedom. After the Civil war, Americans were less idealistic and more interested in politics, science, and economics. A new kind of American fiction had to emerge in the wake of widespread disillusionment.
The expansion of education created a broader readership, and new laws helped protect copyrights. These developments meant that more writers could enjoy viable careers. Authors of fiction found ready audiences for their unsentimental works. Within Realism, minor movements such as pragmatism and historical novels emerged. The prominent authors during the realistic movement included Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James. In poetry, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Sidney Lanier are considered the prominent writers of the time. In drama, little change was evident. The melodrama and fanfare that typified drama prior to Realism continued to find audiences.
Technology and Science
The early 1900s was a period marked by advances in technology and science, creating a social environment in which the intellect was considered superior to emotions and to...
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Naturalist authors use symbolism to subtly convey a wealth of meaning in a few words or images. In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, Norris uses McTeague’s tooth-shaped sign as a symbol of how the character would like to perceive himself and be perceived by others. Although he has no license to practice dentistry, he wants the respectability such a profession would bring him. The tooth is gold, which symbolizes McTeague’s drive to acquire wealth. In Sister Carrie, Dreiser introduces the rocking chair as a symbol during key moments in Carrie’s life. Her rocking in it symbolizes her solitude in the world. As she rocks, she thinks about the state of her life, and the chair moves but never goes anywhere. Still another example of naturalist symbolism is the mountain in The Red Badge of Courage. It is ominous and immovable, and represents the power and permanence of nature.
Naturalists are similar to realists in their attention to detail. Naturalist works contain detailed passages describing settings, backgrounds, appearances, and emotions. This helps the reader get a specific and fully formed perception of the characters’ lives. Details also give the work a realistic feeling. Naturalists include details of every kind, not just those that are considered artistic or beautiful. If a character’s attire is shabby, the naturalist author will describe it as shabby, not cast in a romantic or...
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Naturalism began in France in the mid-nineteenth century and lasted until the early 1880s. The principal figure of French Naturalism is Zola, whose 1880 essay “Le roman experimental” was instrumental in the spread of Naturalism to the United States. Zola describes human existence as being determined by environment and genetics, and he adheres to the belief that people behave basically as animals in nature do.
Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were brothers who also wrote in the naturalist style in France during Zola’s time. The Goncourt brothers adhered to certain tenets of Romanticism, such as the elite status of the artist, as they explored the realistic tone of Naturalism. Their application of scientific ideas in fiction was a major contribution to the naturalist movement.
The term naturalist is not generally used to describe English literature during the American naturalist period. The Edwardian period (1901–14), however, shares certain characteristics of Naturalism, indicating that attitudes and reading habits were similar among Americans and the British in the years leading up to World War I. Edwardian writers were cynical and questioned authority, religion, art, and social institutions. This is akin to the naturalist method of observing and testing human behavior in an inquisitive manner rather than accepting traditional beliefs uncritically. Both Naturalism and the Edwardian period were...
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Compare and Contrast
Early 1900s: In 1907, Paris is the site of the first cubist painting exhibition in the world. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque spearhead the movement. An artistic manifestation of the age’s rationalism, Cubism is embraced by some and staunchly rejected by others. It will be years before it is recognized as a legitimate artistic movement and its influence fully appreciated.
Today: Modern art includes a wide variety of media and styles. Although art lovers are more accepting of innovations and radical new approaches, many artists continue to struggle with society’s preconceived notions of what constitutes art. This tension between the artist and society keeps alive the fundamental question: “What is art?”
Early 1900s: In 1903 Henry Ford founds the Ford Motor Company and creates an efficient assembly line ten years later. This revolutionizes both transportation and manufacturing, making it possible for many more people to own cars. Today: Owning a car is quite common, and prices range from the affordable to the lavish. Car buyers are no longer limited to the “basic black” first offered by Ford or even to American- made vehicles; automobiles are imported from all over the world. Innovations in design often dictate innovations on the factory floor.
Early 1900s: Max Planck and Albert Einstein make major contributions to physics, publishing theories that radically change the way scientists look at...
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Topics for Further Study
Consider the main identifying characteristics of Naturalism, and choose three films that you believe reflect naturalistic ideas. Write a review of each film, explaining the characteristics of Naturalism that you see in it.
After Naturalism came Modernism, a period that produced fiction, drama, and poetry expressing the experiences and attitudes of wartime and postwar writers. Research this period and its major contributors and create a presentation in which you demonstrate how Modernism grew out of, or in reaction to, Naturalism. Be sure to consider historical influences.
The photography of Edward Curtis is often associated with the naturalist movement. His subject matter was primarily the dwindling Native- American population and culture. Examine some of his photographs and decide if you would classify him with the naturalists or with the romantic Western writers. (You will need to learn a little about the characteristics of romantic Western writing.) Explain your position in a well-organized essay that makes references to specific photographs.
Read a naturalist work of your choice, paying particular attention to the author’s use of symbolism. Write an essay discussing examples of symbolism in the work and how the symbols used relate to Naturalism.
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An American Tragedy
Published in 1925, An American Tragedy is loosely based on a true story and is considered the best example of American Naturalism. It is the story of Clyde Griffiths, whose desire to see the American dream made manifest in his life almost leads him to commit murder. In just one of the novel’s examples of irony, Clyde is found guilty of committing murder, even though his intended victim died accidentally.
An American Tragedy is typical of Dreiser’s work in demythologizing the American dream. Dreiser felt that believing in the American dream led to heartbreak, disappointment, and cynicism. An American Tragedy typifies Naturalism because it concerns an ordinary middle-class man whose circumstances push him to make extreme choices. Having always dreamed of a better life and having always been told he could create that life, he is finally on the brink of entering the upper echelons of society when a wealthy woman becomes romantically interested in him. The problem is that he already has planned to marry a poor woman who has had his child. This situation is devastating for Clyde because he sees his long-awaited opportunity to fulfill his dreams slipping away. The lure of the American dream proves too strong, and he plans to kill his betrothed.
Upon publication, An American Tragedy received popular and critical acclaim. Some critics suggest that the novel’s popular success was due to the post-World War I public’s desire to read about individual accountability in society. After all, Clyde is found guilty of a crime he intended to commit. Critically, the novel is declared a masterpiece and is deemed Dreiser’s best work. Although some reviewers claim that the book is inelegantly written, contains bad grammar, and is overly melodramatic, most enthusiastically recommend it.
The Call of the Wild
Although it started as a short story, London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) soon became a wildly popular novel. The money London made by selling the rights to the novel enabled him to purchase a boat on which he could disappear and write without distraction. Read all over the world and taught in schools, The Call of the Wild is now considered a classic of American fiction.
The Call of the Wild is about a dog named Buck who is taken from his home in California and put on a dog team in the Yukon. In his new environment, he must assert himself among the other dogs to survive. He is eventually adopted by a loving man named John Thornton, whose patience and kindness teach Buck to trust and love. This novel is unique among naturalist novels because its main character is not a person, but this is also why it is a good example of Naturalism. The laws and forces of nature are laid bare in the story of Buck. His interaction with the pack, nature, and people reveals the laws of nature.
McTeague: A Story of San Francisco In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), Norris disputes the image of the self-reliant American in...
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The Call of the Wild was adapted to audio by Naxos Audio Books (abridged) in 1995, read by Garrick Hagon; and by Dercum (unabridged) in 1997, read by Samuel Griffin.
The Call of the Wild was adapted to film in 1908 by Biograph Company; in 1923 by Hal Roach Studios; in 1935 by 20th Century Pictures, starring Clark Gable; and in 1972 by Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer, starring Charlton Heston.
The Call of the Wild was also adapted for television movies in 1976 by Charles Fries Productions; in 1993 by RHI Entertainment, starring Rick Schroder; and in 1997 by Kingsborough Greenlight Pictures. It was adapted as a television series in 2000 by Cinevu Films and Call of the Wild Productions.
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What Do I Read Next?
Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) is the startling story of a pretty girl whose life of violence and poverty leads her to prostitution and suicide. Although less well-known than The Red Badge of Courage, Maggie is considered an excellent example of the naturalist novel.
A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theater (2000), by Christopher Innes, introduces students to the influences of Naturalism on modern theater. He visits Naturalism’s roots and analyzes six plays by three playwrights, including full chapters on each play’s historical and theatrical context.
Mary Lawlor’s Recalling the Wild: Naturalism and the Closing of the American West (2000) summarizes early American...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Beach, Joseph Warren, The Twentieth Century Novel: Studies in Technique, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1932.
Pizer, Donald, Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
Brown, Frederick, Zola: A Life, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. This detailed account of Émile Zola’s life demonstrates his importance as a writer, thinker, and political figure. This biography took fifteen years to compile and includes information from Zola’s personal correspondence.
Fast, Howard, ed., The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, Elephant Publishers, 1989. Although he...
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