Readers of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s first three novels, which were light, sentimental potboilers, were surprised by the vehemence and darkness of his last one, The Sport of the Gods. Dunbar had already proven himself as one of the first African American writers of the period to break into polite letters. His facile magazine verse showed him the equal of his fashionable peers. In his last novel, however, under the threat of death from the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, he turned from his popular vein to compose a work of naturalism.
The literary movement known as naturalism began in the United States in the 1890’s. Naturalism is a child of realism, but it differs from its parent in some points of content and attitude. American realism emphasizes everyday situations, whereas naturalism focuses on the out of the ordinary, such as portraits of killers, prostitutes, and showgirls. Whereas the psychology and sociology that form the background of realist fiction is a reworked and clarified common sense, naturalism tends to draw on “scientific” doctrines, such as those concerning genetic inheritance, for its conceptual framework. As a consequence, whereas realism, like common sense, posits human beings with free will and shows its characters fighting and often overcoming obstacles, naturalism stresses the inexorability of scientific laws and gives all the power to the obstacles. Naturalism’s characters fall prey to forces that they cannot effectively combat. Although Dunbar differs in a few respects from other naturalists, he shares with them an interest in seamy subjects (as indicated by his fascination with drunks and chiselers) and a belief in the overwhelming strength of circumstances.
A typical naturalist way of stressing the power that events and...
(The entire section is 736 words.)