American Naturalism in Short Fiction Critical Essays

Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

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.