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.)

Criticism: Major Authors Of American Literary Naturalism

Warner Berthoff (essay date 1965)

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...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

James Trammel Cox (essay date summer 1957)

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...

(The entire section is 5887 words.)

George Monteiro (essay date spring 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 1713 words.)

Sydney J. Krause (essay date autumn 1983)

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 entire section is 4276 words.)

John J. Conder (essay date 1984)

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” 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...

(The entire section is 8998 words.)

Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 3983 words.)

Irene Gammel (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 6831 words.)

Earl J. Wilcox (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 4309 words.)

Jeanne Campbell Reesman (essay date winter 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 8316 words.)

Barbara Hochman (essay date 1988)

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


(The entire section is 7793 words.)

Donna M. Campbell (essay date autumn 1994)

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...

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Scott Emmert (essay date autumn 2002)

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...

(The entire section is 5558 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 688 words.)