The period from the end of the Civil War to the early twentieth century produced literature that in many ways redefined the relationship of people and the environment, often mirroring the changes that had been produced by the increasing industrialization of society. In stark opposition to the more positive tone of the literature of the Romantic movement, which generally portrayed nature—including human nature—as beneficent, the naturalistic movement produced fiction that explores the mechanistic forces that appeared to dominate the individual in all environments, whether natural or urban. Naturalism issued from a philosophical interpretation of Darwinian biology. According to such thinkers as Herbert Spencer, people are simply high-order animals whose behavior is a product of heredity and environment. Naturalistic fiction offers characters who survive or die by their individual strengths and fortunes. The characters often show animalistic drives, including sexual desire and greed. The world they inhabit is godless, dangerous, and harsh. The tone of many naturalistic works, whether set in the city or in the wild, is bleak. The intent of the naturalistic writers was to present literature with the detachment and calculation that would match that of scientific investigation.
The most significant North American naturalists include novelists Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, writers who often show the forces of urban life determining the success or failure of characters contending with harsh economic realities. Norris’ The Octopus (1901) and Dreiser’s trilogy, The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (1947), depict the ruthlessness of urban capitalism and the struggles of the classes. Jack London, through his novels and short stories, presents characters who often encounter the cruel force of nature in the wilderness, where animals had the necessary abilities to survive and where their human counterparts were often weak and inept, and who because of these frailties face annihilation. In poetry and prose, Stephen Crane offers a literature that positions people under the control of their environment. His novel about the American Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), brought him international acclaim, and his fiction and poetry often vividly illustrate the violence of war in the tone of a detached, objective observer. Typifying Crane’s view of the human relation to the world, in his short poem, “A Man Said to the Universe,” the speaker affirms his existence only to be told by the universe that “the fact has not created in me/ a sense of obligation.”