Historical Context

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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.

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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 traditional, blindly accepted beliefs. In 1900 Max Planck opened up a new world of physics when he discovered the quantum nature of energy. Five years later, Albert Einstein developed the Special Theory of Relativity, and in 1915 he developed the general theory. Together, these advances in physics revolutionized scientific thought. This new way of thinking shaped not only the sciences but also the arts, economics, and politics. By the turn of the century, America was well on its way to being an industrialized nation. After the Civil War, the spirit of industrialism that had been born in the North took on new fervor. It was time to repair the nation and its economy. Progress was made in the fields of communication, transportation, and manufacturing. In transportation, Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company in 1903 (the same year that Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully flew the first motorized plane) and opened the first automotive assembly line in 1913. As a result of the competition encouraged by free market economics, General Motors Corporation was founded in 1908.

In the intellectual world, new thinkers revolutionized the ways in which people understood their world. Charles Darwin challenged the traditional religious concept of the origin of human beings; Karl Marx challenged traditional views on economics and social class; and Auguste Comte initiated the philosophy of positivism (which claims that the purpose of knowledge is merely to describe, not to explain, the world) and the field of sociology (which focuses on observing, quantifying, and predicting social phenomena).

Advances in science and technology led to widespread acceptance of rationalism and scientific inquiry. Among the arts, this attitude was especially noticeable in literature. Moving away from the realms of feelings and relationships, writers approached their craft as a medium for understanding the human psyche. Writers were inspired less by the desire to provide readers with escape and and more by a desire to find truth.

Literary Style

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Symbolism
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.

Details
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 sentimental light. The objective is to depict a subject wholly and factually. Dreiser uses details to give the reader insight into his characters in Sister Carrie. By describing Carrie’s clothing and furnishings in detail, he suggests to the reader how important appearance is to Carrie and to her first lover, Drouet.

A common naturalist pattern is to present a great deal of information at the beginning of the novel and then let the events unfold. McTeague: A Story of San Francisco adheres to this pattern. Norris provides a great deal of information at the beginning, and the events of the story flow from this information. There are no plot twists, shocking turns of events, or unexpected characters. Further, the information given at the beginning is reliable, so the reader is a fully informed observer from the start.

Movement Variations

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France
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.

England
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 dominated by fiction writers rather than by dramatists or poets.

Drama
Naturalism in drama was a minor movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century. Playwrights of this style paid special attention to detail in costume, set design, and acting in order to re- move as much artificiality as possible. They sought to break down barriers between the audience and the stage, and they were especially opposed to the melodrama that was so popular with audiences at the time. Some naturalist playwrights embraced social causes of the day, preferring to inform and alarm audiences rather than to provide them with mindless entertainment. As a result of removing artifice from the theater, they hoped that the audience would have a sense that they were watching and learning from real people. Playwrights associated with this style include Henri Becque (French), Eugene Brieux (French), Gerhart Hauptmann (German- Polish), and Maxim Gorky (Russian).

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
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.

Further Reading
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 is known mainly for his novels, Dreiser was also a short-story writer. Here, Fast collects the best examples of Dreiser’s short fiction.

Kershaw, Alex, Jack London: A Life, Griffin, 1999. Kershaw examines London’s exciting, short life in this fast-paced biography. He includes London’s literary efforts, his adventurous spirit, his social and environmental concerns, and his unpopular views.

Norris, Frank, The Best Short Stories of Frank Norris, Ironweed Press, 1998. This is the first collection of Norris’s short fiction, and critics praise the publisher’s selection of these fourteen stories from the more than sixty available. Norris’s naturalistic tendencies are evident, even though these stories are a departure from the novels for which he is better known.

Wertheim, Stanley, A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia, Greenwood Publishing, 1997. In this single volume, students will find information about Crane’s short life along with analysis of his works, characters, settings, and prominent issues of his work and times.

Compare and Contrast

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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 the universe.

Today: In 2000 three scientists share the Nobel Prize for physics. For their contributions to the field of modern information technology, Zhores I. Alferov, Herbert Kroemer, and Jack S. Kilby are honored.

Representative Works

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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 charge of his or her own fate. Instead, Norris takes a typically naturalist approach and portrays people as the products of their environments, genetic traits, and chance occurrences. Norris took almost a decade to complete this novel, and it stands as his most prominent work. In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, the title character is an unlicensed dentist of below average morality and intelligence. He is an ideal naturalistic character because he is guided by his impulses rather than by careful deliberation or acts of will. In the end, he loses his practice and beats his wife to death when she refuses to tell him where she has hidden money she inherited. Both characters are portrayed as victims. While she is the victim of violence, he is the victim of his own bestial nature.

Readers and critics found the book to be unnecessarily violent in its pessimistic portrayal of what human beings are capable of doing. While other naturalist books included violence (most notably The Red Badge of Courage), none were as descriptive or explicit. The novel is important, however, as a key work of the naturalist movement and as the masterpiece of one of its dominant figures.

The Red Badge of Courage
The Civil War narrative, The Red Badge of Courage (1895) made Crane internationally famous. The style and the stirring, emotional voice of a young soldier captivated critics and readers alike. Veterans of the Civil War praised the book’s realistic account of the experience. Although numerous books containing Civil War narratives had been published since the 1860s, The Red Badge of Courage stood out for Crane’s contemporaries. The book’s ability to capture such a vivid time in American history is evident in the fact that it is still read today in classrooms all over the country. The book is not only a classic of Naturalism, but it is also a testament to Crane’s imagination; born in 1871 (six years after the war’s end), he never served in the war, and everything he knew of it was from secondary sources.

The story is about a young man named Henry Fleming who is full of youthful adventure and longing to be part of the war. He enlists, only to face doubts about his own courage and romantic attitudes. Crane uses the war as the fictional “laboratory” into which he places his young protagonist. The war is an extreme set of environmental variables, and Henry’s experiences lead him from uncertainty to confidence in his own character. In the true spirit of Naturalism, Crane portrays Henry’s fate as a set of outcomes based on his inborn traits (his drive to be a part of the adventure) and his new environment (the pressures of the war). Crane utilizes many typical naturalist techniques such as symbolism, third-person point-of-view, and use of detail.

Sister Carrie
Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, was published in 1900. After publication, there was controversy surrounding the novel because of the lack of morality of the main character and the fact that the outcome suggests that she is rewarded for her sinful ways. Still, many readers and critics find it to be a moving and honest portrayal of a young woman who leaves her rural home to make a life for herself in Chicago. After briefly working in a factory, she moves in with a well-to-do salesman and becomes his mistress. Soon, however, she catches the eye of a wealthier older man who leaves his wife and career in order to run away with Carrie. They end up in New York, where they part ways and Carrie successfully pursues a stage career.

As a naturalist writer, Dreiser sought to reveal the harshness of life and the ways in which individuals can seize opportunities to alleviate much of that harshness. While some of Dreiser’s contemporaries found the depiction of Carrie’s amoral life inappropriate, others found it refreshingly realistic. This novel is also important because it shows Dreiser’s early tendencies toward the naturalist style. For example, he takes Carrie out of her comfortable environment (the Midwest) and places her in the unfamiliar big city of Chicago to see how her wants and needs will affect her decision-making. The setting, in essence, becomes a set of conditions in which the reader can observe the changes taking place in the character. Other aspects of the novel, such as Dreiser’s attention to detail and his portrayal of the struggling lower class, are consistent with the naturalist style.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Sister Carrie was adapted to audio by Books on Tape in 1997, read by Rebecca Burns; and in 2000 by Blackstone Audio Books, read by C. M. Herbert.

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco was adapted to audio by Audio Book Contractors in 1994.

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco was adapted to film in 1915 by William A. Brady Picture Plays, Inc., and was adapted as a television opera by Robert Altman in 1992 in a production by The Lyric Opera of Chicago aired on Public Broadcasting Station.

The Red Badge of Courage was adapted to audio in 1993 by Bookcassette Sales, read by Roger Dressler.

The Red Badge of Courage was adapted to film in 1951 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, directed by John Huston and starring Audie Murphy.

The Red Badge of Courage was also adapted as a television movie in 1974 by 20th Century Fox Television.

An American Tragedy was adapted to film in 1931 in a production by Paramount. It was again adapted in 1951 as A Place in the Sun.

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