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date: 14 June 2024

Naturalism and Realismfree

Naturalism and Realismfree

  • Gary Scharnhorst


  • North American Literatures

At the most elementary level, realism may be equated with verisimilitude or the approximation of truth. A mimetic artist, the literary realist claims to mirror or represent the world as it objectively appears. Naturalism may be given a trio of thumbnail definitions: pessimistic determinism, stark realism, and realism plus Darwin.

Realism As a Literary Theory

William Dean Howells, the most prominent American advocate of realism in the arts, urged readers to apply this singular test to any work of the imagination: “Is it true?—true to the motives, the impulses, the principles that shape the life of actual men and women?” In Criticism and Fiction (1891), Howells proposed an evolutionary literary model, with realism superior to romance just as birds are a more sophisticated species than lizards. Although Howells admired the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, he nevertheless believed Hawthorne's fiction occupied a lower rung on the evolutionary scale of literature than realism, or “the truthful treatment of material.” “Let fiction cease to lie about life,” he declared. “Let it portray man and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know;…let it not put on fine literary airs; let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know—the language of unaffected people everywhere.” Howells was also able to stretch his definition of realism to cover such wildly different works as Mark Twain's humorous sketches and his dystopian A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).

In all, according to Howells, realism insisted “that fidelity to experience and probability of motive are essential conditions of a great imaginative literature.” Thus, it resisted or opposed allegory and romance, especially sentimental romance. Realistic fiction portrayed distinctive personalities and rounded or credible characters, developed linear plots, and depicted recognizable settings. (As the modern writer John Barth has noted, “God was not a bad novelist, except He was a realist.”) Devaluing anecdote or story, it emphasized the importance of individual character. Sometimes claiming to portray a “slice of life” or “transcript of life,” the realists often found their subjects amid the details and surfaces of middle-class, bourgeois experience. They shared with such pragmatists as William James a philosophical attitude, a method of “radical empiricism” that affirmed free will and equated motive and behavior.

Standard literary histories have long dated the start of the realistic period in American literature at the end of the Civil War. Ostensibly, the pioneering works of realism were such volumes as John W. De Forest's novel, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), and Mark Twain's satirical travelogues, The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Roughing It (1872). With the critical recovery in the late twentieth century of women's writings from the mid-1800s, however, the beginning of the realistic period has been pushed back more than an entire generation to such texts as Caroline M. Kirkland's A New Home, Who'll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839) and Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron-Mills (1861).

In the late twentieth century, too, proponents of poststructuralism assailed the notion of literary realism. How can any literary text replicate or imitate “reality” (whatever that may be?), they ask. Language creates the only reality we know. Any attempt to define the term absolutely is not only presumptuous but doomed. Roland Barthes, for example, has argued that so-called realistic texts are no more based on “reality” than other forms of writing and has indicted as simplistic the epistemological assumptions of those who purport to be realists. In effect, he suggested, the realists merely took reality for granted. Admittedly, it is easier to define what realism was not than what it actually was. (Mary E. Wilkins Freeman told an interviewer in 1890 that she “didn't even know” she was “a realist until [some reviewers] wrote and told me.”) Such scholars as Donald Pizer, however, have attempted to recuperate or rehabilitate the terms “realism” and “naturalism.” As Pizer writes in The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism (1995), “Whatever the philosophical, moral, and social baggage that encumbers them, they will have to do.” In a functional sense, the terms obviously meant something. What qualities in the writings of the self-described realists seemed innovative? Or, put another way, what was it about those writings that inspired such fierce opposition during the so-called Realism War of the 1880s and 1890s? Influenced by such European writers as Zola, Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant, and Dostoyevsky, the realists certainly believed they were championing a new brand of fiction.

Howells and the Realism War

While he neither inspired nor founded a school or movement of realists, Howells was at the center of American literary culture for over fifty years. He was the most influential American novelist, editor, and critic of his generation. As editor of the Atlantic Monthly for over fifteen years and later as the contributor of the “Editor's Easy Chair” series to Harper's Monthly, he befriended and promoted such realists as Henry James, Mark Twain, Mary Freeman, John De Forest, Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Norris, Charles Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hamlin Garland, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Abraham Cahan, and Stephen Crane. For Howells, realism was a democratic movement in the arts, a focus on the normal and ordinary, distinct from romanticism or “romanticistic” fiction with its emphasis on more ideal, bizarre, sentimental, fantastic, exotic, melodramatic, or aristocratic topics. In life, he declared, the realist “finds nothing insignificant.” In The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), for example, Howells remarked on how “a great many novels” fail “as representations of life.” The Reverend Mr. Sewell, a Howells spokesman, refers derisively to the “mischief” done by such popular fiction. “The novels might be the greatest possible good to us if they painted life as it is, and human feelings in their true proportion and relation, but for the most part they have been and are altogether noxious.” The readers of such slop commit psychical suicide. The novelist “who could interpret the common feelings of commonplace people,” another character in the novel avers, “would have the answer to ‘the riddle of the painful earth’ on his tongue.” In The Minister's Charge (1887), which again features the character of Sewell, Howells realistically rewrote the sentimental juvenile fiction of such authors as Alger and Oliver Optic. Similarly, Basil March, another Howells persona, opines in A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) that

I believe that this popular demand for the matrimony of others comes from our novel-reading. We get to thinking that there is no other happiness or good fortune in life except marriage, and it's offered in fiction as the highest premium for virtue, courage, beauty, learning, and saving human life. We all know it isn't. We know that in reality, marriage is dog-cheap.

Howells was profoundly influenced in the late 1880s by Tolstoy's ideas about nonviolence and economic equality. In 1887 he risked his reputation and livelihood by publicly repudiating the guilty verdicts brought against the Haymarket Square anarchists and what he called the “civic murder” of four of them. His novel Annie Kilburn (1889) glossed Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1875–1877), as the identical initials of their respective heroines suggest. As a result, he became an easy target for some parochial critics. The so-called Realism War, waged in reviews and magazines throughout the 1880s and 1890s, pitted the realists, especially Howells, against editors and popular writers who espoused the sentimental or sensational brands of literary romance. For example, the genteel critic Hamilton Wright Mabie alleged in his review of Howells's Silas Lapham that realism was nothing more or less than “practical atheism applied to art.” These skirmishes often smacked of politics; the controversy over realism began at the height of the debate over the fate of the Haymarket Square anarchists. Also, the war was fought largely along regional lines; the realists were largely easterners or transplanted westerners living in the East, whereas the most outspoken opponents of realism (including Maurice Thompson, author of Hoosier Mosaics [1875] and Alice of Old Vincennes [1901]; the poet James Whitcomb Riley; and Lew Wallace, author of the historical romances The Fair God [1873] and Ben-Hur [1880]) often resided in the Old South or the Old Northwest. The Association of Western Writers (later the Western Association of Writers), played a crucial role in the war by offering Thompson, its first president, a forum for his attacks. Over a period of some twenty years, beginning in 1887, Thompson repeatedly complained that Howells had foisted the “raw, nauseous realism of the Russians and the Zola school of France” onto a reading public hungry for “American books of a wholesome and patriotic kind.” Realism was little more than decadent “worship of the vulgar, the commonplace and the insignificant.” “Some years ago, before there had been so much said about realism in literature,” Thompson declared in 1889, “I predicted that realism would in due time be found to mean materialism, socialism, and, at last, anarchy.…The progression will be: Realism, sensualism, materialism, socialism, communism, nihilism, absolute anarchy.” Thompson and Howells's other opponents often compared realism to mere photography, or worse, cheap Kodak snapshots, lacking the artistry of the painter.

The war, in the end, took its toll on Howells's reputation. By the early twentieth century his brand of realism seemed dull and timid, a movement within the spurned genteel tradition in American letters. Ambrose Bierce defined realism in his Devil's Dictionary (1906) as “the art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.” In 1915 Howells wrote James that he had become “comparatively a dead cult with my statues cast down and the grass growing over them in the pale moonlight.” Sinclair Lewis famously, or infamously, attacked him by name in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1930: “Mr. Howells was one of the gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men, but he had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage.”

In addition to Howells, many other novelists of the period defended the aesthetics of realism. In the preface to his novel The Mammon of Unrighteousness (1891), for example, H. H. Boyesen asserted that he had “disregarded all romantic traditions, and simply asked myself in every instance, not whether it was amusing, but whether it was to the logic of reality—true in color and tone to the American sky, the American soil, the American character.” Henry James implicitly compared realistic fiction to painting in his essay, The Art of Fiction (1884). According to James, the novel should exude an “air of reality,” which is its “supreme virtue,” by “its immense and exquisite correspondence with life.…The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life. When it relinquishes this attempt, the same attempt that we see on the canvas of a painter, it will have arrived at a very strange pass.” James's brand of realism was a form of literary portraiture, as may be inferred from several of his titles (including Portraits of Places [1883], The Portrait of a Lady [1881], The American Scene [1907], and Partial Portraits [1888]). And in his facetious essay, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses (1895), Mark Twain listed “nineteen rules governing literary art.” Among them: “when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances,” and “the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone.” Cooper's romance, The Deerslayer (1841), however, was “simply a literary delirium tremens.” Similarly, Stephen Crane reminisced that he had

developed all alone a little creed of art which I thought was a good one. Later I discovered that my creed was identical with the one of Howells and Garland, and in this way I became involved in the beautiful war between those who say that…we are the most successful in art when we approach the nearest to nature and truth, and those who…don't say much.

Realism As Literary Practice

The literary landscape in the late nineteenth century featured no organized or monolithic group of realists. As Elizabeth Ammons has suggested, “the most important characteristic of American realism was its racial, ethnic, sexual, and cultural range.” There were, in effect, many “realities” or varieties of realism, including local color or regionalism (for example, the tales of Twain, Jewett, Freeman, Chopin, Bret Harte, James Lane Allen, Rose Terry Cooke, Joel Chandler Harris, Edward Eggleston, and Joseph Kirkland), psychological realism (James, Gilman, Sherwood Anderson), critical realism (Howells), and “veritism” (Garland's term for realism true to the perceptions of the writer, a protorealism or an overtly politicized form of realism). The various realists did not necessarily appreciate all contributions to the form; Mark Twain wrote Howells that he “would rather be damned to John Bunyan's heaven than read” James's The Bostonians (1886). Such Native-American storytellers as Zitkala-Sa and Sarah Winnemucca, the Jewish-American writer Anzia Yezierska, the Asian-American author Sui Sin Far, and such African Americans as W. E. B. Du Bois and Charles Chesnutt were also regarded as realists, though obviously their experiences were distinctly different from those of the canonical Anglo-American writers. With their interest in local customs, mores, and dialects, local colorists were local historians in a sense. They identified themselves with the communities they chronicled. Their tales often took the form of the anecdote or character sketch (Harte's “Tennessee's Partner” [1869], Freeman's “A New England Nun” [1891], and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Oldtown Folks [1869], for example). Both Eggleston, the author of The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871), and Kirkland, the author of Zury: The Meanest Man in Spring County (1887), turned formally late in their careers to writing local history. Eggleston was even elected president of the American Historical Association in 1900. The difference between literary romance and realism, at least of the local color variety, may be underscored by comparing two of Twain's novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). As Leslie Fiedler has suggested in Love and Death in the American Novel (rev. ed., 1966), the two novels retell essentially the same story, the first nostalgically and sentimentally through a soft lens and the second more rigorously, honestly, and truthfully. The two novels are “alternative versions of the same themes” or “the same dream dreamed twice over, the second time as nightmare.” Huckleberry Finn is a true book,” Fiedler adds, but Tom Sawyer only ‘mostly a true book’ with ‘some stretchers,’ one of which is its ending.” The contrast is perhaps most apparent in the respective depictions of Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. The bucolic St. Petersburg of Tom Sawyer and the opening chapters of Huckleberry Finn are an idealized representation of Hannibal, which is more realistically rendered in the latter work as Bricksville, the dirty little river town where hogs root in the muddy streets and the town drunk is killed in cold blood. Though his masterwork is rarely regarded as an exercise in local color, Twain also carefully recreated in Huckleberry Finn the several distinct dialects spoken by his characters. “The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work,” he insisted in an explanatory note, “but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with those several forms of speech.” In the Uncle Julius dialect tales collected in The Conjure Woman (1899), moreover, Chesnutt satirized Harris's popular Uncle Remus tales and the plantation tradition they evoked. Local colorists seemed drawn to compiling short story cycles. In addition to Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, examples include Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), Garland's Main-Travelled Roads (1891), George Washington Cable's Old Creole Days (1879), and Kate Chopin's Bayou Folk (1894).

James's psychological realism was a more aestheticized form of fiction. By experimenting with refined narrators or “centers of consciousness,” James presumed to recreate the play of their imaginations—in effect, to adapt his brother William's Principles of Psychology (1890) to the fictional page. Chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady (1881), in which Isabel Archer contemplates the state of her marriage to Gilbert Osmond, anticipated the modern stream of consciousness novels of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner. In The Turn of the Screw (1898), Henry James recounted a ghost story from the point of view of a psychopathological narrator. Particularly in some of his later tales (including The Beast in the Jungle [1903]), he described almost no physical behavior, a technique that led to the joking complaint that James “chewed more than he bit off.”

Very few American poets of the period between 1865 and 1915 presumed to be realists in their verse. The major poets—such as Longfellow, Riley, E. C. Stedman, Edwin Markham, Sidney Lanier, Ina Coolbrith, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Vaughan Moody, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich—were heirs of the sentimental tradition of British romanticism. Howells and other realists wrote poetry, to be sure, but most of it was utterly conventional and forgettable. Twain parodied sentimental verse in both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, as in Emmeline Grangerford's funeral poetry, but his own poetry was unremarkable. The African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar published dialect verse, much as Chesnutt wrote dialect stories, but he was an exception to the rule. Both Crane and Edwin Arlington Robinson penned a brand of naturalistic poetry around the turn of the century. Crane's verse was enigmatic and bitterly ironic, and Robinson wrote such dramatic monologues as Richard Cory and Miniver Cheevy and the sonnets Zola and Annandale, the latter a defense of euthanasia.

The forte of the realists, however, was topical fiction. Even James's stories on the international theme (for example, Daisy Miller [1879], The American [1877], and The Ambassadors [1903]) exploited the growth in international travel during the last third of the nineteenth century. (With the development of the steamship, passenger departures from the United States for Europe increased from around 20,000 in 1860 to around 110,000 in 1900.) More to the point, realists often protested conditions, pilloried hypocrisy, or proposed social reforms. Few topics escaped their notice. It was, as Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner averred in their collaborative novel, a “gilded age,” not a Golden Age. Among the topics that concerned them were political corruption (Twain and Warner's The Gilded Age [1873], Henry Adams's Democracy [1880], and Garland's A Spoil of Office [1892]); immigration and integration (Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky [1917], Sui Sin Far's Mrs. Spring Fragrance [1912], and Yezierska's Hungry Hearts [1920]); marriage and divorce (Howells's A Modern Instance [1882] and Wharton's The Age of Innocence [1920]); small-town parochialism or “the revolt from the village” (E. W. Howe's The Story of a Country Town [1883], Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology [1915], Robinson's The Children of the Night [1897], Wharton's Ethan Frome [1911], Sinclair Lewis's Main Street [1920], and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio [1919]); military imperialism during the Spanish-American War (Howells's “Editha” [1905] and Twain's The War Prayer [1916]); lynchings (Twain's “The United States of Lyncherdom” [1923] and Walter V. T. Clark's The Ox-Bow Incident [1940]); urban squalor, prostitution, and the “fallen woman” or “the shame of the cities” (Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets [1893]); economic injustice (James's The Princess Casamassima [1886], Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes [1890], and Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court); alcoholism (Howells's The Landlord at Lion's Head [1897] and Norris's McTeague [1899]); and euthanasia (Wharton's The Fruit of the Tree [1907]). Such texts complemented some of the social essays of the period, including Henry Demarest Lloyd's Wealth against Commonwealth (1894), Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), and Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives (1890). In Under the Lion's Paw (1889), Garland specifically endorsed the “single tax” on “unearned increment” advocated by Henry George in his book, Progress and Poverty (1879).

Other narratives were devoted to the “woman question” and the contemporary feminist movement, including Chopin's The Awakening (1899) and “The Story of an Hour” (1894), James's The Bostonians, Howells's Dr. Breen's Practice (1881), Freeman's “A New England Nun” (1891) and The Revolt of ‘Mother’ (1890), and Gilman's The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892). The latter tale specifically critiqued the rest cure for women suffering from hysteria or neurasthenia prescribed by S. Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia nerve specialist and part-time novelist.

Realistic fiction published during the final decade of the nineteenth century was often a race-inflected fiction as well. The 1890s, punctuated by the Chinese Exclusionary Act (1892) and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of the Supreme Court (1896) sanctioning “separate but equal” public facilities for blacks and whites, were the nadir of race relations in the United States. The public debate about it notwithstanding, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was not a race novel, certainly not in the same sense as Howells's An Imperative Duty (1891) or Twain's The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). In the former, a young woman raised to believe she is white discovers that she has a black ancestor. In the latter, two baby boys are switched in their cradles, one of them freeborn and the other a slave but otherwise indistinguishable, with tragic results. In both novels the authors probed the meaning of racial identity. A cluster of other realistic race novels appeared in the early 1890s, among them Anna J. Cooper's A Voice from the South (1892) and Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892). Chesnutt also published a trio of realistic novels around the turn of the century that pondered the consequences of racial violence: The House behind the Cedars (1900); The Marrow of Tradition (1901), based on the race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898; and The Colonel's Dream (1905), about the failure of the New South to secure racial justice.

Despite the early successes of the local colorists Bret Harte and Mark Twain, western American writers were slow to warm to realism. Western literature was epitomized by the sensational, blood-and-thunder of the dime novel westerns that celebrated westward expansion and conquest. As late as 1902, the same year Owen Wister's romanticized bestseller The Virginian appeared, Norris complained that rather than a school of western realists there were “the wretched ‘Deadwood Dicks’ and Buffalo Bills of the yellowbacks” and writers “who lied and tricked and strutted in Pathfinder and Leather-Stocking series.” Still, a brand of western realism emerged in such neglected or unknown works as Mary Hallock Foote's novel The Led-Horse Claim (1883), Mary Austin's Land of Little Rain (1903), and Andy Adams's The Log of a Cowboy (1903), all of which deal with mining, ranching, or other forms of labor. Clarence Gohdes declared in 1951, in fact, that Foote was “more of a realist than either Harte or Clemens in portraying the life of the mining areas.…In the history of fiction dealing with the Far West she may claim attention as the first realist of the section.”

American realists contributed to the national literary culture in another way; they belonged to the first generation of true literary professionals in America, as Howells suggested in his essay, The Man of Letters As a Man of Business (1893). The realists hired the first literary agents in the early 1880s, contributed to the first newspaper fiction syndicates in the mid-1880s, and lobbied for passage of legislation governing international copyright, finally adopted in 1891. They introduced marketing gimmicks such as subscription sales (Mark Twain was a director of the American Publishing Company of Hartford) and composite novels (such as The Whole Family [1908], to which Howells, James, Freeman, and nine other writers each contributed a chapter). Partly as a result of the invention of the Linotype machine, the number of magazines published in the nation increased from about two hundred in 1860 to some eighteen hundred in 1900, with a corresponding increase in the opportunities for literary careers. To be sure, most commercially successful novels were still pitched to middle-class women readers. Howells estimated that some 75 percent of all books sold in the United States were bought by women, and the novelist John W. De Forest similarly declared that women comprised four-fifths of the novel-reading public. The novel, even the realistic novel, usually contained a love interest (Huckleberry Finn was a rare and notable exception) if only to spur sales—but it was a love interest often disappointed. Many of the realists also scripted plays, often adaptations of their own stories and novels, because the market for new drama was more lucrative than for fiction. As Harte would write, plays were potentially “vastly more profitable” or lucrative than novels. A “good play” in production ought to pay its author about three thousand dollars per year, he thought. Similarly, James noted privately that he “simply must try, and try seriously, to produce half a dozen—a dozen, five dozen—plays for the sake of my pocket, my material future.” In all, Twain, Howells, James, and Harte produced some sixty scripts, though many of them were never produced professionally.

Naturalism As a Literary Theory

In his essay Le roman expérimental (The Experimental Novel) (1880), the French novelist Émile Zola developed an elaborate analogy between experimental or empirical fiction and the medical science of the French physician Claude Bernard. According to Zola, the experimental (that is, the naturalistic) novelist simply adopts “the scientific method, which has been in use for a long time.” He “institutes the experiment, that is, sets the characters of a particular story in motion, in order to show that the series of events therein will be those demanded by the determinism of the phenomena under study.” Richard Wright deployed a similar trope in his essay How Bigger Was Born (1940), often reprinted as an introduction to his Native Son (1940), one of the last American naturalistic novels: “Why should I not, like a scientist in a laboratory, use my imagination and invent test-tube situations, place Bigger in them, and…work out in fictional form a resolution of his fate?” The influence of Zola on American naturalists can hardly be understated. Norris, for example, sometimes signed his letters “the boy Zola,” and Crane wrote that his character Maggie Johnson “blossomed in a mud puddle,” much as Zola's character Nana was “a plant nurtured on a dung heap.”

In a word, the strategies of both realism and naturalism depend upon a quasi-scientific method of detailed observation, but in the case of naturalism the science is rooted in Darwin's theory of evolution. As Malcolm Cowley explained in ‘Not Men’: A Natural History of American Naturalism (Kenyon Review, Summer 1947), “The Naturalistic writers were all determinists in that they believed in the omnipotence of abstract forces. They were pessimists so far as they believed that men and women were absolutely incapable of shaping their own destinies.” Similarly, Lars Åhnebrink, in The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction (1950), allowed that the naturalist “portrays life as it is in accordance with the philosophical theory of determinism.” Dreiser variously described Carrie Meeber, for example, as “a waif amid forces,” “a wisp in the wind,” a “wisp on the tide,” and he referred in Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy in pseudoscientific terms to such body chemicals as “katastates” and “anastates” and to “chemisms” in an attempt to explain all thoughts and emotional responses as mere chemical reactions in the blood.

In all, naturalism was a literature of despair that repudiated the optimism and idealism of the Enlightenment. American naturalists tended to emphasize environmental factors in the formation of character, European naturalists heredity factors. Most American literary naturalists were also Social Darwinists who applied Darwin's biological theories of natural selection to models of social organization, arguing by analogy that just as the fittest of each species in nature struggles for existence by adapting to its environment, the fittest human competitors best adapt to social conditions and thrive and prosper. Crane made the point in a poem that is a virtual Social Darwinian parable:

The trees in the garden rained flowers.Children ran there joyously.They gathered the flowersEach to himself.Now there were someWho gathered great heaps—Having opportunity and skill—Until, behold, only chance blossomsRemained for the feeble.Then a little spindling tutorRan importantly to the father, crying:“Pray, come hither!“See this unjust thing in your garden!”But when the father had surveyedHe admonished the tutor:“Not so, small sage!“This thing is just.“For, look you,“Are not they who possess the flowers“Stronger, bolder, shrewder“Than they who have none?“Why should the strong—“The beautiful strong—“Why should they not have the flowers?”Upon reflection, the tutor bowed to the ground.“My lord,” he said,“The stars are displaced“By this towering wisdom.”

Similarly, the opening chapter of Dreiser's The Financier (1912) portrayed a battle to the death between an octopus and a squid. Young Frank Cowperwood wonders how life is organized and observes the battle in a tank at a fish market near his home. Gradually, the lobster devours the squid and answers the riddle young Cowperwood had been pondering: “Lobsters lived on squids and other things,” and men lived on “other men.” Tennyson had mused on “Nature, red in tooth and claw” a half century before, but it remained for the naturalist writers to illustrate a ruthless struggle for existence. The theory of literary naturalism even informs such pulp novels as Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes (1914), which thematically suggests that a white child raised in the African jungle will inevitably grow up to be “king of the apes.”

In truth, most naturalists came to Social Darwinism not through Darwin but through the social theories of Herbert Spencer. The poet Edwin Arlington Robinson lamented to a friend in 1890 that “Life was something before you came to Spencer.” When Dreiser read Spencer's First Principles (1862) in 1894, he admitted, it “blew me, intellectually, to bits” and left him “numb.” He realized that “Man was a mechanism, undevised and uncreated, and a badly and carelessly driven one at that.…When I read Spencer I could only sigh.” He later told the novelist Frank Harris that Spencer “nearly killed me, took every shred of belief away from me; showed me that I was a chemical atom in a whirl of unknown forces; the realization clouded my mind.” Similarly, Jack London recalled in his autobiographical novel, Martin Eden (1909), his own introduction to “the man Spencer.…There was no caprice, no chance. All was law.” In brief, naturalism gleans from Darwin the metaphor of the jungle; from Spencer the metaphor of the “struggle for existence” in society; from Freud the inviolable determinism of the unconscious; from Marx a sense of economic determinism; from positivism in general and Auguste Comte in particular a doctrine of environmental determinism; and from Hippolyte Taine the notion of literature as the product of race or national character, moment, and social milieu.

While the canonical American naturalists are usually considered sui generis—some literary historians even assert that no American realist became a naturalist—both Howells and Twain commented on the doctrine of determinism in their late fiction. In The Landlord at Lion's Head and The Son of Royal Langbrith (1904), Howells considered the possibility of biological determinism along the lines of Zola. And Huckleberry Finn contains hints of Twain's belief in environmental determinism. (“I never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it.”) Both A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson were thematically devoted to illustrating how environment shapes character. “Training is everything”—this exact phrase appears in both chapter 18 of the former novel (“Training—training is everything; training is all there is to a person”) and as an epigraph to chapter 5 of the latter. (“Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”) Twain expressed his ideas about environmental determinism most fully in his philosophical treatise What Is Man? (1906): “The human being is merely a machine, and nothing more.…A man is never anything but what his outside influences have made him.”

Little wonder Cowley concluded that the net effect of naturalism was “to subtract from literature the whole notion of human responsibility.” As Norris wrote of the brutish “second self” of his protagonist in McTeague (1899), “Below the fine fabric of all that was good in him ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and of his father's father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame?” The author's answer is obvious: of course not. Or as Dreiser noted in chapter 7 of Sister Carrie, “On the tiger no responsibility rests.” Crime in the naturalistic novel—such as McTeague's murder of Trina, Hurstwood's theft of money from his employers in Sister Carrie, or Clyde Griffith's murder of Roberta Alden in An American Tragedy (1925)—was the result of uncontrollable passions and forces, not personal volition. Similarly, Crane inscribed the flyleaf of a presentation copy of his novel Maggie, A Girl of the Streets:

It is inevitable that you will be greatly shocked by this book, but continue, please, with all courage to the end. For, it tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless. If one proves that theory, one makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls, notably an occasional street girl, who are not confidently expected to be there by many excellent people.

Yet Crane's comment also illustrates a dilemma faced by the naturalist. To the extent that he objectively portrayed the plight of the underclass and described the deterministic forces that shape character, he was faithful to the tenets of naturalism. To the extent he wrote a brief for the defense of the underclass or preached a message, however, he violated the principle of scientific objectivity and became an advocate for reform rather than an objective scientist. Form had been sacrificed to theme, as in Maggie or Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), or even Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Unlike realism, doctrinaire naturalistic texts rarely advocated social reform. Indeed, the naturalistic theory of mind went hand in glove with the Gospel of Wealth of such industrialists as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller and Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner. Whereas naturalism shares with realism the ambition of depicting the experience of everyday men and women accurately, it also shares with modernism an epistemological skepticism, a belief in the nonteleological or purposeless nature of the universe. Though many of the naturalists were leftists (including Dreiser, London, Sinclair, and Steinbeck), their theoretically objective literary perspective warred with their politics. Or as Charles C. Walcutt explains in American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream (1956), “all ‘naturalistic’ novels exist in a tension between determinism and its antithesis. The reader is aware of the opposition between what the artist says about man's fate and what his saying it affirms about man's hope.”

A naturalistic corollary to the doctrine of determinism was the indifference if not malevolence of nature. In Placer County, California, Norris writes in McTeague, nature “is a vast, unconquered brute of the Pliocene epoch, savage, sullen, and magnificently indifferent to man.” Similarly, in The Octopus (1901) his narrator opines that “Nature is a gigantic engine, a vast cyclopean power, huge, terrible, a leviathan with a heart of steel, knowing no compunction, no forgiveness, no tolerance; crushing out the human atom standing in its way, with nirvanic calm.” In The Blue Hotel (1898), Crane marvels on “the existence of man” suffering a blizzard and concedes “a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb.” Or, as Crane wrote in one of his poems,

A man said to the universe“Sir, I exist!”“However,” replied the universe,“The fact has not created in meA sense of obligation.”

Naturalism As Literary Practice

Theoretically, the naturalistic tale might be a “success story,” with the hero achieving ever greater triumphs. In practice, however, the naturalistic tale was almost always a “failure story” or “plot of decline,” with an unfit protagonist like Eugene O'Neill's Brutus Jones slowly degenerating, falling ever lower on the evolutionary ladder. Norris's McTeague is depicted as an atavist fated eventually to die. Dreiser's An American Tragedy was among other things a parody of the Horatio Alger myth of success. Jack London's To Build a Fire (1908) features a foolish and unfit protagonist who deserves to die, and his The Law of Life (1901) depicts the necessary sacrifice of a tribal elder when he becomes a liability to the survival of the group. Such tales were often shocking to readers, and Maggie, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), and Sister Carrie were all published in expurgated versions at the insistence of publishers. Moreover, even though many naturalists (Dreiser, Crane, and Harold Frederic, for instance) began their careers as journalists, they employed a self-consciously crude style of writing. As Norris declared, “Give us stories now, give us men, strong, brutal men, with red-hot blood in 'em, with unleashed passions rampant in 'em, blood and bones and viscera in 'em, and women, too, that move and have their being, people that love and hate.…We don't want literature, we want life. We don't want fine writing, we want short stories.”

However crude the naturalistic style, it did exhibit certain recurring hallmarks. Virtually all naturalistic novels were written from the third-person omniscient point of view. The naturalist was, after all, a type of scientist, his novel a type of laboratory report. (There were rare exceptions, such as Jack London's The Sea-Wolf [1904].) Whereas the realist aimed to draw “rounded” or credible individual characters, the naturalist portrayed representative and recurring types such as the brute (for example, Norris's McTeague and Vandover and the Brute [1914] and O'Neill's The Hairy Ape [1921]) and the spectator or observer (Presley in The Octopus or Ames in Sister Carrie, for instance). Unfortunately, the trend among naturalists to portray types also prompted them to reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes and to assume the superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization according to the standard science of the day. For example, Norris depicted a Jewish junk collector through anti-Semitic stereotyping in McTeague, Crane portrayed a comic Sambo in “The Monster” (1898), and London condescended to a number of racial types in his Klondike and South Seas fiction. Such belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority would point, in the end, to Gilman's endorsement of the early-twentieth-century eugenics movement in her novel, Herland (1915).

There were other formal characteristics of literary naturalism. Naturalists frequently employed organic, especially animal, metaphors. Obviously, such metaphors had been used prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859), but after the publication of Darwin's theory of natural selection they would have an entirely new resonance. McTeague is a bull, Maggie's brother Jimmie is a fighting cock, and the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath is implicitly compared to a land turtle. Naturalists also often invoked sports or gaming metaphors, as when Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage compares a military battle to a football game. Plots were occasionally organized around such forms of cutthroat competition as labor strikes (for instance, Sister Carrie, Norris's The Octopus, Sinclair's The Jungle, Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle [1936] and The Grapes of Wrath) or, for obvious reasons, warfare (Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, Willa Cather's One of Ours [1922], Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bells Tolls [1940], Wharton's A Son at the Front [1923], Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead [1948], and James Jones's From Here to Eternity [1951] are examples). Naturalistic novels were often bloated with detailed descriptions of insulated settings, such as Rum Alley in Maggie, based on Hell's Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan; the Polk Street neighborhood of San Francisco in McTeague; and first a ship and then an island in London's The Sea-Wolf. If a writer is an environmental determinist, after all, he or she labors under the obligation of depicting the environment in minute detail. Taking their cue from Zola's twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle (1871–1893), moreover, several naturalists planned or completed trilogies of novels. Dreiser projected a “trilogy of Desire” and Norris anticipated a “trilogy of the Wheat.” John Dos Passos's U.S.A. (1938) comprised three published novels, James T. Farrell wrote a “Studs Lonigan” and “Danny O'Neill” series, and Eugene O'Neill wrote Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and later projected a cycle of plays on American history, of which the completed A Touch of the Poet (1946) and More Stately Mansions (1964) were to be a part.

Above all, the naturalists tended to be critical of the “teacup tragedies” of Howellsian realism. “Realism is minute; it is the drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block, the excitement of an afternoon call, the adventure of an invitation to dinner,” Norris complained. Naturalism, in contrast, should explore “the unplumbed depths of the human heart, and the mystery of sex, and the problems of life, and the black, unsearched penetralia of the soul of man.” In fine, “terrible things must happen to the characters in a naturalistic novel.” Broadly speaking, too, there were generational differences between realists and naturalists. Realists like James and Howells matured as writers in the 1870s and 1880s, whereas naturalists like Crane and Norris matured in the 1890s. But these differences should not be exaggerated. After all, James and Howells remained essentially realistic and remarkably prolific writers until their deaths in 1916 and 1920, respectively, whereas Crane and Norris both were dead by 1902, Crane at the age of twenty-eight, Norris at thirty-two.

Twentieth-Century Developments

Some of Crane's later writings, such as The Red Badge of Courage and “The Blue Hotel,” represent a variation on the naturalistic tradition and point in the direction of literary impressionism and modernism. Crane asserted in War Memories (1899) that he was trying to imitate in words what the French impressionists were doing with light and color: “I bring this to you merely as an effect—an effect of mental light and shade, if you like: something done in thought similar to that which the French Impressionists do in color; something meaningless and at the same time overwhelming, crushing, monstrous.” The Red Badge of Courage essentially recounts through his impressions the fears and illusions of its ironic soldier-hero, Henry Fleming. All events are filtered through his vision, his sense perceptions. Not only is there no objectivity to his story, the very notion of reality is a shifting and unstable construction of Fleming's imagination. Put another way, by the end of his life Crane had begun to develop naturalistic themes in an impressionistic style. His later tales anticipate Hemingway's terse style, with frequent shifts in point of view, and in fact Hemingway later praised Crane's masterful method in such stories as The Blue Hotel and The Open Boat (1894).

The proletarian writers of the early twentieth century, such as Sinclair (The Jungle), Jack Conroy (A World to Win [1935]), and Robert Cantwell (The Land of Plenty [1934]), attempted to graft their leftist politics onto naturalism, a project that met with decidedly mixed results. The hybrid betrayed the “divided stream” of American naturalism in unusual degree. The Jungle may have been the earliest American proletarian novel, and it is often credited with catalyzing support for the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), but as a novel it is crudely constructed and basically breaks in half when the proletarian hero, Jurgis Rudkus, is thrown in jail and, upon his release, leaves Chicago. As Sinclair later conceded, he “aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Naturalism, as Cowley explains in “ ‘Not Men,’ ” was fundamentally “unsuited” to the “essentially religious purpose” of the proletarian writers. Given the deterministic bias of naturalism, the proletarian writers were simply unable to explain the conversion of a character to socialism or other forms of radical politics.

The last major controversy over naturalism in literature occurred in the 1940s, and it centered on the possibility of “naturalistic tragedy.” During the 1880s the Scandinavian playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg had conceived of their plays Ghosts (1881) and Miss Julie (1888) as naturalistic tragedies. But tragedy, according to its Aristotelian definition, affirms the significance of human life: through the imitation of noble actions ending in catastrophe, a tragic hero falls from a high place and the audience experiences a catharsis of “pity and fear.” Joseph Wood Krutch, in The Tragic Fallacy, a chapter in The Modern Temper (1929), countered that the phrase “naturalistic tragedy” is an oxymoron. “We write no tragedies today,” Krutch argued, because modern science has enfeebled the human spirit. “If the plays and novels of today deal with littler people and less mighty emotions,” he added, “it is not because we have become interested in commonplace souls and their unglamorous adventures but because we have come, willy-nilly, to see the soul of man as commonplace and its emotions as mean.” When writers turned “from the hero to the common man,” they “inaugurated the era of realism.” These arguments prompted Arthur Miller's dramatic experiment, Death of a Salesman (1948). In effect, Miller replied to Krutch in an essay explaining why he wrote the play: “In this age few tragedies are written,” he declared. “It has often been held that the lack is due to a paucity of heroes among us, or else that modern man has had the blood drawn out of his organs of belief by the skepticism of science.” The tragic mode may seem “archaic, fit only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly,” but “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.” So Miller portrayed his hapless salesman Willy Loman (low man) as a tragic hero.

The tradition of realism and naturalism has left an indelible mark on American fiction. Even today, some elements of naturalism surface in the fiction of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, for example, and John Updike is a type of neo-realist with affinities to Howells. Whatever the posturings of the postmodernists, literary historians may claim for no other American literary tradition the achievements of the realists and naturalists.

Further Reading

  • Åhnebrink, Lars. The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction. Cambridge, Mass., 1950. A pioneering work on Zola's influence on Frank Norris.
  • Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884–1919. New York, 1965. A useful survey of the period with particular reference to the major canonical texts.
  • Cady, Edwin H. The Light of Common Day: Realism in American Fiction. Bloomington, Ind., 1971. A traditional defense of the literary method, its unique sensibility, and its sources, with particular reference to James, Howells, and Twain.
  • Campbell, Donna M. Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885–1915. Athens, Ohio, 1997. Persuasively explains the emergence of naturalism as a response to the cultural mythology and feminine influence of the local colorists.
  • Condor, John J. Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase. Lexington, Ky., 1984. A jargon-free, traditional survey of the major naturalistic texts by Crane, Norris, Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck.
  • Cowley, Malcolm. ‘Not Men’: A Natural History of American Naturalism. Kenyon Review 9 (Summer 1947): 414–435. A succinct review of the form and many of the critical issues it raised.
  • Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. Rev. ed. New York, 1966. Though well-known for its thesis about the recurrence in American fiction of portrayals of interracial homosexual love, this study also dared to challenge other, privileged views of American literature.
  • Habegger, Alfred. Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature. New York, 1982. Examines how realist writers, social novelists by definition, defended masculinity and sought to correct the distortions in symbolic fiction by women.
  • Howard, June. Form and History in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill, N.C., and London, 1985. A neo-Marxist approach to the topic of American naturalism.
  • Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago, 1988. Reexamines the relation of realism to “social change,” “the representation of class difference,” and the emergence of a “mass culture.”
  • Kolb, Harold H., Jr. The Illusion of Life: American Realism as a Literary Form. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. Revising traditional definitions of realism, this study suggests that realism was special not because it was an objective treatment of materials but because it offered the illusion of objectivity.
  • Martin, Jay. Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865–1914. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1967. The study most sensitive to historical events during the period. A detailed literary history.
  • Martin, Ronald E. American Literature and the Universe of Force. Durham, N.C., 1981. A study of “the origins, transmission, and uses” of the concept of “force-universe,” particularly in the writings of Henry Adams, Norris, London, and Dreiser.
  • Michaels, Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism. Berkeley, Calif., 1987. A New Historicist interpretation of American naturalism in which the writers work out conflicts between “material and representation, hard money and soft.”
  • Mitchell, Lee Clark. Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism. New York, 1989. Considers “the narrative effects of determinism” on naturalistic texts, specifically London's “To Build a Fire,” Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Norris's Vandover and the Brute, and Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.
  • Pizer, Donald. Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation. Carbondale, Ill., 1982. A continuation of Pizer's work on nineteenth-century naturalism, with emphasis on the neglected naturalists of the 1930s and 1940s (including Dos Passos, Farrell, and Styron).
  • Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Rev. ed. Carbondale, Ill., 1984. A formal approach to the study of realism and naturalism mediated through philosophy and aesthetics.
  • Pizer, Donald, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London. Cambridge and New York, 1995. A collection of a dozen essays delineating the historical contexts, contemporary critical approaches, and “case studies” of works by Howells, Twain, James, Norris, Crane, Chopin, Wharton, London, Sinclair, and Du Bois.
  • Quirk, Tom, and Gary Scharnhorst, eds. American Realism and the Canon. Newark, Del., 1994. A collection of twelve essays from a variety of critical perspectives reassessing the accomplishments of both established and “new canonical” realists.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. American Realism: New Essays. Baltimore and London, 1982. A collection of fifteen revisionary essays on major texts by Howells, Twain, James, Crane, Norris, Wharton, Dreiser, and others.
  • Walcutt, Charles C. American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream. Minneapolis, Minn., 1956. Perhaps the most accessible studies of American naturalism, with chapters on Crane, London, Norris, Frederic, Garland, Dreiser, Anderson, and Farrell. Argues the now-familiar theme that naturalistic novels dramatize a tension between determinism and the exercise of free will.
  • Warren, Kenneth W. Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism. Chicago, 1993. Examines a variety of realistic texts on race written between Emancipation and the 1890s to argue for their “emancipatory” power.