American Naturalism  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In the United States, the Naturalism genre is associated principally with writers such as Abraham Cahan, Ellen Glasgow, David Graham Phillips, Jack London, Edith Wharton, and most prominently Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser. The term naturalism operates primarily in counter distinction to realism, particularly the mode of realism codified in the 1870s and 1880s, and associated with William Dean Howells and Henry James.

It is important to clarify the relationship between American literary naturalism, with which this entry is primarily concerned, from the genre also known as naturalism that flourished in France at the end of the 19th century. French naturalism, as exemplified by Emile Zola, can be regarded as a programmatic, well-defined and coherent theory of fiction that self-consciously rejected the notion of free will, and dedicated itself to the documentary and "scientific" exposition of human behavior as being determined by, as Zola put it, "nerves and blood".

Many of the American naturalists, especially Norris and London, were heavily influenced by Zola. They sought explanations for human behavior in natural science, and were skeptical, at least, of organized religion and beliefs in human freewill. However, the Americans did not form a coherent literary movement, and their occasional critical and theoretical reflections do not present a uniform philosophy. Although Zola was a touchstone of contemporary debates over genre, Dreiser, perhaps the most important of the naturalist writers, regarded Balzac as a greater influence. Naturalism in American literature is therefore best understood historically in the generational manner outlined in the first paragraph above. In philosophical and generic terms, American naturalism must be defined rather more loosely, as a reaction against the realist fiction of the 1870s and 1880s, whose scope was limited to middle-class or "local color" topics, with taboos on sexuality and violence. The most significant elements of this reaction can be summarized as follows.

Naturalist fiction in the United States often concentrated on the non-Anglo, ethnically marked inhabitants of the growing American cities, many of them immigrants and most belonging to a class-spectrum ranging from the destitute to the lower middle-class. The naturalists were not the first to concentrate on the industrialized American city, but they were significant in that they believed that the realist tools refined in the 1870s and 1880s were inadequate to represent it. Abraham Cahan, for example, sought both to represent and to address the Jewish community of New York's East Side, of which he was a member. The fiction of Theodore Dreiser, the son of first and second generation immigrants from Central Europe, features many German and Irish figures. Frank Norris and Stephen Crane, themselves from established middle-class Anglophone families also registered the ethnic mix of the metropolis, though for the most part via reductive stereotypes. In somewhat different ways, more marginal to the mainstream of naturalism, Ellen Glasgow's version of realism was specifically directed against the mythologizing of the South, while the series of "problem novels" by David Graham Phillips, epitomized by the prostitution novel Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1917), can be regarded as naturalistic by virtue of their underclass subject-matter.

Allied to this, naturalist writers were skeptical towards, or downright hostile to, the notions of bourgeois individualism that characterized realist novels about middle-class life. Most naturalists demonstrated a concern with the animal or the irrational motivations for human behavior, sometimes manifested in connection with sexuality and violence. Here they differed strikingly from their French counterparts.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "American Naturalism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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