Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
“Naturalism” is a peculiar term in American literary studies. Although it arises frequently in discussions of late-nineteenth-century literature, the term’s meaning is not a settled question. Equally unsettled in critical and scholarly discourse is the term’s precise relevance to the works most often called “naturalist.” The four American authors whom scholars most frequently associate with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century naturalism are Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Stephen Crane. Over the years, critics have also suggested numerous other fiction writers from the same period whom they believe should be considered literary naturalists as well, including, for example, Kate Chopin, Upton Sinclair, Hamlin Garland, Edith Wharton (in some of her novels), Paul Laurence Dunbar, David Graham Phillips, and Abraham Cahan. With the important exception of Frank Norris, however, almost none of the period’s writers whom critics have subsequently dubbed literary naturalists used the word to describe their own writing. Writers such as Crane and Dreiser, for example, preferred to identify themselves as literary realists, with Crane specifically designating Howells as his most important literary influence. For that matter, as Nancy Glazener has pointed out, no evidence exists that critics or reviewers of their own era regarded the specific works written between 1890 and 1910 that today often get linked together as “naturalist” as belonging to any sort of distinct grouping, whether within or separate from the more general category of realism (Reading for Realism 6).
Further complicating matters, when US literary critics of the 1920s and 1930s did start using the term “naturalism” to distinguish certain turn-of-the-century fiction writers from the larger American realist movement that had become prominent in the 1870s and 1880s, these critics tended to adapt their understanding of naturalism from the more easily recognizable French “school” of naturalism, whose widely acknowledged chief was Émile Zola. In France, naturalism was associated with dispassionate or “scientific” depictions of the more lurid aspects of everyday urban and industrial life, with a special focus on lower-class criminality, sexuality, and alcoholism. The view of human existence that Zola sought to convey with his fiction was, as summarized by critic George Becker in 1960, “pessimistic materialistic determinism” (“Modern Realism” 35). This concept was used fruitfully for several decades by US literary critics as a key to understanding American writers they grouped together as naturalists – in particular, Norris, Crane, Dreiser, and London – and it is still considered the standard view of the category. Since at least the 1970s, however, major scholarly works have appeared on a regular basis making persuasive arguments for substantially overhauling the long-standing interpretation of American naturalism as pessimistic materialistic determinism. Rather than settling on a new definition, these revisionist works have advanced conflicting visions even of how to define “naturalism” (see, e.g., Michaels, Gold Standard, Seltzer, Bodies and Machines, Fleissner, Women, Compulsion, Modernity, Link, Vast and Terrible Drama).