THE material given here comes from various sources, as indicated by the notes. The syllabus referred to is that for Professor Parrington's lectures at the University of Washington, The American Novel Since 1890 (1925). The order here follows that of the con-tents of this book.
NATURALISM IN AMERICAN FICTION*
Naturalism originated in France. Term first used by Zola. Chief example-Flaubert's Mme. Bovary. Contrast between Zola and Flaubert reveals two diverse tendencies of the movement-a sociological study of background, with a multitude of characters dwarfed by the milieu; and psychological study of individual character.
Naturalism a child of nineteenth-century thought-offspring of Darwin, Marx, Comte, Taine. The scientific movement created a scientific attitude of mind and emphasized the law of causation. From this emerged two fruitful ideas: (1) biological determinism, (2) economic determinism. So Zola and Flaubert. Influence of Claude Bernard--"We take men from the hands of the physiologist solely . . . to solve scientifically the question of how men be-have in society."
The criteria of naturalism are:
1. Objectivity. Seek the truth in the spirit of the scientist. "We naturalists, we men of science," Zola says, accepting Bernard's position, "we must admit of nothing occult; men are but phenomena and the conditions of phenomena."
2. Frankness. A rejection of Victorian reticence. The total man and woman must be studied -the deeper instincts, the endless impulses. The three strongest instincts are fear, hunger, sex. In the life of the ordinary person, the third is most critical, hence the naturalist makes much of it.
3. An amoral attitude toward material. The naturalist is not a judge, he holds no brief for any ethical standards. He records what happens. He "must possess a knowledge of the mechanisms inherent in man, show the machinery of his intellectual and sensory manifestations, under the influence of heredity and environment, such as physiology shall give them to us, and then finally, to exhibit man living in social conditions, produced by himself, which he modifies daily and in the heart of which he is undergoing constant transformation." (Zola.) This is difficult to accept. Puritanism.
4. A philosophy of determinism. This is the vital principle of naturalism, setting it off from realism. The scientist has turned philosopher. It is the residuum of much pondering over life and its meaning, and may result from:
a. Sociological emphasis-study of heredity and environment.
b. A broader mechanistic philosophy-Flaubert, Dreiser.
c. Fatalism: a world of malignant chance-Hardy.
5. A bias toward pessimism in selecting details. A reaction from the romantic conception of a purposive will.
Romance springs from the longings of a baffled and thwarted will, creating a world as we should like it wherein to find refuge. But the naturalist will tolerate no such refuge. He will envisage the truth, and the truth that he sees is that the individual is impotent in the face of things. Hence it is as the victim, the individual defeated by the world, and made a sardonic jest of, that the naturalist chooses to portray man. Always that conception creeps in. It is seen and felt throughout the texture of the story-a fate lurking in the background and visible to the reader-and at some dramatic moment the conviction comes home to the victim and is crystallized in bitter words wrenched from his baffled will. The business of the story is to lead him up to this crystallization.
There are two main forms--(1) Life is a trap. (2) Life is mean. So Strindberg's Countess Julie: "Everything is wreckage, that drifts over the water until it sinks, sinks." So Ray Pearson in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio: "Tricked, by Gad, tricked by life and made a fool of." So D. H. Lawrence: "We are prostituted, oh, prostituted by life." To Ma Westcott "Life is duty. It is a lie." This pressure may come from without-milieu-or from within-imperious desires-but the outcome is usually hope-less sorrow-sometimes stolid resignation, sometimes fierce pro-test, but with no other end than annihilation. An exception is Maugham's Of Human Bondage.
6. A bias in selection of characters. The naturalist commonly chooses one of three types:
a. Characters of marked physique and small intellectual activity -persons of strong animal drives. They range all the way from morons like Norris's McTeague, Zola's Nana, and Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt to natures like Hardy's Tess, and Sallie in Of Human Bondage.
b. Characters of excited, neurotic temperament, at the mercy of moods, driven by forces that they do not stop to analyze. Such are Strindberg's Countess Julie, Sue, Emma Bovary, and the hero in Of Human Bondage. Sometimes this is aggravated by some physical defect, like a club-foot.
c. An occasional use of a strong character whose will is broken. Thus Hardy's Jude and the doctor in Strindberg's By the Open Sea. But such are comparatively infrequent.
Naturalism is pessimistic realism, with a philosophy that sets man in a mechanical world and conceives of him as victimized by that world. Certain unconscious exaggerations of naturalism. Since men are victimized either by outer forces-the milieu-or by inner drives-impulses and instincts-the naturalist from much brooding is subject to certain temptations:
1. From concern over a devastating milieu he may end in desiring to change that milieu to the end that men may achieve happiness. Hence he tends to lose his objectivity and scientific detachment, and becomes a partisan to a cause. Such was the fate of Zola. The philosopher of naturalism, in practice he abandoned his principles and became a reformer, attacking the church, the capitalistic order, etc. His J'accuse letter is characteristic of this. Nana, almost alone, preserves the naturalistic attitude. This was the failure of the first group of American naturalists-Frank Norris, Robert Herrick, Jack London.
2. From much study of inner drives of low-grade characters the naturalist is in danger of creating grotesques. Behavioristic psychology may prove to be a further temptation, in creating a "sex complex." So Masters's Spoon River Anihology, Sherwood Anderson, D. H. Lawrence, Frank Norris. Most common in the later American naturalists. So Brander Matthews.
3. From much emphasis on animal impulses the naturalist may turn man into an animal. Men are more than sex-driven creatures -the city is more than the slums. There are sewers, but why not accept the sewer without messing over its contents as they flow to disintegration? This is the commonest objection to naturalism. So Meredith: "The naturalist sees the hog in nature, and takes nature for the hog." It is certainly an overcorrection-a reaction against the complacent optimism of romanticism-against too much shutting of the eyes to slums and filth and sewers. To a mechanist like Dreiser, who traces life and conduct back to chemistry, or to the behaviorist, who traces it to ducts and glands, it is rational. The charge may be true of Zola, of De Maupassant, of Anderson, of Lawrence, but it is not true of Hardy, of Maugham.
Naturalism and the Conception of Tragedy. Naturalistic books are almost inevitably tragedies, but the philosophy of naturalism that underlies them has played havoc with the Aristotelian conception of tragedy. As Ludwig Lewisohn says, it has "rendered the traditional principle of tragedy wholly archaic." According to the Aristotelian tradition, tragedy results when an essentially noble character of heroic proportions transgresses an immutable moral law by a self-originating will and suffers the punishment dealt by poetic justice. So Macbeth, Othello, Lear, Hamlet. But this assumes two thing: (I) an eternally changeless moral law; (2) the existence of a purposive will. Both of these the naturalist refuses to accept. Compare Hardy.
It became clear that the self-originating element in human action is small. The individual acts in harmony with his character, which is largely the result of complex and uncontrollable causes. It became even clearer that among the totality of moral values an absolute validity can be as-signed to a few only. Hence the basic conception of tragic guilt was under-mined from within and from without. The transgression of an immutable moral law by a self-originating will was seen to be an essentially meaning. less conception, since neither eternally changeless moral law nor an uncaused volition is to be found in the universe that we perceive.1
The tragedy of naturalism lies in the disintegration and the pity or irony with which we contemplate man and his fate in the world.
Naturalism and the Traditional American Temper. The two most characteristic qualities of the American temper are Puritanism and optimism-the belief in the supremacy of the moral law, and the conviction that this is a good world that man shapes to his will. This is to be explained historically: the former is traditionally English, the latter a product of new-world economics-a decentralized society. Pessimistic determinism results inevitably from the sense of social pressure on the individual. Social complexity entails a feeling of coercive regimentation by forces too strong to contend against. These forces are both internal and external: environment or the social machine; heredity or the physical machine. The most complete dwarfing of the individual will and significance takes place in the most crowded societies, producing a corresponding philosophy and psychology. So the fatalism of the Orient and the dream of Nirvana. The first widespread philosophy of determinism among English people was spread by Calvinism. Predestination was an alien thought, the last expression of a world depressed by Roman regimentation and degeneration. Augustine preached that men are, evil, and men are doomed. This old-world dogma was brought to America, where regimentation was impossible. A free economics created a free-will philosophy and psychology. The will to succeed. This flowered in Emerson. Philosophical optimism. The world is good, man is good: let him stand upon his instincts and there abide and the whole world will come round to him. "Trust thyself." Since Emerson's time a new world has been emerging. The old shadow is falling across the American mind. Determinism is in the air.
Complexity and American Determinism. Complexity springs from:
1. Machine industrialism. The bigness of the economic machine dwarfs the individual and creates a sense of impotency.
2. The great city reduces the individual to a unit. By machine methods of transportation and quantity output individual differences are worn away. We dress, live, think, work, play, alike. The Saturday Evening Post is fast regimenting the American mind. Standardization.
3. Centralization of wealth is creating a caste regimentation. 4. A mechanistic psychology. Behaviorism: stimulus and response; ducts and glands. The individual conceived as a mechanism driven by instincts and habits.
America today is the greatest, most complex machine the world has ever known. Individualism is giving way to regimentation, caste, standardization. Optimism is gone; pessimism is on the horizon. The psychology of naturalism is being prepared.
Three American writers began an experiment in naturalism in the middle nineties-Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Harold Frederic. The early death of all three stopped the movement, which was speedily overwhelmed by the romantic deluge and the muckraking zeal. Crane was tubercular and died at twenty-nine; Norris was cut down in the early thirties; Harold Frederic removed to England, where he died.
*Notes for a lecture delivered at the University of California in 1922.--Publisher.
1Ludwig Lewisohn, Modern Drama, New York, 1915, p. 3.