Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation

Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation

Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation

Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation

Synopsis

An important paradox characterizes the history of American literary naturalism. Although the movement has been attacked by literary journalists and academic critics since its origin in the 1890s, it has been one of the most persistent and vital strains in American fiction. Naturalism 'refuses to die' in America despite the deep antagonism it usually inspires. Few of our major twentieth-century novelists have escaped its 'taint, ' and it is perhaps the only modern literary form in America which has been both popular and significant.

Excerpt

An important paradox characterizes the history of American literary naturalism. Although the movement has been attacked by literary journalists and academic critics since its origin in the 1890s, it has been one of the most persistent and vital strains in American fiction. As Willard Thorp noted in 1960, naturalism "refuses to die" in America despite the deep antagonism it usually inspires. Few of our major twentieth-century novelists have escaped its "taint," and it is perhaps the only modern literary form in America which has been both popular and significant.

There are a number of reasons for the opposition to naturalism. Because much naturalism is sordid and sensational in subject matter, it is often dismissed out of hand by moralists and religionists. The early naturalists were particularly vulnerable in this regard. A more meaningful antagonism arises from the feeling of many readers of naturalistic fiction that their basic assumptions about human nature and experience are being challenged. Man's faith in his innate moral sense and thus his responsibility for his actions, and his belief in the semi-divine nature of the American experience and in the healing and preserving roles of family and love -- these and many other traditional values appear to be under attack in the naturalistic novel. Many readers have also objected to the fullness of social documentation in most naturalistic fiction. From the early attack on naturalism as "mere photography" to the recent call for a fiction of "fabulation," the aesthetic validity of the naturalistic novel has often been questioned.

These traditional objections to naturalism arise for the most part from a priori beliefs about man and fiction. The most probing critics of naturalism have attacked it not on these grounds but on those implied by the ideological origins of the movement. They have argued that a fiction as ideological as naturalism should have a unified and coherent philosophical base and a distinctive form and style consistent with that base. This position has its origin, whether acknowledged or not, in the preeminence of Zola's theory of literary naturalism, and in particular in Zola's belief that the . . .

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