Realism and its later movement of Naturalism were strongly associated with one another on depicting surface reality, but as a literary technique the latter included the philosophy of determinism. While the French launched this movement and began to develop, Americans are credited with bringing it to fiction giving it an identity uniquely of its own with writers like Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris while Theodore Dreiser stands out in representing it to its core.
Stephen Crane the youngest of them was a genius and his masterpiece “The Red Badge of Courage” belonged to the new fiction that aimed at absolute truthfulness as his work not only identified the outward forces of circumstances but the inward forces of character and instinct for he paints more than he describes while his scenes of battlefield reveal and transmit an impression of fragmentation, confusion and dubiety. His other work “ Maggie, A Girl of the Streets” though in certain ways deviates from the style has long been considered an outstanding work of naturalistic writing with its setting in the slum and the oppressed characters that represent this form of storytelling while their actions and beliefs are influenced by environment. The tragedy that befalls the characters comes under the Darwinian theory of origin and background so certain critics admit that the novel blends characteristics of impressionism and irony that diverges from the style of Naturalistic writing. Yet as an author Crane is a remarkable and extraordinary precursor of the coming century for in his very short life his prolific writings extremely improved and developed the subject matter of American literature, and his mastery influenced both poetry and prose in the twentieth century.
Thus American fiction turned away from the genteel, bloodless realism to robust , grim naturalism when another prominent writer Frank Norris in his brief lifetime established himself as one of the most influential authors of his age with his book “McTeague, A Story of San Francisco”. In this work he shows how a man’s long repressed animal instincts break through his external civilized appearance and tells the story of a dentist and his wife whose obsession with wealth finally destroys them. He firmly believed that human behavior could largely be understood in terms of the impact of heredity, environment and the pressure of circumstance while free will and the ability to make choices were limited. His trilogy Blix, McTeague and Vandover the Brute were stories of moral ruin in urban San Francisco because of the violent and depraved reputation of the city after the Gold Rush. Naturalist writing was closely associated with the American social change during an epoch of a dramatic rise of big business and capitalist combat of the “survival of the fittest” and the Darwinian philosophy which formed an integral part of this movement. These writers depended on physical and hereditary factors with both wealth and poverty to have a great influence on character.
This enthralling movement also aimed at recreating nature in its entirety and in this Jack London excelled for his personal experiences and his reading shaped his perspective and his fiction clearly displayed it. His collection of stories were about man’s struggle to withstand nature’s forces¸ the threat of savages besides the confrontation and antagonism of other fortune seekers in the north country but yet he kept to the fundamental theory of the survival of the fittest. His description of environment is compelling and convincing and the inter-relationship between man and nature is primary and predominant for his characters were Darwinian “animals” constrained to accommodate and conform to nature or trampled and vanquished by it. London’s semi-autographical novel “Martin Eden” is a masterpiece of American Naturalism relating the story of a delinquent sailor who falls desperately in love with a middle-class woman Ruth and for her sake becomes a scholar through his perseverance. Later in complete disillusion and unable to acquire the place so coveted perceives this upper middle-class hollow and lusterless and commits suicide by jumping into the sea. The pursuit of the American Dream in Martin Eden is the first of this kind and Theodore Dreiser the quintessence of the trend marked the era in American literature concerning this perspective.
Theodore Dreiser the ninth of ten children of a German immigrant was born in Terre Haute, Indiana and his poverty and personal life were the inspiration for his depiction of real-life characters while his works described the harsh conditions of an immigrant in pre WWI. Although he left school at the very early age of sixteen he was an avid reader and his penchant unlike other writers was for the French author Balzac for even if his works fell under the category of both the movements Dreiser considered himself as a realist writer. Like most of his contemporaries he began his literary career as a journalist in Chicago later moving towards the east confronting the social injustices of the industrial world and the urbanization of the landscape. He continued for several years as a successful journalist in New York before experimenting in fiction- writing and portrayed the harsh life of the lower middle-class struggling for basic human needs that forced men, women and children to live in cramped up apartments in big cities. The demands of society for material success was the major theme and as a precursor in representing modern consumerism his controversial and semi-autobiographical work “The Genius” was banned for a long time. His novel “Sister Carrie” acknowledged as an almost perfect blend of the two literary movements of his day created a scandal as he wrote freely about sex and this marked a turning point in American writing. His candor and his scrupulous description of life was unaccepted and Theodore Dreiser’s works were revived after the two wars and his contribution to American literature was posthumous for his works are better understood now than they were during his lifetime.