Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Welcome to today's discussion of literary naturalism. It is not necessary to be a complete nihilist, but it helps.

Naturalism is literary realism that read Darwin, gasped, and said, "Dang, Emerson was wrong! Humans are not the center of the universe, and nature doesn't look out for them. They're just as pointless as the flies we swat every summer afternoon."

This theory was further refined to maintain that humans were the helpless victims of their genetics and their environment, and those two things would conspire to make them miserable at every turn. Further, if they somehow escaped with good genes and good luck, nature itself would try to kill them. The mantra of literary naturalism is "Life sucks, and then you die."

One might wonder why, if writers truly believed that humanity had no point, they bothered to write about it. Possibly they felt that shared misery was more bearable than the lonely belief in their futility. Possibly they just wanted to shock people. More likely, though, and I'm actually being serious here, they got sick of the moral complacency that arose out of Transcendentalism. "If we're so great," a naturalist would ask, "Why was the war so brutal, and why do we continue to exploit everything and everyone we come across?"

Late 19th century American industrialism and expansion came at a price, and often it was a very high one in terms of human life and human quality of life. Children died in industrial accidents; Native Americans died in settlement disputes, and over all of this was the specter of the Civil War, that left many people desperately poor and still oppressed. The naturalists looked at this world and felt confident in saying that people are not inherently good, and life is not full of promise.

Prominent "naturalistic" writers include Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Frank Norris. In all their work, we can discern the grey thread of hopelessness, mingled with the red one of vicious nature, looking for its next meal.

It is interesting to note that, with the possible exceptions of London and Drieser, a lot of naturalists died young. Ambrose Bierce was getting up there in age when he disappeared in the Mexican desert but we can assume he wasn't happy about it.


  1. I have to agree with what you are saying here. If I put myself 130 years in the past, I imagine I would be pretty depressed too. I don't know of any accounts after the Civil War where people said "Oh look! Thousands of men died, but we freed the slaves!Oh and the blacks still have no rights whatsoever, but it's all good, life is wonderful!!" unless they were on some kind of drug...which were just coming around and not anywhere near illegal yet. I feel like Naturalism is like a backwards version of the Puritans. The Puritans felt that God was out to get them and that life was really pointless, while Naturalists believe that Nature is out to get them and again, life is really pointless. I wonder what would happen if two of them met and raised a family? They'd probably end up all curled in balls in the middle of the room crying because freakin' EVERYTHING was out to get them...can we say Schizophreniacs?

  2. I think that if an average American "Goth" teen would write a book it would turn out as a Naturalist tale. So is the style affected by the state of the world or the state of the person's worldly experiences? My immediate thought is that the change of religious views (Darwin) may have changed the thought process of writers as you mentioned and perhaps they realized that they could think differently and therefore realize some bit of mortality as well as freedom of thought.

  3. I have to say that when I was a teenager many moons ago, I fell in love with Stephen Crane's poetry. Now as an adult whose hormones have leveled out, and actually had a chance to see life after the horrors of high school, I can't believe how morose I was. I have seen enough misery to want to relish every good moment of life, and simply think that most of this style should be doled out by doctors for those rare people who are overly happy and naive. With few to no refills.

  4. Why would these writers chose to write when they feel humanity is so terrible and there is no point? Because "misery loves company." No matter how bad people think life is, and no matter how awful someone thinks humaity is, they still want to hold on to the feeling that there is still someone they can connect with.

  5. I feel as if the naturalist were very close minded people, in the fact that they had such a negative attitude that it closed them off to anything positive; of course life will seem futile if you harbor that type of negativity. I'm going to be very blunt in saying that worst things happened to people, yet you don't see them being so grim, so maybe if they realized that bad things happen to everyone that doesn't mean life isn't still amazing, then they would have been happier people. In order to enjoy life and have a good life you have to open yourself up and let the bad in with the good, it's understandable to mourn or get depressed but don't let negativity completely consume you. I can not say that I understand the plight that many went through during this time, but I can say I can see why people were depressed, but things will never get better unless you pick yourself and fight with all you have for what you believe in, fight to live another day, fight for a brighter future, not just for you but for those who come after you as well.

  6. Naturalism writers would write about humanity and no matter how people view about how bad there life is they would always be able 2 compare it and connect it with something else. These naturalistic writers were not opened minded at all they had really negative attitudes about everything in there life and writings.