Annotated Bibliography: Naturalism/Realism


Anthony D'Agostino

Historical Overview

Link, Eric Carl. "Defining American Literary Naturalism." The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Naturalism. Ed. Keith Newlin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 71-91.

Link provides a brief, well-structured, easily digestable historical overview of the critical conversation about the changing relationship between naturalism and realism.

Foundational Texts.

Howells,William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. (1885)

WDH was the primary critical proponent of realism in the 1880's and 1890's. His critical work appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Monthly (he served as editor of both). The Rise of Silas Lapham is a novel of his that stands out as an exemplar of American Realism. For Howells, realism is a corrective of romance, high-culture elitism and idealism. Think of him as the Anti-(Matthew) Arnold.

Emile,Zola. Le Roman experimental. (1880)
Emile,Zola. The Experimental Novel And Other Essays.

Naturalism/Realism in the Nineteenth Century

Inthe 1880's and 1890's, Carl Link says "there was a among a certain group of authors no clear distinction between realism and naturalism; if anything,naturalism was the broader term, used to identify the general tendency in artto render the elements of nature truthfully, and realism was the more specialized term for the contemporary novel of manners... portrayed with detailed accuracy." (76)

Gosse, Edmund. "The Limits of Realism in Fiction." Forum 9 (June 1890):391-400.

Gosse advanced the notion that realism was an outgrowth of naturalism.

Burton, Richard. "The Healthful Tone for American Literature." Forum 14 (Apr. 1895): 249-56.

Richard Burton espoused the view that naturalism, distinct from realism, was principally concerned with morbidity, decadence and cynicism. He attributed the rise of naturalism with the loss of religion and the reduction of humans into animals.

Naturalism/Realism in the Early Twentieth Century

In the Twentieth century, the notion that realism is a subset of naturalism is abandoned.
Naturalism and realism are conceptualized as linked developments of post-Enlightenment science and evolutionary theory.
Naturalism/Realism is embodied in/as the work of Howells, James, Zola, Balzac, Flaubert and Tolstoy.
Criticism flirts with the idea that naturalism is realistic, and concerned with vice and lower economic strata and Norris' notion that naturalism has more to do with Romanticism than realism.

Parrington,Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought. Vol. 3. New York:Harcourt, 1930.

Parrington characterizes naturalism as a pessimistic, materialistic determinism,essentially, a philosophical tradition. The Parrington definition is weak in so far as it doesn't account for the aesthetic dimension of the movement. Critics like Carter and Cowley will eviscerate the "Parrington Definition"opening the way for "The Walcutt View."

Naturalism/Realism in the Mid-Twentieth Century

In the 1950's and 1960's, critics begin to question the Parrington view. The major breaking off point is the disassociation of literary realism and literary naturalism. Literary naturalism is conceptualized on its own terms.

Walcutt,Charles Child. American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956.

Walcutt says that literary naturalism is a philosophical position while literary naturalism is a literary style or methodology (i.e. a detail oriented,scientific register). The two schools are separate in kind as opposed to overlapping or competing phenomena. Walcutt also links American literary naturalism to transcendentalism.

Figg,Robert M., III. "Naturalism as Literary Form." Georgia Review 18 (1964): 308-16.

Figgpoints out that literary naturalists corrupt realism with deterministic theory (re: prejudices) thereby violating objective observation of the socialrealists.

Naturalism/Realism in the Late-Twentieth Century

Pizer,Donald. "Late Nineteenth Century American Realism." Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. 1966. Rev. ed.Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. 9-30.

In this 1966 essay, Pizer establishes his dominance in the field by reconciling the Walcutt and Parrington definitions of naturalism. He confirms the connection between naturalism and realism in so far as they are both related to the Post-Enlightenment scientific world view and the proliferation of Darwinian theory. But Pizer maintains that naturalists have an aesthetic style that isall their own and distinct from that of the realists. This style, he says, is clear simply by comparing naturalist texts to texts of previous literary movements. He defines literary naturalism in terms of other literature.

Pizer,Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Donald Pizer; 1984.

After Pizer, the Theory Explosion of the 1980's to 2000's

If Pizer redefined naturalism by defining it, ultimately, in distinction from prior literary movements, than the literary theorists of the latter Twentieth Century and early Twenty-First Century conceptualize naturalism in terms of broader social phenomena like capitalism and gender politics.

Seltzer, Mark. Bodies and Machines. New York and London: Routledge Press, 1992.

“What the naturalist aesthetic requires, then, is a principle of generation that incorporates rather than opposes the machine: in short, a mechanics that forms part of its very textuality."

“It is this identification of writing and social physics as two versions of the same thing (each as une langue inconnue of the other) that ineffect terminates the realist project: or, better, produces the terminator-version of the realist project sometimes called __naturalism__” (108)

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Kaplan defines naturalism as a way of controlling or making sense of rapid historical social upheaval and class conflict.

Bell, Michael Davitt.The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of aLiterary Idea

Davitt's book also deals with naturalism and gender assumptions. For Davitt, naturalism was a way of coding a literature as "masculine."

Michaels,Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1987.

Walter Benn Michaels produces an expansive (his book delves deeply into economics,painting/art history, property law etc.) and intricate (his arguments involving any area of knowledge are sophisticated and nuanced) analysis of turn-of-the-century literature that characterizes naturalism as a literary phenomenon that represents or enacts developments in capitalist economics, politics and other art forms. Michaels' thesis is best described in his own words:

"There are at least two such logics running through this discourse [naturalism], or rather, two such logics that constitute it. One could, perhaps, best describe naturalism as the working-out of a set of conflicts between pretty things and curious ones, material and representation,hard money and soft, beast and soul. But this doesn't mean that the naturalist writer is someone who has chosen the beastly side of these dichotomies (the side literary history ordinarily associates with natural- ism) or even that heis someone who has chosen with any consistency either side. The consistency,indeed the identity, of naturalism resides in the logics and in their antithetical relation to one another, not necessarily in any individual, any text, or even any single sentence."


"I want only to locate both these positions and their negations in the logic, or rather the double logic,of natural- ism, and in so doing, to suggest one way of shifting the focus of literary history from the individual text or author to structures whose coherence, interest, and effect may be greater than that of either author or text."

Fleissner,Jennifer L. Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

On the first day of class, we read how Zola described his naturalist technique as masculine. Fleissner destabilizes this characterization by pointing out the crucial role femininity plays in the work of Norris and Crane among others. Fleisnner contends that turn of the century developments in consumerism and industrialization that naturalism sometimes characterizes as deterministic forces limiting human agency were parallel with expansions in women's social mobility; this opens up a tension in the naturalist corpus that characterizes women as both sites of renewed possibility and determination.