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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.

Chapter 10. Reaction and Progress

Section 2. Toward the Left: Naturalism

AMONG the followers of Howells toward realism, even though they might be genuine disciples, there was bound to come sooner or later a discontent with the gentleness which restrained him from portraying the unlovely or illicit phases of American society. The earliest manifestations of this discontent, not always conscious, came from men and women who had studied farming conditions and, like E. W. Howe in Kansas and Joseph Kirkland in Illinois, had found in them little that justified the smooth idyls of certain of the local color writers. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman in her short stories of New England, A Humble Romance and Other Stories (1887) and A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891); Harold Frederic in his novel of rural New York, Seth’s Brother’s Wife (1887); Hamlin Garland in his hard pastorals of the upper Middle West, Main-Travelled Roads (1891) and Prairie Folks (1893)—all these proceeded in a less cheerful mood than fiction had ordinarily employed in the eighties, and Garland was passionately devoted to the war on needless poverty which had already enlisted Henry George and Edward Bellamy. Ambrose Bierce’s fierce Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)—later called In the Midst of Life—added a sardonic note rare in American literature. That the short story at first prevailed among these new writers was owing to the enormous popularity of Kipling, who had developed the methods of Bret Harte and had returned them to America with interest. The novel, however, early shared the new impetus, which had a characteristic exposition in Hamlin Garland’s essays, Crumbling Idols (1894). It was no longer enough, the new novelists argued and felt, to skim rosy surfaces. The novel, a powerful modern agency for civilization, must go deeper than it had gone in the United States, must turn to the light various ugly realities which, too long neglected, were growing more dangerous every day. It must deal candidly with political corruption, with economic injustice, with religious unrest, with sexual irregularities, with greed and doubt and hate and cruelty and blood, as well as with its standard subjects. It must assert its rights, its obligation, to speak of anything it chose, provided only the thing were true.

Doctrines so unquestionable, and in time so unquestioned, in the early nineties aroused vigorous antagonism. One pious reviewer declared that one of Mrs. Deland’s books combined “the blasphemy of Ingersoll and the obscenity of Zola.” In the preface to Summer in Arcady (1896) James Lane Allen protested against “those black chaotic books of the new fiction” which had lately come from Europe and were disturbing the simple virtues of American life. Tolstoy to many seemed unpardonably frank, and Flaubert and Zola to most seemed simply wicked, so strong was the tradition of optimism, decorum, reticence, in American fiction. Established habits of “decency,” by which was meant a solicitous reserve in matters of sex and of suffering in general, did not break up, but the novel extended its inquiries to numerous matters rarely considered in the eighties. Three novels published in 1894 represent the transition: Mrs. Freeman’s Pembroke, a study of New England stubbornness; Mrs. Deland’s Philip and His Wife, a study of an unhappy marriage; and Paul Leicester Ford’s The Honorable Peter Stirling, a chronicle of politics built up around the career, here idealized, of President Cleveland.

Late in 1895 appeared a striking novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which definitely belonged to the new fiction. Its author, Stephen Crane (1871–1900), was a genius who admired Tolstoy and who somewhat febrilely aimed at absolute truthfulness. He had already written and printed Maggie (1893; published 1896), a horrible picture of a degenerate Irish family in New York and the tragedy of a daughter who by the brutality she has to face at home is driven in desperation to the streets. The style is hard and bald; Crane betrays a youthful partizan’s delight in candor on forbidden topics; he piles up savage details with violent plain-speaking; the plot amounts to nothing more than a succession of writhing tableaus of blood or wretchedness. And yet, despite a good deal that is metallic in its construction, the book has effectiveness and sincerity. In its sort it outdid any native naturalistic novel yet offered to the American public, and after a generation it remains an interesting document in the history of naturalism. But Crane’s great success attended The Red Badge of Courage, an episode of the Civil War. At the time of writing he knew war only from books, but the books he knew were Tolstoy’s War and Peace and probably Zola’s Débâcle. The plumes and trumpets and glory of battle consequently do not appear. The protagonist is a recruit for the first time under fire. Crane had but to imagine himself in a similar danger and reconstruct the moods that came over him. What he produced was amazingly brilliant. His recruit knows nothing of the general plan of the conflict. He obeys commands that he does not understand, that he resents, that he hates. His excited senses color the occasion, even the landscape. He suffers agonies of fatigue and almost a catastrophe of fear before he can be acclimated to his adventure. If he seems unusually imaginative, still he is imagined without too much subtlety. He speaks a convincing boyish dialect. His sensations are limited to something like his spiritual capacity. And the narrative as a whole Crane holds firmly in hand, pointing his prose with clean touches, heightening it here and there with poetry, warming it with an emotion which still leaves him critical. The Red Badge of Courage is a genuine feat of the imagination.

Crane’s later novels and short stories, though some are vivid, add nothing to these two novels, and his early death truncated his career. Early death, too, cut off Wolcott Balestier, Kipling’s brother-in-law, and Harold Frederic, both men of promise, but never of more than promise. None of them, not even Crane, equaled Frank Norris (1870–1902), whom death at thirty-two could not cheat out of at least one masterpiece. The fame of Norris has always been colored by expectations of what he might have become had he lived to realize them. He seemed, as the older century ended and the new one opened, an authentic and prophetic voice. A leader in the little movement to “continentalize” American literature as a protest against local color, he was himself one of the least sectional of novelists. Born in Chicago, where he passed his boyhood, a student of art in Paris for two years, student for four years at the University of California and for one graduate year at Harvard, newspaper correspondent in South Africa at the time of the Jameson raid and in Cuba during the Santiago campaign, and later a journalist in San Francisco, Norris had a vision of American life which was geographically very wide. He was not a victim of any arid cosmopolitanism, for Zola, his chief teacher, and Kipling had taught Norris how much the strength of realism depends upon facts observed in their native places. And though one of his earliest passions was for Froissart, and his first book, Yvernelle (1892), was a verse romance upon a medieval French theme, his mature plots were laid almost entirely in settings with which he was familiar. That so many of them are Californian must be ascribed to his early death; he meant later to turn to other regions.

What gave Norris this large “continental” view of his materials was a certain epic disposition which he had. He tended to vast plans and conceived trilogies. His Epic of the Wheat—The Octopus (1901), which deals with the production of wheat in California, The Pit (1903), which deals with the distribution of wheat through the Chicago Board of Trade, and The Wolf, which, though never written, was to have dealt with the relieving of a famine in Europe by American wheat—he thought of as three distinct novels, bound together only by the cosmic spirit of the wheat which comes up from the abundant earth and moves irresistibly to its appointed purpose, guided, of course, by men, and fought and played over by them, but always mightier than they and always their master as well as their sustenance. Another trilogy to which he meant to give years of work would have centered about the battle of Gettysburg, one part for each day, and would have sought to present what Norris considered the American spirit as his Epic of the Wheat sought to present an impersonal force of nature. Such conceptions explain the grandiose manner which Norris never lost and they serve to explain, too, the passion of his naturalism.

As to his actual achievement, The Pit, though its success on the stage and its vivid presentation of a thrilling drama of business made it more popular than The Octopus, is certainly inferior to the first member of the series. With greater case and lucidity, it has less poetry, less depth of scene and texture, less final significance. In proportion as mere trafficking in wheat is a less organic function than either growing it or eating it, so The Pit falls in interest and power below The Octopus, which takes high rank among the best of American novels. The Octopus of the title is the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad which holds the wheat growers of California in its cruel tentacles, able if it likes to deny them access to their natural markets, and consequently a symbol of the control which economic machinery exercises over the elements of life. The book sets forth the drama of Agriculture and Trade locked in a fierce conflict, with Trade for the moment villain and victor. Norris’s sympathies lie with the oppressed ranchmen; the Railroad has the iron teeth and ruthless hunger of the Old Witch of juvenile melodrama; in the end, though the ranchers have been defeated, the wheat itself too symbolically pours in upon the agent of the Railroad and destroys him—the wheat “untouched, unassailable, undefiled, that mighty world-force, that nourisher of nations, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, indifferent to the human swarm, gigantic, resistless.” And yet these cosmic implications do not remove the story too far from actual existence in California. The canvas swarms with actualities—plowing, planting, harvesting, sheep-herding, merry-making, rabbit-killing, love, labor, birth, death. Intimately involved with the hard, sordid strife of daily affairs are fine, if not always quite realized, phases of poetry and faith. The style, though tending always to turgidity, is strong and full; the movement, though at times nervous, is rapid; the pictures, though perhaps excessively panoramic, are always richly alive.

The passion which informs The Octopus, a kind of fiery zeal for truth which lifted and enlarged all Norris wrote, is the quality which marked him off from the older realism of Howells. Zola had it, and Norris, who called Zola “the very head of the Romanticists,” was even willing to name his own form of naturalism romantic if he could thus argue for the use in fiction of deeper and more stirring truths than those minute, those surface matters which, in his judgment, were the chief stock in trade of official realism. Perhaps the most obvious instance in his work of this romantic tendency is the story of Vanamee in The Octopus, the sheep-herder who has mystical communion with the spirit of his dead mistress. But equally romantic, in fact, is Norris’s constant preoccupation with “elemental” emotions. His heroes are nearly all violent men, wilful, passionate, combative; his heroines—thick-haired, large-armed women, almost all of a single physical type—are endowed with a frank and deep, if slow vitality. Love in Norris’s world is the mating of vikings and valkyries. A plain case of such heroic passions may be found in Moran of the Lady Letty (1898), the story of a civilized young San Franciscan who is shanghaied upon a Pacific fishing boat and, among many adventures, meets and loves the splendid Norse savage, Moran, whom he wins with the valor aroused in him by a primitive life. Blix (1899) and A Man’s Woman (1900) and The Octopus and The Pit only repeat this pair of lovers in varying costumes and occupations. In McTeague (1899) the protagonist, married to a woman of a different type, finally murders her. Love, however, is by no means the chief concern of these novels, which are crowded with ardently detailed phases of life which had not yet appeared, or at least had not yet become common, in American fiction: shark-fishing and beach-combing off the California coast; the routine doings of vulgar people in San Francisco and the city’s Bohemian aspects; the deadly perils of Arctic exploration; the materials of The Octopus already cited; the enormous conflicts of trading in the Chicago Wheat pit; the ugly dissipations of undergraduates as presented in the posthumous but early Vandover and the Brute (1914). In all these Norris sought to find the basic elements of human nature and to present them with unhesitating accuracy. His eagerness to be truthful in a new way gave him his energy, particularly in scenes of action, although the same eagerness deprived him of mellow reflection and rounded grace. His volume of essays, The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903), companion in theory to Hamlin Garland’s Crumbling Idols, shows him to have been less a thinker than a passionate partizan of the rising doctrine of naturalism. It shows, too, how large was the store in him of a fire and an energy which would not lightly have perished had he lived, but must have carried him on to growth and varied triumphs.

Norris was but one of a group of novelists who began their careers about 1900, in the very midst of the hullabaloo of rococo romance—indeed, more or less as a protest against it. Theodore Dreiser with Sister Carrie (1900) initiated his powerful, vexed career. Edith Wharton wrote her early short stories with caustic irony and without sentimentalism; Stewart Edward White in The Blazed Trail (1902) escaped from civilization to the thrilling rigors of Michigan lumber camps. Brand Whitlock, titularly a disciple of Howells, in The 13th District (1902), and Alfred Henry Lewis in The Boss (1903), exposed the mean crafts of politics; Robert Herrick, particularly in his Memoirs of an American Citizen (1905), hated the rose-color and fatuous optimism of conventional fiction; Charles D. Stewart in The Fugitive Blacksmith (1905) produced a strangely neglected and yet a singularly diverting picaresque tale; Upton Sinclair, romancer in Manassas (1904), turned in The Jungle (1906) to his fierce warfare upon the abuses of modern industrial America; William Allen White in his volume of stories In Our Town (1906) touched critical notes not always apparent in his work. All these writers are still living.

One writer associated with them, David Graham Phillips (1867–1911), calls for especial mention. Like most of the others a Middle Westerner and a journalist, he emerged from the era of public muck-raking and carried his assault into the private lives represented in his novels. He believed—and proposed his doctrines in The Reign of Gilt (1905)—that democracy is essentially more decent and more efficient than aristocracy; that most of the confusions and distortions of American life arise from the restricting hand which various forms of privilege lay upon it; that it is the duty as well as the natural behavior of a novelist to reveal existent conditions without favors or reserves. In a score of novels composed with a fierce energy he ranged over the American scene in his hunt for snobbery and stupidity and cruelty and greed, turning them up to the light with a gusto not matched by the art of his revelations. Serious as his books are in intention, useful as documents, no one of them is a masterpiece and no one of them shows any very definite signs of surviving, though the bulky Susan Lenox (1917) has considerable notoriety as one of the fullest portraits of an American courtesan. With all his powers, Phillips was crude and heavy: he had neither the bright concentration of Stephen Crane nor the symbolic meaning and poetry of Frank Norris nor the large, blundering tenderness of Theodore Dreiser. He is hopelessly deficient in charm, and his undoubted merits do not make up for the deficiency.

Jack London (1876–1916) was a novelist of the American proletariat. Born in California, the son of a frontier scout and trapper, he lived as a boy in an ordinary bourgeois environment, tempered by the novels and romantic history which he insatiably devoured. At fourteen he left school to become an unskilled laborer in a dozen occupations, becoming in time an oyster-pirate and a longshoreman in and near the bay of San Francisco and shipping before the mast at seventeen to go as far as Japan and the Bering Sea. In a mood of disgust induced by overwork he became at eighteen a tramp who covered ten thousand miles in the United States and Canada during the hard times of the early nineties and who made up his mind that he could no longer continue in the treadmill which his great bodily strength had heretofore regarded as a pleasure and which his reading had told him was a virtue. Home once more, he encountered books which confirmed him in his resolution. A year at the University of California and a winter in the Klondike during the gold rush still further confirmed him: he became a socialist and a revolutionist; with enormous labors he made himself into a popular writer, discovered that the politer world which he consequently entered was not all he had imagined it, and once for all cast in his fortunes with the working class. He visited the East End of London, cruised in the South Seas, acted as correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War and in Mexico in 1914, lectured and traveled and farmed and made large sums of money till the end of his life.

As a propagandist for socialism he wrote War of the Classes (1905), Revolution (1910), and The Iron Heel (1908), a romance recounting an imaginary revolution of 1932. Of his autobiographical writings The People of the Abyss (1903), his adventures in the London slums, The Road (1907), his life as a tramp, Martin Eden (1909), his struggles in learning to write, The Cruise of The Snark (1911), a voyage in the Pacific, John Barleycorn (1913), his alcoholic memories, are most important, although autobiography colors all his records and inventions. His popularity and his eagerness for money tempted him to write much, especially in the way of short stories, that was decidedly below his better level, and he never, indeed, rose above his first marked success, The Call of the Wild (1903). Although he constantly played with ideas in his books, and liked to hint naïvely at his learning, he wrote always under the obsession of physical energy. What was “elemental” in Frank Norris became “abysmal” in Jack London. He carried the cult of “red blood” in literature to an extreme at which it began to sink to the ridiculous, as in his lineal descendants of the moving-pictures. His heroes, whether wolves or dogs or prize-fighters or sailors or adventurers-at-large, have all of them approximately the same instincts and the same careers. They rise to eminence by the same methods, and eventually go down under the rush of stronger enemies. London, with the strength of the strong, exulted in the struggle for survival. He saw human history in terms of the evolutionary dogma, which to him seemed a glorious, continuous epic of which his stories were episodes. He set them in localities where the struggle could be most obvious: in the wilds of Alaska, on remote Pacific Islands, on ships at sea out of strikes, in the underworlds of various during strikes, in the underworlds of various cities, on the routes of vagabondage. As he had a boy’s glee in conflict, so he had a boy’s insensibility to physical suffering. The Sea-Wolf (1904) represents at its fullest his appetite for cold ferocity in its record of the words and deeds of a Nietzschean, Herculean, Satanic ship captain whose incredible strength terminates credibly in sudden paralysis and impotence.The Game (1905) shouts the lust of the flesh as expressed in pugilism. Before Adam (1906) goes apparently still further afield in a quest for the primitive and moves among the half arboreal ancestors of the race. White Fang (1905) reverses The Call of the Wild and brings a wolf among dogs.

The Call of the Wild, summary as well as summit of London’s achievement, is the story of a dog stolen from civilization to draw a sledge in Alaska, eventually to escape from human control and go back to the wild as leader of a pack of wolves. As in most animal tales the narrative is sentimentalized. Buck has a psychology which he derives too obviously from his human creator; learns the law of the brute wilderness too quickly and too consciously; dreams too definitely of the savage progenitors from whom he inherits, by way of atavism, his ability to contend with a new world. The pathetic fallacy, however, has behind it a reality in London’s own experience which lends power to the drama of Buck’s restoration to the primitive. In something of this fashion the young tramp had learned the hard rules of the road; in something of this fashion the gold-seeker had mastered the difficulties of the Klondike face to face with a pitiless nature which made no allowance for his handicaps and which apparently desired the destruction of the men who had ventured into the wilderness. Out of his experience he had built up a doctrine concerning the essential life of mankind, and out of his doctrine he had shaped this characteristic tale. But the doctrine is not excessively in evidence, and the experience contributes both an accurate lore and an authentic passion. The narrative is as spare as an expedition over the Chilkoot Pass; it is swift and strong, packed with excitement and peril. Moreover, it has what almost none of Jack London’s “red blood” rivals had, and what he later deprived himself of by his haste and casualness: a fine sensitiveness to of by his haste and casualness: a fine sensitiveness to landscape and environment, a robust, moving, genuine current of poetry which warms his style and heightens the effect while enriching it. The subsequent loss or surrender of such qualities cost London the higher place to which his genius entitled him but from which the defects of his artistic conscience and his excess of popularity held him down.

American naturalism has never produced a school or announced a program. Instead, beginning primarily as a disposition to dissent from the milder insipidities of average novels at the end of the last century, it has continued in that disposition ever since. Theodore Dreiser has successively set up massive pyramids of fiction built out of materials ordinarily rejected by genteel American builders as sordid or improper or dull. Though his hand is heavy and his mind not quite made up concerning his materials, his documentation of the age cannot be overlooked. Neither can that of Upton Sinclair, whose radical opinions have cost him heavily with ordinary publishers and public, but whose earnestness and skill in controversy deserve the high praise that they recall Thomas Paine. The past half-dozen years in seeing the energies of Edith Wharton devoted to the service of France have seen the cause of the novel temporarily deprived of an indubitable genius whose work has sophistication, satire, acuteness, verisimilitude, and grace to a degree unmatched among those of her contemporaries whose qualities may be thought of as already proved. At the other extreme from the fashionable New York which she ordinarily portrays is the East Side of Abraham Cahan, a novelist who has written few books in English but who in knowledge and vividness surpasses all who have dealt with the proletarian immigrant in American cities.

The term naturalism by no means fits James Branch Cabell, who has laid the scene of much of his invention in medieval Europe and who at many points seems incorrigibly romantic; and yet a temper so ironical and so unconventional sets him widely apart from the rococo romancers of the years during which he commenced to write. He belongs rather with those brilliant newer writers, like Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Canfield, Willa Cather, Floyd Dell, Zona Gale, Joseph Hergesheimer, Sinclair Lewis, and Ernest Poole, who seem to forecast a new generation of novelists who will not be content to strike some interesting note and then to keep on striking and exploiting it till the end of their careers, but who instead will dare to experiment and may thus succeed in growing. Hope springs, and help may come, from the example of the poets springs, and help may come, from the example of the poets—of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost and Edgar Lee Masters—who have recently been showing how much of drama can be distilled into a little verse. They have already been important influences upon the more scrupulous and reflective novelists, and a continuation of their influence is perhaps an element as much to be desired as any in the coming generation of American fiction.