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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XI. The Later Novel: Howells

§ 29. Naturalism; E. W. Howe

Romance did not have the field entirely during these years, for there was also a strong naturalistic trend, which dated from the eighties, when Henry James had seemed too foreign and Howells too hopeful. In 1883 Edgar Watson Howe, of Kansas, had published The Story of a Country Town, a book almost painfully overlooked and yet worthy to be mentioned with Wuthering Heights or Moby Dick for power and terror. Unlike those two it lacks locality, as if the bare, sunburned Kansas plain had no real depth, no mystery in itself, and could find no native motif but the smoldering discontent of that inarticulate frontier. Sternest, grimmest of American novels, it moves with the cold tread and the hard diction of a saga. No shallow mind could have conceived the blind, black, impossible passion of Joe Erring or have conducted it to the purgation and tranquillity which succeeds the catastrophe. Plainly, the author had deliberately hardened his heart against the too facile views of contemporary novelists. It is this stiffening of the conscience which goes with all the later naturalistic writers in America; they are polemic haters of the national optimism. Howe’s early experiment was followed, not imitated, by a brilliant group of writers undoubtedly nearer to Zola than to Howells: Hamlin Garland, best in short stories, who stressed the sordid facts of Middle Western farm life and who spoke for the group in his volume of essays Crumbling Idols (1894); Henry Blake Fuller, who wrote The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani (1890) under the ægis of Charles Eliot Norton and then the realistic novel of Chicago, The Cliff-Dwellers (1893); Harold Frederic, who after his lucid and accurate romance of the Mohawk, In the Valley (1890), followed Ambrose Bierce with energetic Civil War stories and later made a sensation with The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) and The Market-Place (1899); and the notable pair who promised much but died young, Stephen Crane (1871–1900) and Frank Norris (1870–1902).