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  • “A Good and Noble Nature”Naturalism, Populism, and Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column
  • Andrew Carlyle Urban (bio)

At the heart of American literary naturalism lies a paradox. On the one hand, the literary naturalists of the late nineteenth century were among those most influenced by the philosophical naturalism that had come to define the spirit of their age. This philosophical naturalism conceived of the world as “a mechanistic reality that functions in terms of causality” and that consists of “matter in motion subject to physical laws” (Lehan, “Naturalism” 15). Nature, in this view, is a closed, deterministic system of matter encompassing the whole of reality without remainder. Any observable phenomena therefore must be explicable in terms of material causes immanent to the order of nature. Human nature is not exempt from this enclosure within the natural order, and so human behavior too is construed as an effect of material (predominantly biological and environmental) causes. Philosophical naturalism thus amounts to a denial of transcendence, of anything— whether it be God, the soul, free will, or morality— having its origin outside of nature’s network of material causes and effects. It thereby issues a “bleak challenge to any theory that posits the uniqueness of human nature and human endeavor” (Link, “Defining” 72). Its interrogation of human freedom and moral agency call into question humanity’s sense of its own distinctiveness, its tendency to set itself apart from nature and to exempt itself from its laws. Humanity is not appreciably different from any other animal species because it is wholly enclosed within nature’s mechanistic order.1

On the other hand, as irrevocably committed as the American literary naturalists were to a deterministic worldview, they could not but look upon its implications with horror. As Charles Child Walcutt has argued, they saw that the philosophical naturalism to which they were committed is unable to “satisfy man’s doubts or answer his emotional needs,” nor can [End Page 137] it satisfy his longing for “wonder and passion and fear” (10). These doubts, needs, and longings had been satisfied, Walcutt attests, by the “medieval idea of man” as “a fallen creature in a dualistic universe,” a creature “pointed towards the eternal, towards salvation and God” and “torn in the eternal battle between good and evil”— an idea “which lived on, indeed, through the nineteenth century” (4). American naturalist authors such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London wrote in an attempt to grapple with the challenge posed to this view of human nature by philosophical naturalism. Hence a “belief in free will and ethical responsibility, in a universe of rewards and punishments, in a world dominated by purpose and meaning, hovers like a ghost over almost every variety of naturalism in fiction” (Walcutt 18). American literary naturalism, then, is less an unequivocal endorsement of the materialistic and deterministic spirit of the late nineteenth century than an attempt to salvage some sense of moral freedom and transcendent value in the face of its dehumanizing implications.2

This essay reads the 1889 novel Caesar’s Column, written by the Populist politician Ignatius Donnelly, as a significant instance of this paradox of American literary naturalism. Critics have most often read Caesar’s Column as a work of utopian literature (Balasopoulos; Pfaelzer; Axelrad; Saxton), as an apocalyptic dystopia (Pfaelzer; Ueda; Saxton; Jaher), or as a Populist tract (Brass; Pfaelzer; Baker). Most recently, Alex J. Beringer has seen the novel as an expression of “the conspiratorial imagination” (35). But Donnelly’s novel has yet to be studied as a naturalist work. Like more widely known works of American literary naturalism, Caesar’s Column addresses itself to the conflict between philosophical naturalism and human freedom and value— but it does so earlier and more explicitly. In addition, Donnelly’s involvement in Populist politics will help us to see the seldom recognized affinities between American literary naturalism and the Populist movement. As both a Populist politician and a naturalist author, Donnelly is a uniquely positioned figure whose work can help us reach a deeper understanding of the kinship between the literary and political reactions to the historical transformations American society was undergoing at the end of the nineteenth...


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pp. 137-156
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