- American Naturalism's Worldly History
The naturalist fiction that began to appear in the United States in the 1890s was part of a transnational phenomenon that saw this amalgam of meticulous description, ideas from the emerging social sciences, dystopian plots, and rejection of common literary mores spread from France, where it took shape in the 1860s, to many parts of the world. By the 1920s, varieties of naturalist fiction had appeared in countries across Europe, North and South America, and East Asia. The connections of American literary naturalism to the far-flung phenomenon, and in particular to the French version associated with Émile Zola, once were readily acknowledged by critics and literary historians. For several decades, however, the productive emphasis on the immediate social, economic, and political context in which writers work has drawn attention away from American naturalism's transnational ties. Yet the circulation of naturalist [End Page 1] works and techniques around the world was as much a context for the rise of naturalism in the United States as were the growth of American cities, the rise of cultures of consumption, panic over the immigrant proletariat, and the many other factors that scholars have observed shaping naturalist texts. How can we incorporate the impact of other naturalisms on the variety that appeared in the United States, and American naturalism's place in what I will call the transnational naturalist literary field, into our understanding of the history of the form without losing the insights that the exploration of "local" contexts has given? The challenge, I want to show, is to work on multiple scales, from the local to the transnational, to reveal the constant process of adaptation and revision that characterized naturalism wherever it appeared, the United States included.
At one time, it was common to acknowledge the connections of naturalist writers in the United States to naturalist writers elsewhere—primarily but not exclusively to French ones—and to discuss the qualities of American naturalism in relation to the broader phenomenon. In 1943, Albert Salvan painstakingly detailed the introduction and impact of the work of Zola in the United States (153–83). In 1947, Malcolm Cowley wrote about the impact of Zola and the Goncourt brothers on writers such as Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, illustrated by the "magnification of forces and minification of persons" in Norris's work (414). A year later, William Frierson and Herbert Edwards argued that the "torrent of abuse" heaped on Zola by American critics in the 1880s, which Henry James and William Dean Howells were forced to counter, actually cleared the way for Stephen Crane, Norris, and other American naturalists (1009–10). Lars Åhnebrink, in 1950, expanded the genealogy of influence to include Ibsen, Turgenev, and other European writers (34–48). In 1966, the dean of scholarship on American naturalism and realism, Donald Pizer, observed the impact of Zola's L'Assommoir (1877) and La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1890) on Norris's 1899 novel McTeague (1966a, 53–56). For such critics, acknowledging the entanglement of American naturalism in transnational trends went hand in hand with discerning the specific way that it developed. Cowley presented American writers in the context of "the naturalists as a group" but also foregrounded particular influences on them, [End Page 2] such as social conditions in the late nineteenth-century United States and the background of many American naturalists in journalism (425). Salvan argued that Zola might best be seen as a "liberating agent" for Dreiser, freeing him from conventions that he chafed against (153). Pizer found Norris working out his own concept of naturalism through his engagement with Zola, including the perceptive view that Zola was an essentially romantic writer (1966b, 33–35).
In keeping with the historicist turn in literary scholarship, however, in recent decades students of American naturalism have tended to emphasize local contexts and sources. Scholarship in this vein has been rich. Cathy and Arnold Davidson found sources for the protagonist of Sister Carrie in the popular romances of Dreiser's day; Alan Trachtenberg traced out the myriad voices to be found in its narrative (Davidson and Davidson 1977; Trachtenberg 1991). June Howard uncovered...