- American Literary Naturalism and The Visual
An adult and child travel slowly across a blasted American landscape, encountering various dangers. The most perilous places are built up areas, the country’s now desolate and ruined former cities, where paranoid and heavily-armed gangs hold sway. Food has become a scarce and fiercely guarded commodity, with few people willing to broker empathetic human interaction. In these desperate circumstances, formerly minor issues or objects—for example, infection or the availability of medicine or ammunition—assume major significance. The morality of the traveling pair is constantly called into doubt, with the child frequently and progressively losing faith in the ethical value of their guardian’s responses to their various travails. Sometimes the child’s guarded exterior is breached through wonder at remnants of the pre-apocalyptic world.
This is a description of Cormac McCarthy’s neonaturalist masterpiece The Road (2006), to be sure, but it also describes HBO’s 2023 television series, The Last of Us, an adaptation of a video game discussed elsewhere in this volume. The striking similarities demonstrate not only the enduring and even increasing influence of McCarthy’s seminal work of post-apocalyptic naturalism but also how firmly naturalist aesthetics and perspectives now pervade visual media. Numerous twenty-first-century American films, television series, and other visual media are modeled on narrative trajectories typically encountered in classic works of naturalism. Likewise, archetypal aesthetics of naturalism characterize a range of contemporary American visual media. One of the co-authors of this introduction [End Page ix] has published a number of articles concerning naturalism in contemporary American television series, while in a previous special issue of Studies in American Naturalism Klaus H. Schmidt pointedly observed how “[t]he felt presence of new forms of naturalism in contemporary film and literature . . . stands in stark contrast to the scarcity of systematic research on this phenomenon” (18; see also Gibbs, “You make,” “New,” and “Exonerative”). Schmidt’s article concludes with a rallying call for new critical and theoretical approaches to the emerging body of naturalist visual culture, from “scholars willing to engage in detective or translation work in order to identify neonaturalist strategies placed at several removes from classical literary naturalism” (39). The following special issue of Studies in American Naturalism aims to begin addressing Schmidt’s point by shedding light on the developing phenomenon of contemporary naturalist visual culture, while simultaneously encouraging the development of a critical framework and vocabulary for the analysis of this increasingly significant body of work.
This volume emerged from a two-day symposium held at University College Cork in October 2022 on American naturalism and the visual. Although there was a particular emphasis on contemporary naturalism, papers ranged across several decades, underlining how the recent flourishing of naturalism in visual media may be traced back to developments earlier in the twentieth century. This genealogy of neonaturalism is something already noted by certain scholars. Jeff Jaeckle, for example, identifies film noir as a particular bridge between classic literary naturalism and its contemporary manifestation. Films noir, he argues, “revisit and adapt nineteenth-century naturalist narratives via characters constrained by the forces of material environments, past experiences, instinctual urges, and mysterious fates” (483). Tellingly, Jaeckle concludes that “[i]f film noir is indeed a form of cinematic naturalism, then these historical expansions suggest that naturalism’s influence on cinema is potentially much greater—in both breadth and scope—than scholars currently recognize” (496). That this influence is greater than might have been previously appreciated is something explored in articles in this issue by Donna M. Campbell and Steven Frye. Taking into account the occurrence of noir tropes in contemporary television, perhaps naturalism’s influence on visual culture is even wider than Jaeckle apprehended.
Jaeckle’s argument is based in part on noting the similar narrative trajectories of classic naturalism and film noir; if “film noir is a cinematic incarnation of naturalism,” that is, then this is not least in the “centrality of determinism” to its plots (485). For contributors to the roundtables [End Page x] at the Cork symposium, this may be a reductive perspective. While the determinism of classic naturalism is clearly an...