Most literary critics and historians who attempt definitions are aware of the dangers and advantages inherent in this enterprise. But few, I believe, recognize that many literary genres and modes have their barriers of established terms and ideas to overcome or outflank. The writer who seeks to define tragedy usually finds that his definition takes shape around such traditional guideposts as the tragic hero, the tragic flaw, recognition and catharsis, and so on. American naturalism, as a concept, has two such channeled approaches to its definition. The first is that since naturalism comes after realism, and since it seems to take literature in the same direction as realism, it is primarily an “extension” or continuation of realism— only a little different. The second almost inevitable approach involves this difference. The major distinction between realism and naturalism, most critics agree, is the particular philosophical orientation of the naturalists. A traditional and widely accepted concept of American naturalism, therefore, is that it is essentially realism infused with a pessimistic determinism. Richard Chase argues that American naturalism is realism with a “necessitarian ideology,” and George J. Becker (defining all naturalism, including American) considers it as “no more than an emphatic and explicit philosophical position taken by some realists,” the position being a “pessimistic materialistic determinism.” The common belief is that the naturalists were like the realists in their fidelity to the details of contemporary life, but that they depicted everyday life with a greater sense of the role of such causal forces as heredity and environment in determining behavior and belief.
This traditional approach to naturalism through realism and philosophical determinism is historically justifiable and has served a useful purpose, but it has also handicapped thinking both about the movement as a whole and about individual works within the movement. It has resulted in much condescension toward those writers who are supposed to be naturalists yet whose fictional sensationalism (an aspect of romanticism) and moral ambiguity (a quality inconsistent with the absolutes of determinism) appear to make their work flawed specimens of the mode.
I would like, therefore, to propose a modified definition of late nineteenthcentury American naturalism.For the time being, let this be a working definition, to be amplified and made more concrete by the illustrations from which it has been drawn.