Cosmopolitan novelists - Naturalism and MuckrakingWharton's and James's dissections of hidden sexual and financial motivations at work in society link them with writers who seem superficially quite different: Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair. Like the cosmopolitan novelists, but much more explicitly, these naturalists used realism to relate the individual to society. Often they exposed social problems and were influenced by Darwinian thought and the related philosophical doctrine of determinism, which views individuals as the helpless pawns of economic and social forces beyond their control.
Naturalism is essentially a literary expression of determinism. Associated with bleak, realistic depictions of lower-class life, determinism denies religion as a motivating force in the world and instead perceives the universe as a machine. Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers had also imagined the world as a machine, but as a perfect one, invented by God and tending toward progress and human betterment. Naturalists imagined society, instead, as a blind machine, godless and out of control.
The 19th-century American historian Henry Adams constructed an elaborate theory of history involving the idea of the dynamo, or machine force, and entropy, or decay of force. Instead of progress, Adams sees inevitable decline in human society.
Stephen Crane, the son of a clergyman, put the loss of God most succinctly:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."
Like Romanticism, naturalism first appeared in Europe. It is usually traced to the works of Honor‚ de Balzac in the 1840s and seen as a French literary movement associated with Gustave Flaubert, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, Èmile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant. It daringly opened up the seamy underside of society and such topics as divorce, sex, adultery, poverty, and crime.
Naturalism flourished as Americans became urbanized and aware of the importance of large economic and social forces. By 1890, the frontier was declared officially closed. Most Americans resided in towns, and business dominated even remote farmsteads.
The great tradition of American investigative journalism had its beginning in this period, during which national magazines such as McClures and Collier's published Ida M. Tarbell's History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), Lincoln Steffens's The Shame of the Cities (1904), and other hard-hitting exposés. Muckraking novels used eye-catching journalistic techniques to depict harsh working conditions and oppression. Populist Frank Norris's The Octopus (1901) exposed big railroad companies, while socialist Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) painted the squalor of the Chicago meat-packing houses. Jack London's dystopia The Iron Heel (1908) anticipates George Orwell's 1984 in predicting a class war and the takeover of the government.
Another more artistic response was the realistic portrait, or group of portraits, of ordinary characters and their frustrated inner lives. The collection of stories Main-Travelled Roads (1891), by William Dean Howells's protégé, Hamlin Garland (1860-1940), is a portrait gallery of ordinary people. It shockingly depicted the poverty of midwestern farmers who were demanding agricultural reforms. The title suggests the many trails westward that the hardy pioneers followed and the dusty main streets of the villages they settled.
Close to Garland's Main-Travelled Roads is Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), begun in 1916. This is a loose collection of stories about residents of the fictitious town of Winesburg seen through the eyes of a na‹ve young newspaper reporter, George Willard, who eventually leaves to seek his fortune in the city. Like Main-Travelled Roads and other naturalistic works of the period, Winesburg, Ohio emphasizes the quiet poverty, loneliness, and despair in small-town America.