10 Naturalist Novels Not to Miss

March 21, 2007 at 2:57 pm 16 comments

I hope to have a post on Mark Seltzer’s amazing Bodies and Machines before bed, but first, I realized that I talk about American literary naturalism as if it’s something that people know.

Let me briefly define American literary naturalism (with Eric Carl Link) as the thematic treatment of atavism, evolution, degeneration, and the development of force (a la Herbert Spencer), for starters. The debate about what naturalism is (a form of realism? a kind of romance-realism?) is fairly shopworn by this point, but ongoing.

Here are 10 novels that represent a fairly conservative estimation of the naturalist canon:

1.) Maggie: A Girl of the StreetsStephen Crane

2.) The Red Badge of CourageStephen Crane

3.) McTeagueFrank Norris

4.) The OctopusFrank Norris

5.) Vandover and the BruteFrank Norris

6.) Sister Carrie Theodore Dreiser

7.) An American TragedyTheodore Dreiser

8.) The House of MirthEdith Wharton

9.) The Jungle Upton Sinclair

10.) The Call of the Wild Jack London

Of course that’s just the beginning. 🙂


Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, Uncategorized.

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16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. anaj  |  March 22, 2007 at 7:08 am

    Hey, thanks, this is greatly appreciated! A suggestion to make this Web 2.0: set links to wikipedia, to the writers, and to the novels if they are available.

    I admit I never read any of these – have heard of Wharton and London (and of course though the was British#-)

  • 2. skunkcabbage  |  March 22, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Ooh, thanks, that’s a great idea.

    Ha, no, London is one of ours. An interesting character. He spent part of his career as a pirate, amongst other things.

    I appreciate your interest in naturalism, and helpful advice. Please don’t feel obligated, but I happened to find a free download of Vandover:

    Again, thanks!

  • 3. cerebraljetsam  |  March 22, 2007 at 4:49 pm

    Hi there.
    Just purchased something that, if you do not yet own it, you need to get!

    Peter Kuper _The Jungle_.

    Yes, it is in fact a graphic-novel adaptation of Sinclair’s _The Jungle_. Fantastic. I have really enjoyed Kuper’s adaptations for a while now, especially those of Kafka, but I had no idea he had a comic version of _The Jungle_. It is short, cheap and really well done.

  • 4. skunkcabbage  |  March 22, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    Wow, that’s great! Thanks for the tip. I’ll check it out. The cover looks fantastic. 🙂

  • 5. anaj  |  March 22, 2007 at 7:51 pm

    Thanks for the Links!

  • 6. anaj  |  March 22, 2007 at 8:16 pm

    I went through the synopses now – Maggie: A Girl of the Streets I don not want to read because I fear that it would scare me in the same way that Bahnwärter Thiel, by German naturalist Gerhart Hauptmann http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerhart_Hauptmann scared me. Of course I know it’s fiction, and of course I am able to intellectually deconstruct it (identify the trademarks of naturalism that are – along with Hauptmann, coming to mind again), but it’s just that I can (almost physically) not bear injustice plots.

    The worst in that department for me was the Magdalene sisters http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318411/ which kept me upset for days (and still does when I think of it)

    Is there a naturalism in movies? Or would one argue that film, due to the camera obscura principle, is in a different way already linked with naturalist representation? (which is of course ideology)

    Am sifting through my knowledge of early cinema – how about Mary Pickford movies) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Pickford

    If I ever want to know more about the American Psyche, I’ll read rted badge of Honour, but not now:-)

    Ok, I’m done with the list now, I really wonder how you can deal with this, emotionally, as one is easily affected by one’s research topic. One of the women in a research institution where I worked as a student did research on cannibalism, and apparently she developed some serious issues during that time:-?

    The one that I definitely want to read, however, is the House of Mirth. Already ordered it.

    Another I had wanted to ask you: You once wrote about the unknown naturalisms, and about the amazing ones that South America might have. Judging from the little I now about South American literature – maybe Magic Realism is South America’s naturalism? I do think that there is a link between industrialization and naturalism, isn’t there? Maybe that link must automatically take a different shape in countries which industrialized later.


  • 7. anaj  |  March 23, 2007 at 6:29 am

    Did you and Jetsam get my mail? Wanted to send you a draft version of the logo – and now noticed slight paranoia on my part. Could that get you into trouble??

  • 8. anaj  |  March 23, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    Hope they haven’t already sent you guys, you know… away!

  • 9. skunkcabbage  |  March 23, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    Thanks for your comments. Just quick, I haven’t (yet) been sent anywhere. In theory we won’t get into trouble, but, then, “freedom of speech” has always been a tenuous and relative liberty here. I’m happy to take my chances! (Is it okay to put up the banner as it is?) I really like it! Just wanted to put up a note while I’m responding to your thoughtful comments.:)

  • 10. anaj  |  March 23, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    I might change something still, so don’t pit on your blog for now or circulate the digital file. To ensure recognition, I’d like to stick to just one version.

  • 11. skunkcabbage  |  March 23, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Thank you for looking at my list. How does one work on this emotionally? Honestly, (I wonder if it’s possible to say this in a way that isn’t melodramatic(?)), I suffer from occasional periods of crushing depression. I don’t mean to blame naturalism for that, but it may as well come in for its due.

    One of the things my dissertation attempts to do is rehabilitate the reading of natualist texts from what appears to be their “pessimistic determinism” by looking at the way that their authors were frequently quite to committed to some, albeit frequently problematic, vision of social justice. I guess this is another way of saying that I read naturalism as a negative moment of a realist dialectic whose grotesqueries and protrayal of injustice anticipate (even if they do not explicitly represent) the possibility that things could be otherwise.

    This happens at two levels.
    1.) At the level of literary movements I read naturalism as the developing synthesis of the realist and romance traditions.

    2.) In naturalist texts that frequently attempt to maintain a high degree (following Zola) of verisimilitude with the objective world, there is a tendency to represent humans as animals (brutes, laboring and otherwise) and this representation promotes an unthinking of human subjects (a defamiliarization, if you like) that announces and antipicipates the moment when women and men might resume their human faces, under a different and better mode of production.

    So I’m trying to argue, I guess, that these bleak fictions must be understood as a necessary historical and anticipatory moment of the dialectic whose Hegelian end of history will arrive at what Marx identified as its outset.
    Naturalism is a political fictive attempt to out-horror the real horrors of industrial capitalism toward something else, something better. That naturalism is still with us, indeed continues to find currency (in both senses, it’s current and remunerative) is suggestive. It’s fibrous connection to capitalism, the text writing itself with the world–realism, mirrors capitalist relations–and yet it’s romantic and grotesque over-representatiion (the crude brutes and beasts of burden) labor to pull down the world as it is–the exploitative relations deforming their humanity from without and within) and gain, just maybe, for the first time in history the possibility of a realism that knows nothing of blood.

    Sometimes I get lost in the negative. Tarrying becomes floundering.

    I’m very interested in Gerhart Hauptmann. I’ve not yet read him, but have a collection of his dramatic works on my wishlist. It’s in translation of course. Someday I’ll need to learn German. I wish I had more time… Sigh.

    I’m glad you mention film. I think there is absolutely a naturalist cinema. George Romero’s Zombies strike me as one example. They look just like humans, but are not–they in fact come to form a kind of lumpenproletariat in the films–wearing the habiliments of their former occupations in life. I’ve not seen the Magdalene Sister, but may have too.

    I actually am deeply disturbed by the zombie movies. Maybe that’s why I have to work on them.
    I wrote a review of _Land of the Dead_. It’s here:
    http://www.strikeonline.org (sometimes the site is down)

    I’m excited that you’re going to read House of Mirth. I hope you’ll tell me what you think! I’m suppressing the urge to talk about it now, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

    It’s a very interesting question, what is the valence between magical realism and naturalism. My feeling is that if the magic is understood as magic it might dstroy the naturalistic effect. Unfortunately I’m quite ignorant about South American literature, having only read some Borges, and Garcia-Marquez. May have to tackle that one later.

    Again, thanks for the stimulating comments!

  • 12. skunkcabbage  |  March 23, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    Okay, sorry about the brief exposure of the banner. It’s down until I have your go ahead.

  • 13. nabil  |  November 23, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    thanks for these interesting information,it really helped me.
    ok,i have a small request and i hope you can help me if possible;i am going to start working on my BA thesis,and it is titled
    “naturalism in nineteenth century american literature
    case study: stephen crane’s the red badge of courage”
    so, i am looking for donald prizer’s realism and naturalism in nineteenth century american literature,or any other related book that might be useful.
    i would be grateful if you could help me with it,even your advice will be helpful for me.thanx!!!

  • 14. skunkcabbage  |  November 23, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    thanks nabil, it’s really nice to be asked.

    for starters i’d recommend pizer’s more recent (and for your purposes more focused):

    Pizer, Donald, ed. Critical Essay’s on Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. New York: Hall, 1990.

    especially if you’re starting out, this might give you some ideas about what people have argued about red badge, and further what you yourself might like to argue. for example, one of the essays might get Red Badge quite wrong. Figuring out how it does so can be an enormously productive place to start.

    good luck!

  • 15. jean rolan  |  July 6, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Where is Native Son. It’s a classic in Naturalist literature. But I like that you included Sister Carrie.

  • 16. skunkcabbage  |  October 17, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Native Son absolutely qualifies. My list is comprised of turn-of-the-century American Literary Naturalism. Wright’s novel demonstrates the continued relevance of the naturalist tradition to the mid-twentieth century literary left.


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