The Call of the Overwhelming: American Naturalism and the Wild Setting

Abruzzo - lakeThe American Naturalists differed from the Romantics in the way they responded to a challenging setting. When you see snow-capped peaks and gaping chasms in Romantic literature, the characters are generally being offered at least an opportunity for redemption.

American Naturalism, despite its name, does not look so kindly on the natural world. The builders of this genre, such as Stephen Crane and Jack London, did not share the Romantic opinion that an encounter with the natural world would necessarily make a protagonist better. On the contrary, the natural world of the Naturalists is a threatening force. Although nature promises to change the protagonists of Naturalist stories, the change is almost always for the worse. Although the characters may start out as civilized people with little connection to nature, the natural world invites the characters to give in to their most basic instincts and urges as they become one with the setting.

We cannot read the work of the Naturalists without acknowledging the genre’s roots in the Industrial Revolution. At this point in history, civilization (even with all its ugly trappings) promised to save humanity from the nasty, brutish, and short lives promised by an agrarian lifestyle. Naturalist stories present us with the conflict between the civilized and the uncivilized; while the uncivilized world might tempt the characters with its mystery and vitality, it ultimately promises them a nasty end that can only be avoided through contact with civilization.

Today’s authors, unlike the American Naturalists, are not working in the shadow of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, literature these days is more focused on mourning the loss of the natural world to the civilized world. However, like all literary movements, Naturalism leaves us some handy narrative techniques that we can put to good use in contemporary prose. The conflict between humanity and nature provides us with a simple yet powerful framework for thrilling adventure narratives, and it gives us the spicy backdrop for romance narratives where one heroic character is “tamed” by the other’s affections.

There are as many opportunities for you to be influenced by the American Naturalists as there are opportunities to use natural settings in your writing. Although the conflict between humanity and nature need not be the driving force behind your narrative, it can always help characters learn new things about themselves and get the motivation to bring about a story-changing event. Allowing your setting to be part of your story’s conflict can bring depth to your setting and help you move your plot along without adding a multitude of extra characters.