by cheri block sabraw
One of the best examples of American Naturalism is Frank Norris’ The Octopus: A California Story. This 600-page book examines the 1880’s conflict between the Southern Pacific Railroad (in its own Manifest Destiny) and the wheat-growing farmers in the fertile Central Valley of California.
Frank Norris, who attended U.C. Berkeley and lived in San Francisco, called himself The Boy Zola and carried Zola’s writing around in his back pocket. Like Zola, Norris was a naturalist who felt a scientific Darwinian connection to a sobering philosophical belief that we, mankind, are pawns of an indifferent universe, governed by nature.
In trying to help my students understand the writing movements in American literature, I turn to analogies that I can draw on my whiteboard. To teach Romanticism and its offshoot—Transcendentalism, and Realism and its offshoot—Naturalism, I use a big offshoot from the duff on nature’s floor—a tree.
First, a teaser. Students, what is American Naturalism?
Picture a dead Yankee soldier in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, leaning against a tree. Ants run up and down his young face, oblivious to his violent death and lost promise.
Picture a school of hungry sharks, circling a small boat in the Atlantic Ocean. The capsized skiff holds four men in a delicate balance so precarious that when a seagull lights on the Captain’s head, he cannot even swipe it away. The Open Boat by Stephen Crane.
Let’s use the tree analogy. Here is a large trunk with heavy roots that anchor this magnificent oak to the ground.
[The brown pen slides down the board skillfully, outlining the tree and shading the crevices of roots.]
The high branches, thinning as they arch skyward, stretch out to form a round canopy of leaves.
[Colored pens in orange and yellow push to the outer reaches of the tree, decorating it with leaves.]
This is the Romanticism Tree, not the Giving Tree! Who might be sitting up in the branches?
[The hand with the pens responds to the voices calling out Hawthorne! Melville! Whitman! Cooper! Irving! by writing their names on the branches and attempting mini-portraits]
Transcendentalism is an off- shoot of Romanticism, so let’s put an odd branch sticking out of the big Romantic trunk.
[The red pen works horizontally as a supernatural looking branch sprouts from the trunk of the Romanticism Tree.]
All Transcendentalists were Romanticists; not all Romanticists were Transcendentalists. Get it?
[The green pen draws flags on the Transcendental branch and on each flag writes words such as intuition, the individual, and the Over-Soul.]
Who would be perched on this branch? Thoreau! Emerson! Alcott! Fuller! Ripley!
There you have it in the picture of a big tree.
The Romantic Movement in American Literature lasted from around 1820-1860, producing the first elegant works of literature in the New World. The culmination of the Romantic sensibility peaked with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
Gone were those political tracts and travel diaries of Patrick Henry and William Bradford. Gone were those fiery religious sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Fiction became a possibility and imagination germinated along with machines that made more free time to read something other than the Bible.
The Supernatural and Gothic literary responses took hold during this time. Hawthorne’s characters wore black veils, entered Gardens of Immortality, and wore letters on the bodices that became hot and bright. Melville captured the reading public’s attention with a personified white whale.
We were having soooo much fun reading these imaginative stories.
The Civil War ended our reverie.
Realism took Romanticism’s place. Twain sauntered down to the South and mucked around the swamps of racism, alcoholism, poor white trash.
Crane wrote about prostitutes.
So had Zola in Nana.
Out of the literary photography of mankind’s sores, flaws, hatreds, and moral collapse came Naturalism.
Hey dude. Nature’s in charge, not man.
Darwin is right.
Only the strong survive and sometimes, even they fall victim to Dust Bowls.
[The brown pen draws a Realism Tree and in Van Gogh brush strokes, thick and uneven, another off-shoot emerges from the trunk–a Naturalism branch.]
Steinbeck, Dreiser, London, Crane and my Golden Boy, Norris, use colors and politics and sex to blur the lines of crisp realism into a painting that begs for interpretation.
Get it, kids?