The Boy Zola

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?

<shrug, shrug>

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?

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Boy Zola

  1. Phil says:

    You do make classic American literature sound mouth-watering, and makes me aware of the gap in my own education, given my British-style senior-school education of the latter 1950s in which American literature was almost wholly ignored, I assume because it wasn’t considered worth studying.

    However, this sad state of affairs in British-style schools of yore may happily no longer be the case.

    Since the topic of your piece is literature, I’ll refer you to an essay in this morning’s Guardian (UK), by the British novelist Zadie Smith, who talks about the novel-nausea experienced by many contemporary novelists, who, in their despair, are turning to writing mostly imaginative essays, and novels-that-don’t-look-like-novels.

    Perhaps the literary future will be a fusing of the two.

    Smith’s piece is somewhat long, but I think worth the time to read.

  2. Cheri says:

    Hi Phil,
    You might like Frank Norris. His trilogy (unfinished because of his early death in his late 20’s, I believe) was what he called his Epic of Wheat. I also read his novel The Pit, about the Chicago Board of Trade and wheat. His novel Mc Teague is about a San Francisco dentist. Haven’t read that one.

    Tonight I am having a dinner party and must get crackin on the paella I am serving, but I will read your link.

    I already agree with Smith’s point of view. Come to think of it, what are the great American novels written in the last 20 years?

  3. Phil says:

    Norris’s novels sound similar to those of Theodore Dreiser which I read over thirty years ago (I went on a Dreiser binge), ” The Financier”, “The Stoic” and “The Titan”, all based, as far as I remember, on the life of one Charles Yerkes, a real-life financier of (I think) of the turn of the twentieth century.

    And I mustn’t forget Dreiser’s greatest, “An American Tragedy”.

    I still have a copy of “Dawn”, Dreiser’s rather massive (nearly 600 page) autobiography of just his early youth (Dreiser always was prolix), that I’ve just now fished out.

    I bought it several years ago but have still to read it. Now I really must.

  4. Cheri says:

    The only Dreiser novel I have read is Sister Carrie.

    Your referencing An American Tragedy reminds me that I should read it, too.

    Too many books, so little time…

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