Naturalistic Period (in American literature)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Naturalistic Period (in American literature)

Naturalistic Period (in American literature): A period in American literary history commonly said to have begun around 1900 and to have ended with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The Naturalistic Period derives its name from naturalism, a literary movement that represented people in a deterministic and generally pessimistic light as products of heredity and environment. Stephen Crane is most frequently credited with pioneering American naturalism in the 1890s with works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), which depicts life in New York’s Bowery district and features a protagonist who commits suicide after being abandoned by a man and becoming a prostitute. Noted naturalistic novels of the period include Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901), and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903).

Realistic novels also continued to flourish during the Naturalistic Period. Prominent practitioners included Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, William Dean Howells, and Henry James, the latter two of whom are also associated with the Realistic Period in American literature. Noted works include James’s The Ambassadors (1903), Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), and Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913).

Modern American poetry is often traced to the Naturalistic Period. Imagism, an avant-garde movement emphasizing concise, direct expression and clear, precise images, was born in 1909, led chiefly by Ezra Pound and exemplified by the work of poets such as H. D. (Hilda Doolittle). Subsequently, in 1912, editor and critic Harriet Monroe founded Poetry, the first magazine to publish the Imagists. The careers of a number of other modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and William Carlos Williams also began during this period.

Furthermore, significant American drama began to emerge. The Little Theater Movement, which had arisen in France in 1887 to promote the development of plays with serious literary value, appeared in Chicago in 1906 and then spread to other American cities, bringing drama to many more people than ever before.

Finally, the rise of muckrakers — investigative journalists and other writers who sought to expose abuse and corruption in big business and government, which they believed were responsible for numerous social problems — also occurred during the Naturalistic Period. Noted muckrakers included Samuel Adams; Ray Stannard Baker; David Graham Phillips; Lincoln Steffens; and Ida Tarbell, whose The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904) helped spur the breakup of the Standard Oil monopoly in 1911.