Literary Naturalism and the Lost Generation: A Critical Analysis

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Literary Naturalism

Literary naturalism contains an explicit comprehensive philosophy of our human place in the universe. Naturalism suggests that we humans are animals living in a material universe which has no supernatural power, except as a concept of our minds. We humans, animals, are governed by the same natural laws and forces that control all other beings and objects. We have no control over what happens to us.

There are several sources and causes of naturalistic philosophy, but one of the most relevant ones is the development of the physical sciences. It has traditionally been assumed that all phenomena could be explained by natural laws. These laws determine all things that happen, their causes and effects. Similarly, 19th-century social science developed theories of fixed, inevitable stages of social development from 'savage' to 'primitive' to 'civilized'.

Probably the strongest influence on American literary naturalism was the rapidly expanding US economy during the 19th century. One effect of this huge expansion was to underline the insignificance of the single individual. This sense of smallness and powerlessness was especially intense for poor people. The big cities and the competitive corporations that controlled production underlined the struggle for wealth or survival that consumed so many people in the US. The nation looked very similar to the Darwinian animal world dominated by the 'struggle for existence' and 'the survival of the fittest'.

These are the basic principles of 19th-century naturalism:

  1. The universe is entirely material, physical; it is controlled by natural laws which science can discover.
  2. Human beings are animals like all the others.
  3. The universe is deterministic, that is, everything happens according to fixed unchangeable laws and strict cause-and-effect relationships.

The naturalistic writer may present characters whose behavior is clearly dominated by habits and instincts, putting these characters in situations where survival is a constant problem and struggle is a common condition. The naturalistic writer may also eliminate or underplay qualities in characters that suggest free choice. Most naturalistic writers rejected the idea of human powerlessness and rebelled against the moral neutrality which is implied by scientific objectivity.

The most relevant American naturalistic writers were Jack London and Stephen Crane. Crane is best known for his novel 'The Red Badge of Courage' (1895), a dynamic portrayal of war and the story of a young man who seems to learn and mature. The young man does not really grow. Rather, he reacts passively to the forces around him.

The Lost Generation

The 'Lost Generation' included those young American expatriates in France around 1900 that started their literary careers in the aftermath of World War I, namely Sherwood Anderson, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner. The term soon caught on and became an appropriate one for this group of writers. They all had the following circumstances in common:

  1. Their lives had been deeply affected by WWI (1914-1918).
  2. Their inherited values were no longer valid in the post-war and therefore they tried hard to separate from them.
  3. They felt unattached to any region or tradition, yet none of them gave up their American citizenship.
  4. They left America to live in exile, for they believed their country to be too provincial, too materialistic, and completely devoid of a cultural and literary tradition.
  5. Most of them made Paris the center of their literary activities in the 1920s.
  6. The main characters of their works refuse the consolation of traditional values, including those of religion, and seek comfort instead in the pleasures of alcohol, sport, and sex.

In the 1930s, the 'Lost Generation' writers followed individual directions, therefore losing the distinctive stamp of the post-war period.

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