American Literary Naturalism: From Hobbes to Bergson

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Author: John J. Conder
Date: 1984
From: Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Reprint In: Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism(Vol. 182. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,777 words

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[(essay date 1984) In the following essay, Conder provides a definition of American literary Naturalism and traces the development of a coherent philosophical concept of Naturalism by Thomas Hobbes and Henri Bergson.]

It is now clear that no critical consensus exists to explain the commonly used term literary naturalism as distinct from literary realism in American fiction, and some background is necessary in order to understand the complexities of the problem raised by the term and the approach taken here to help resolve that problem. It is generally agreed that, in late nineteenth-century America, a body of fiction arose that is rather different from the fiction represented by the term American literary realism.1 It is also certain that earlier literary critics saw in the works of several of these fin-de-siècle writers--Crane, Norris, and Dreiser are the major ones--a pessimistic determinism that they called naturalism.2 The term naturalism, with this meaning, was also applied to describe the works of later writers--Dos Passos, Farrell, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and even Faulkner--although this list is hardly inclusive.3

This meaning for American literary naturalism is still accepted by some, although recent critics who use it in this sense do so in order to deny the "naturalism" of writers classified as such. Crane is a major example of a writer whose naturalism is now denied, but he is not the only one. Using the old definition of the term, one critic has denied the very existence of such a literary movement in America.4

But even before this critic reached his conclusion, two others insisted that this literary phenomenon did exist but had to be understood in less rigid terms. Charles Child Walcutt found that the movement possessed a central philosophical coherence, for he saw all the writers as expressing a philosophy of determinism.5 Nonetheless he denied that they were all thoroughgoing pessimists, for he found many of them optimistic about the possibilities for improving the human lot, despite the premises on which their art was based. He saw nothing contradictory about an optimistic intention propelling the creation of a pessimistic, deterministic novel. If will is absent in the novel, it is "transferred to the reader and to society at large,"6 and so the novel's destructive determinism acts as a stimulus to improve the human condition.

Walcutt therefore had no problem reconciling conflicting attitudes issuing from conflicting doctrines so long as the conflicts existed between the world of the reader and the world of the novel, for each world has its own logic. But he could not accept such conflicts when they surfaced within the world of the novel because they marred the logic of that world. Thus he was led to conclude that, with the exception of Crane's fiction, most of the work by other naturalistic writers suffered because of a failure to reconcile a belief in progress through human initiative with a philosophy of determinism.7 The private optimism of these writers seemed to creep into their works to conflict with the pessimism of the works' determinism. Compounding the conflict between attitudes was a conflict between doctrines, for Walcutt saw surfacing within single works the doctrine of freedom of the will as well as that of determinism.8

For Walcutt, then, these conflicts were flaws within the novels; but Donald Pizer called them sources of strength. He also went on to deny that the movement had any philosophical coherence.9 He translated Walcutt's flaws into a tension within a work between "the individually significant and the deterministic" that existed not to promote a philosophy of determinism but to affirm the importance of the values threatened or destroyed by the deterministic forces.10

In order to see that Pizer's response to Walcutt is inadequate, it is important to emphasize the ultimate source of Walcutt's sense of flaws in a work. It lies in the contradiction between the doctrine of determinism and the doctrine of the freedom of the will.11 Walcutt felt that a deterministic novel could not logically contain a belief in purposive progress or growth, which depends on man's freedom of the will, just as it could not logically judge human agents morally if they lack such freedom. Associated with this primary doctrinal opposition, of course, is a secondary opposition in attitudes between pessimism (associated with determinism) and optimism (associated with freedom of the will). A deterministic novel showing that man does what he can, not what he ought, is pessimistic. If it introduces overt or covert expressions of convictions that are by-products of a belief in freedom of the will, it introduces an attitude that conflicts with its pessimism. If, for example, the novel includes the view that purposive growth or progress is possible, it introduces an optimistic view that conflicts with the pessimistic view inherent in its determinism. In such a novel even the appearance of another by-product of a belief in free will--moral judgment of individuals--harbors a degree of optimism conflicting with its pessimism because such judgment rests on the assmption that the most "evil" of men can nonetheless behave other than as they do.

Pizer's "translation" of Walcutt's two contradictions into a single tension is therefore not an adequate translation at all because it ignores the basic contradiction between freedom and determinism and focuses instead on the subordinate conflict between the attitudes associated with each of these doctrines. In finding affirmations of "the individually significant" Pizer strengthened the sense of the optimism of a work--its view that one value or another makes life worth the living--even as he diminished its pessimism by seeing the disruptive deterministic forces functioning to serve the positive purpose of underscoring the importance of the values threatened by them. In working with these opposed attitudes in this way, however, Pizer left unresolved the conflict central to Walcutt's critique. Pizer's strengthening the novel's affirmative view of life hardly strengthened the novel's sense of freedom. The logical opposite of determinism is freedom. If determinism is used to arrive at an affirmation of the importance of "the individually significant," the individually significant does not thereby become an affirmation for the existence of freedom. Even the most die-hard determinist can vouch for the individually significant, for value, as Dreiser does for Cowperwood's aesthetic tastes despite the fact that they are functions of chemisms beyond his control. An author can even affirm the worth of values within a morally ambiguous world without affirming the existence of that freedom without which moral choice is meaningless. Indeed, such an author may in fact be rigorously deterministic if his moral ambiguity exists because characters appear to have a freedom that they do not possess in reality. Since "the individually significant" can appear even in such a novel, it is possible that these works are more steadfastly deterministic than Pizer suggests.12 One is therefore left wondering to what extent Walcutt's sense of the primary contradiction in individual works is valid, and whether determinism does not in fact give philosophical coherence to the movement after all.

This book is written to urge that there does exist an important body of fiction, once called naturalistic, that does indeed possess philosophic coherence, and that such coherence depends on the evolution of a concept questioning man's freedom. Even if the questioning leads to both determinism and freedom, no individual work studied here suffers from a logical contradiction as a result. On the contrary, when these seemingly irreconcilable opposites appear in a work, its inner coherence is as strong as that of a work that is monolithic in its denial or assertion of man's freedom.

But critical readings of Crane show the need to raise and answer another question before proceeding with this undertaking: Can the philosophic coherence argued for in later pages sensibly be called naturalistic? Three representative critics of Crane show the terms of the problem. Two of them agree that naturalists, because they see man as a part of the continuum of nature, are philosophical monists. These two critics therefore agree that this perspective views man as like the animals in the sense that he lacks freedom of the will, and that such monism logically proscribes a concern for morality and value, a concern that is the domain of dualists. On this basis one of these critics calls Crane a naturalist and praises his work for the consistency of its monism. The other, finding in Crane's work an emphasis on morality and value, denies that Crane is a naturalist, because this emphasis makes him a dualist. The third critic agrees that Crane indeed is a dualist but insists that he is a naturalist nonetheless.13

Clearly, we must ask not only what Crane is, but what naturalism is. Because there is no consensus on the issue, furthermore, we must permit the introduction of criteria from sources outside the literature once associated with naturalism in order to justify applying the term naturalistic to works considered here. This procedure does not deny our primary loyalty to the works themselves. It only constitutes a recognition that we must not be arbitrary in calling "naturalistic" whatever kind of unity we find among a body of works; that simply because works have been associated with "naturalism" in the past, what we find in them in the present does not thereby become legitimate evidence of "naturalism." Indeed, the readings of Crane included in this book required an understanding of a particular philosophic tradition in order to show the plausibility of calling him a naturalist. The inquiry that led to this finding also forced a reassessment of the standard critical view of what it means to be a part of nature.

The way in which most literary critics answer this question still remains at odds with the view expressed several decades ago by one of literary naturalism's spokesmen, James Farrell. Their dogmatic assertion that the answer is to be found in a deterministic monism stands in sharp contrast to Farrell's flexibility. Farrell admits he is a naturalist, and his adherence to the philosophy of John Dewey suggests that he thinks of man as a part of the continuum of the natural world; but he clearly rejects the first answer given by critics to the question of what it means to be a part of nature. "I have been called a naturalist and I have never denied it,"14 he states in an essay, "On Naturalism, So Called," but he also declares: "I am not a monistic determinist."15 However, his definition of naturalism permits a rejection of the second conclusion of literary critics, that a writer who emphasizes morality and value is necessarily a dualist who cannot think man is a part of nature: "My own conception of naturalism is not that which is usually attributed to me. By naturalism I mean that whatever happens in this world must ultimately be explainable in terms of events in this world."16

Farrell's view of naturalism is thus monistic, but the scientific mentality with which he associates this view in the same essay makes it clear that the monism represented by his comment is a methodological and not necessarily an ontological one.17 That is, his view of explaining human events demands the same perspective as the explaining of nonhuman ones. This posture is central to naturalism and need not entail an ontological monism, the view that there is one thing in the universe (only matter, for example, or only mind) or, in another version, the view that, though "there are many things ... there is only one kind of thing."18

However, methodological monism can lead to an ontological monism of a special sort, one that says that man is a part of nature though significantly different from other things in nature. The link between the two is succinctly expressed in Sterling Power Lamprecht's own definition of naturalism. In an essay included in his Metaphysics of Naturalism, he writes: "Suffice it to say that in this essay 'naturalism' means a philosophical position, empirical in method, that regards everything that exists or occurs to be conditioned in its existence or occurrence by causal factors [compare Farrell] within one all-encompassing system of nature, however 'spiritual' or purposeful or rational some of these things and events may in their functions and values prove to be."19

Although Lamprecht's philosophical views are in part a reaction against the philosophical tradition that is central to American literary naturalism, specifically to the concept that questions man's freedom, his conception of a "sound" philosophical naturalism is relevant here because it provides some help in the critical controversy. His particular ontological monism, based on an empiricism so similar to Farrell's, allows him to reject that materialistic monism so frequently identified with literary naturalism, as well as those dualistic visions sometimes used to deny the naturalism of a writer. Though he sees man as part of nature, Lamprecht, like Farrell, eschews a monistic materialism because of its reductiveness, its failure to distinguish between the causal factors of things and "the values to which the same things lend themselves."20 He rejects the view that man's ideals "are but compensatory imaginings by which we describe hidden bodily functions and drives,"21 because nature, for Lamprecht, is more expansive than this view allows, providing for both man's values and freedom: "However naturalism be defined, it ought certainly to involve the position that man and his ways (including his moral aspirations and his rationally formulated ideals) are as 'natural' as lightning and its ways, or as sunshine and its ways."22

Even though unique in nature, therefore, man is still part of nature, and for Lamprecht this fact does not work against a monistic vision of the world of human beings and nonhuman things. Indeed, he insists that a "sound"23 naturalism must oppose all dualisms: "To suppose that mind, because it is distinguishable from matter and distinctive in its essential nature, did not have an origin in natural events antecedent to it, is to become at once mythological, to appeal to what has no possible empirical support."24

As seen by Lamprecht, therefore, naturalism need not be pessimistic, or materialistic, or deterministic. He therefore diverges from traditional views of naturalism among literary critics not simply by permitting naturalism to embrace widely cherished human values, for these can be embraced and celebrated by the determinist. He diverges from them by the character of his ontological monism, which permits him to see man as a part of nature even while possessing freedom. His ontology does not commit him "to any particular theory of the degree of systematic connection among things and events"25 such as a deterministic view would, and he specifically eschews determinism. Influenced by John Dewey, who would concur in Lamprecht's view that man possesses freedom, Farrell no doubt would follow suit, agreeing that in strictly philosophical terms, man can be viewed as free, not determined.26 But it is interesting to observe the qualifications on man's freedom that Farrell notes in his essay "On Naturalism, So Called."

One of those qualifications subtly undermines the popular notion that freedom of the will is just there, existing in all normal adults from the fall of Adam on--in fact, before. Farrell believes free will to be not "an inherent attribute of man" but "an achievement of men, gained individually and collectively, through knowledge and the acquisition of control, both over nature and over self."27 And related to this reservation is a far more important one that explicitly introduces the subject of determinism. Although he denies being a determinist, Farrell does not dislike determinism as a doctrine. He dislikes, rather, critics who have an ideological loathing of the concept and who turn on literary naturalism because they think it harbors that view of the way the human world is arranged. He himself admires the precocity of a literature that anticipated the concerns later engaging sociologists and psychologists, and is vexed, if not downright angered, that it should be rejected on ideological grounds. "When a critic of naturalism logically demonstrates the existence of free will," he writes, "he is merely proving what he wants to prove," and those "who base their criticisms on free will do so on grounds of temperament."28

Judged by their tone, critical responses today take on a similar temperamental zeal seemingly born of ideological conviction, though now they are devoted less to denouncing determinism and more to "saving" authors like Crane from association with such a point of view.29 Farrell was less sensitive about the subject. Despite his statement that men can achieve free will, his own belief in the will's freedom is highly qualified: "It is important here to observe that usually those who pose this question pose it in terms of a flat either/or. Is man free or is he not free? Does man have free will, or is he completely determined? To me, this is an unanswerable question."30 In his essay, at least, he thus leaves as problematic what for an orthodox literary realist is an unquestionable truth.

Farrell's remarks suggest a crucial difference in focus between the vision of a modern literary naturalist and that of a philosophic naturalist who is Farrell's contemporary. Lamprecht's views repudiate "the metaphysics on which the philosophy of much of the last three hundred years--'modern philosophy'--has been based," a philosophy based "upon the metaphysics which was the working out of ontological assumptions implicit in 17th century science."31 Hence, despite qualifications he sees on man's freedom, Lamprecht focuses on the fact that man is indeed free. But as Farrell makes clear in his essay, he and other literary naturalists are concerned with restrictions on man's freedom that arise within the framework of the more traditional view of modern philosophy, and within that tradition the existence of man's freedom, far from being viewed as quite as "natural" as lightning, was precisely the point in question. And the unresolved critical controversy over Crane's work raises the issue of whether Crane is part of this naturalistic tradition, or of any naturalistic tradition at all. The terms of the controversy, furthermore, suggest that central to understanding his meaning as well as his place (if any) in literary naturalism is the status of freedom in his work, just as much the same thing can be said about the importance of the role of freedom in the works of other writers once associated with naturalism.

Critics who find a firm moral axis in Crane clearly give freedom an unambiguous presence in his works, just as those who see only determinism deny its presence altogether. In between these camps emerge views of a Crane who is ambiguous. These same views of his ambiguity either blindly affirm the existence of freedom in his pages or leave its status to fend for itself by not pursuing the matter in any depth. At any rate, the ambiguous Stephen Crane, like his famous squirrel, is "no philosopher of his race" and so lacks a coherent vision.32 Now, such differing views of Crane may emerge because of simple misinterpretations of what exists on the written page--one view is right, that is, and the others are wrong--but it is also possible that the critical problem exists because Crane possesses a vision with a special kind of philosophic consistency that, if misunderstood, invites substituting a part for the whole or seeing no whole at all.

Remarks by Farrell lead to this conclusion. When he states that naturalism explains "whatever happens in this world ... in terms of events in this world,"33 he associates this perspective with "a different mental climate," calling it the result of "the scientific superseding of the Aristotelian world" and a function of "a conception of the world in terms of relationships rather than of essence." Those relationships emphasize the "powerlessness" of "modern tragic characters" and trace their helplessness to "social forces, social factors, social pressures and tendencies [which] play a role similar to that played by the gods, by Fate and Nemesis, in ancient Greece."34

One need only add, then, that the scientific mentality that emphasizes causality easily leads in the direction of determinism, a point not difficult to accept if one keeps in mind a proper definition of the concept [Author adds in a footnote: Part of the caveat that Bernard Berofsky applies to philosophical discussions of human freedom certainly applies as well to discussions of the problem by literary critics: "In discussions of human freedom it is not uncommon to omit a definition or clarification of the thesis of determinism, although reference to it may be made. This is quite serious if one considers ... the fact that this thesis often plays a fundamental role in conceptions of human freedom." Bernard Berofsky, ed., "General Introduction: Determinism," Free Will and Determinism (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 1]:

Determinism is the general philosophical thesis which states that for everything that ever happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen.35

Viewing human affairs from a methodologically monistic point of view hence can lead to an emphasis not on action or character but on conditions fostering both, and such a view can produce critical confusion about an author's philosophic vision, as some critics point to the power of conditions and others the power of human will, while still others find no clear authorial vision of who or what is in control. That very emphasis on conditions which is the source of critical confusion, however, can in turn breed that tolerance of determinism which appears in Farrell's remarks on both free will and determinism.

But it can lead to more. The person who feels the compelling power of causal factors in human as well as nonhuman affairs might very well hone his vision to see man as both determined and free, irreconcilable though the oppositions between determinism and freedom of the will may seem. Such double vision has been around for quite some time. Although no literary critic has associated literary naturalism with it, a specific, coherent philosophical vision embracing these oppositions is part of the philosophical tradition of the Western world, arising in the late seventeenth century as a response to scientific advances. Its component elements are easily stated, though when completely assimilated into the form of a literary text they generate fascinating complexities, not to mention endless disagreements among critics. For these very reasons, however, this vision is worth recalling. It can grant Stephen Crane that complex, coherent vision now denied him. It can also expose a coherent philosophical development at the center of American literary naturalism, no matter what else naturalism may entail in American literature.

Thomas Hobbes is the figure who shaped the mental climate to which Farrell refers and which, two centuries later, surfaced in the naturalistic novel. He was concerned to view man in natural rather than in theological or supernatural terms, and thus to view human affairs as part of the causal processes of nature. Hobbes was a materialist, though what is of interest here is not his materialism but the outline of his views of voluntary acts of the will, as well as his related views of liberty in relation to self. His many spiritual heirs are more sophisticated than to locate all causes of human action in physiological changes in the brain, for they concentrate on psychological and environmental as well as biological sources of behavior. But although they have abandoned his materialism, their views of cause-effect relationships relative to choice and self follow a Hobbesian pattern.36

Hobbes asserted that all events in nature, including voluntary human acts of the will, are caused, for "nothing taketh beginning from itself."37 He located the causes of voluntary acts in changes in brain matter. Before these changes are completed to produce the act of the will--while they are still in process, that is--they manifest themselves in the competing appetites or motives of aversion and desire. Deliberation is a state in which contrary appetites vie within the individual, and voluntary action is thus caused by the resolution of these competing motives. An act of the will is caused by the "last appetite," which is the final preference that moves the will to act. Hence all voluntary action is reducible to such causes; that is, action is necessitated.38

Necessitated though acts of the will are, Hobbes nonetheless granted freedom to man. Defining liberty as the "absence of all the impediments to action that are not contained in the nature and intrinsical quality of the agent,"39 he said that man was free when impediments or external restraints were not imposed on his will. He is free in the same way that water is free when it flows unimpeded downhill. Water is not thereby free to flow uphill, but this fact does not deny its freedom, since it is its "nature and intrinsical quality" to flow downhill. In like manner an individual is "free" to act and to choose whenever impediments "not contained in the nature and intrinsical quality" of himself are absent.40

The very brevity and simplicity of this outline of Hobbes's "solution" to the problem of freedom and causation should bring out its most troublesome feature: the compelling relation between cause and effect that Hobbes found adequate to account for freedom and its corollary, moral vision. For he did assert that men must be held responsible for their actions, and this, despite the fact that he believed that the cause ("the last appetite") compelled the occurrence of its effect (the act of the will). Of course partisans of free will find it most unreasonable to hold men morally responsible for action if their acts of the will are caused in this sense. If a man acts because his "last appetite" compels the action, and if he has no control over the conditions that give rise to that appetite, in what sense can he be free? Believers in free will assert that "a free agent is one who, when all things necessary to produce a given action are present, can nevertheless refrain from that action."41 But Hobbes found this illogical, for it was equivalent to saying "that conditions might be sufficient to produce a given effect without that effect's occurring, which is a contradiction."42

Nor does the Hobbesian view of liberty in relation to self help matters, since Hobbes's view of this subject unravels in the direction of determinism as well. If liberty is indeed the "absence of all the impediments to action ... not contained in the nature and intrinsical quality of the agent," how can one judge morally an agent whose "nature and intrinsical quality" have been purely shaped since birth by an environment over which he has no control? As in the case of voluntary actions, this view of liberty reduces itself to pure determinism because the self (its thought processes, emotions, and choices) is a pure product of its environment.

Hobbes--and those like him who insisted on having it both ways, on seeing man as free and yet also subject to the causal world in every regard--both alarmed and attracted the scorn of one philosopher. In "The Dilemma of Determinism," William James warned against "free-will determinists." To contrast them to the honest variety of "hard" determinists who openly denied man's freedom of the will, James scornfully dubbed them "soft determinists" because they deceptively acknowledge man's free will but, by emphasizing causal factors in its exercise, take away with the other hand what they give with the first.43 James had philosophers in mind when he baptized this kind of determinism, but his classification has a literary application as well; for the dilemma that a scientific mentality has created for views of freedom and causation since the seventeenth century ultimately affected the world of letters.

To put the matter most comprehensively, that mentality forced men to ask what it means to be free, and in the nineteenth century answers to this question permeate the novel because the mental climate, formed by the new truths of science reflected in the burgeoning social sciences of Comte, Spencer, and their popularizers, made the time ripe for the question to surface and for answers to be offered.44 Such a question sometimes emerges directly within works considered in this study, but more often lies outside them. More important, the central thrust of thought in these works lies in their witnessing life in Hobbesian terms, viewing either choice or self in Hobbesian fashion in order to answer the question. An age stressing the influence of force on man was hardly one to grant man Kant's categorical freedom in moral choices in order to escape determinism, nor was it one to state, with Hume, that causes "do not compel the occurrence of their effects." So the center of interest shifts, from action and character to conditions producing both.45 That shift is characteristic of many novels labeled naturalistic and is the source of their determinisms, soft and hard. An emphasis on causal factors weakens individual autonomy in direct proportion to the distance of these causes from the control of the actor. The reader is thus left with the impression that conditions control; that, given a rerun of the action under the same conditions, nothing else could happen.

The significance of this emphasis on conditions has frequently been missed or misinterpreted. Edwin Cady becomes a case in point when he refutes Charles Child Walcutt's view that Crane is a determinist:

Walcutt holds that Crane must be "naturalistic" because "nowhere does a character operate as a genuinely free ethical agent in defiance of the author's intentions." By "free ethical agent," as the chapter develops, he appears to mean one who makes moral choices free of all contingency. Theologians have doubted that God possesses such freedom (He is conditioned by Himself). Certainly no one ever supposed that any human being had such freedom--and, if one did suppose so, it would obviously be impossible to write a novel about the libertine.46

One cannot, of course, write a novel about anyone without relating contingency to choice, but Cady implies that this truth necessarily denies the possibility of seeing contingency as an important factor in a work's determinism. This is not so. Most of the novelists considered here either reduce choice to condition--give, that is, the condition or contingency full authority over the choice; or else they create a perfect equation between the authority of both so that it is impossible to say that choice rules condition, that man has freedom. It is one of these relations between condition and choice (or condition and self) that emerges in American naturalistic fiction as a distinguishing factor signifying the presence of determinism.

But there was more than one way to cope with the Hobbesian dilemma, and Henri Bergson's confrontation with it illuminates a view of man that gradually emerges in American naturalistic writing; that man has two selves, one determined, one free; and that the freedom of the second self is beyond the confines of that determinism into which the Hobbesian view unravels. Acknowledging that man was a part of nature, Bergson began his career by arguing that the Hobbesian view of man, which leads to determinism, is inadequate because it fails to grasp that man's uniqueness in nature depends on his possession of an inner being whose special character cannot be understood by the methods of the natural sciences. In Time and Free Will, his first major work, he alleges that deterministic views of man arise because "the English school" of philosophers, among others whom he mentions, apply to man's psychic life a mechanical or spatial view of time, a time measurable by spatial objects like clocks, a time that is scientific and mathematical, a time that, indeed, dominates the life of social man.47

In Bergson's view, mechanists (physical determinists) measure time by changes of events in space, events that they perceive as succeeding each other in causal fashion. And mechanists use the same spatialized concept of time to explain changes in the psychic life of human beings. They witness a present psychic state and call it the effect of a condition external to it, its cause. So, too, they view a prior psychic state. They thus separate the states, making it appear that they succeed each other at intervals measurable by the clock, as though these psychic states took place in space much as their presumed external causes did. Since mechanists logically believe that causal relations are binding, the self--its feelings, its thoughts, and its choices--is thereby as readily reducible to a social environment over which it has no control as Hobbes's self is.48

From this same mechanistic point of view, Bergson argues, proceeds psychological determinism, psychological state A becoming the compelling cause of state B because each is viewed as separate from the other, one succeeding the other, as though in space. But Bergson escaped the Hobbesian dilemma of freedom and causation and its resolution into determinism by postulating the existence of another kind of time besides spatial, clock time in which all events are determined. To this kind of time he opposes "pure time," a personal sense of change or "duration" in which man's psychic states flow inseparably one into another so that the past state is always within another but altered by that fact. Only man can live in "pure time," and there one escapes the tyranny of cause-effect relations that spatial time inevitably creates. In "pure time" the mechanistic view of psychic states cannot hold because no external force alone can be said to be the sufficient cause of any single psychic state. Even assuming that the psychic state could be frozen for an instant without changing (a fact Bergson denies), its cause would also be all the previous psychic states experienced by the individual, since all merge. Nor can the psychological view of psychic states hold true in "pure time," for the same reason. No single psychic state can be held as sufficient cause for producing a succeeding one, because all previous psychic states blend together indistinguishably with a present one. Cause and effect thus become one and the same thing because they are inseparable.49

The self that lives in "pure time" is therefore free. Because it is forever "becoming," the fluidity of its psychic states transcends deterministic relations between itself and the external world, or between one psychic state and another. But though in duration man possesses a free self, what will here be called a durational self, Bergson nonetheless concedes that man cannot avoid spatializing time. As a social creature, he lives most of his life in a social environment that is controlled by the clock, which measures mechanical or spatial time. As a consequence he develops a social self (Bergson refers to it as his "shadow") that usually conceals the self living in pure time. The shadow self that man develops hence is a product of society and that spatialized time which governs it. That self's acts, too, are fully determined by society. Hence, though Bergson believes that man possesses freedom, he feels that free acts are rare because man is rarely in contact with the self capable of performing them. By distinguishing between two selves, therefore, he grants the validity of the Hobbesian view of freedom relative to choice and self, a view that reduces itself to determinism; but he applies this view to only one portion of the person, the "shadow" self.50

The approach presented here is that the Hobbesian view of causality, manifested both in his view of choice and in his view of liberty in relation to self, represents the tradition within which American literary naturalism grows, and that it issues in a Bergsonian view of two selves, one determined, the other free. The tensions of the Hobbesian vision, nowhere resolved, are most perfectly embodied in the work of Stephen Crane, and this fact is responsible for the diametrically opposed views of Crane as determinist and as moralist, and for the view that his determinism leads to an affirmation for value, with the view of freedom simply left in limbo. Crane is a "soft determinist." Without himself resolving the issue posed by causation and choice--the issue, that is, of determinism and freedom--he constructs his work in such a way that the reader is forced to unravel freedom into its opposite, and this unraveling is forced on the reflective reader as surely as if he were to pursue the implications of Hobbes's view of self or choice.

If Crane uses the form of the Hobbesian paradox (man is free but his acts of the will are caused) to create a perfect tension between freedom and determinism, other naturalistic writers introduce the polar opposites of this vision with varying degrees of resolution of its oppositions in a single work, a factor explaining why no naturalistic writer in America, Dreiser included, remained a thoroughgoing determinist throughout his career. Norris, for example, wrote a completely deterministic work in McTeague but later expanded his vision to embrace both freedom and determinism in The Octopus. Dreiser's life and work best exemplify the struggles between these irreconcilable opposites inherent in the position of the free-will determinist. As a reformer he wished for the betterment of mankind but, as he put it in Notes on Life, "Without Free Will--how?"51 His trilogy reflects the changed resolution of these oppositions in his thought--the first two volumes written from a rigidly deterministic point of view, the last escaping its confines.

This book therefore agrees that determinism plays a central role in American literary naturalism, but it argues that it is a determinism emanating from a specific vision that generates the complexities of this literary tradition. One of its major objects, hence, is to explain the misunderstood ways in which determinism appears when the work's center of interest is causation in relation to the crucial issues of choice and self. But this book's other object is to trace an evolution in American literary naturalism, a progressive development that shows, among other things, a paradoxical shift in conceptions of nature and the self. In other words, this book tries to demonstrate that American literary naturalism possesses philosophical coherence, and this goal also was a consideration in deciding on the authors and works included or excluded. Short of Faulkner, and apart from Farrell, the other authors are the chief representatives of American literary naturalism in its classic period of development. Farrell is excluded because the point made about the second self in Manhattan Transfer is easily transferrable to Studs Lonigan, and Dos Passos seems a more important author, incisive though Farrell's critical insights into literature may be. The book does not go into the contemporary period. No doubt most of the work of Thomas Pynchon, for example, does continue the tradition, but it seems better to take advantage of the critical perspective it is possible to have on writers whose full canon has been established, and who have been and are the center of debate on what "naturalism" is, than it does to move forward into the contemporary period and lose that advantage. Naturalism, like any vital literary movement, will continue to develop, but understanding of subsequent developments is best based on sounder understanding of the earlier fiction. The study stops with Faulkner because he seems to be the chief inheritor of naturalism as described in this book.

The exclusion of two specific works by authors included in the book probably needs a word of explanation. The Octopus is excluded because the opposition between the mechanical and the instinctual so important to that work also occurs in The Grapes of Wrath (included), which has the further advantage of showing the emergence of a dual self in man. USA is excluded because Dos Passos's conception of a dual self appears more clearly in Manhattan Transfer. Furthermore, the conception of self developed in Manhattan Transfer is the assumed ground of character portrayal in USA, so character portrayal in the trilogy is best understood in the light of the earlier work. Other exclusions and inclusions are more easily accounted for by a commentary on the book's overall design in order to show the reader that the chapters that follow possess a logical sequence.

It is reasonable to accept the common critical practice of applying the term "naturalistic" to any work of fiction predicated on an ontological monism of the kind that avers that man is a part of nature, even if the work is not philosophically deterministic. Works of this kind are largely excluded here because of this book's focus on the classic phase of American literary naturalism, in which determinism plays a definitive role. However, there are three deviations from this pattern, and since the first deviation introduces the next chapter, its appearance can usefully be explained now.

This book begins with a discussion of Crane's "The Open Boat," a story that exhibits a vision akin to Lamprecht's because it views man as a part of nature, but a story that is not deterministic. It does so, however, because that story's naturalistic vision is implicit in Crane's other major work, though with one sharp difference: in that other work it is the basis for Crane's developing a Hobbesian vision with perfect tensions between freedom and determinism. In Maggie he works with a Hobbesian view of liberty in relation to self (liberty as the absence of obstacles to action not inherent in the intrinsic character of the agent) by equating the self with the environment of which it is product. In "The Blue Hotel" and The Red Badge of Courage he employs a Hobbesian view of choice, in which "freely-willed" choices and actions are equated with the conditions inspiring them.

Crane leaves it to his Easterner in "The Blue Hotel" to raise the issue of freedom and determinism, a tactic no doubt designed to sustain the tensions between polar opposites without drawing the narrative voice into a position in which it might be forced to resolve them. But in McTeague Norris, unlike Crane, raises the issue in his own--or at least his narrator's--voice specifically to question traditional moral concepts, and thus to question the concepts of freedom and responsibility that moral vision entails. And unlike Crane he resolves the tension of the Hobbesian view of choice into pure determinism, hence denying that the Hobbesian vision justly permits moral evaluations of action.

Dreiser sustains this denial in the first two volumes of his trilogy by declaring throughout his narrative that apparent choices are determined, not free. But the real interest of that work is its exploration of the implications of determinism, which finally drove the author onto the horns of that dilemma which William James so clearly identified in "The Dilemma of Determinism": despair or aestheticism. In the trilogy Dreiser focuses the source of the fundamental problem, the self fated to remain a creature of its chemisms, and the solution, an escape from that self.

This escape is an example of a notable development in American literary naturalism, for it postulates the existence within the individual of two selves, one determined, the other free because irreducible. Such a view of the self had already been advanced by Dos Passos in Manhattan Transfer. Manhattan Transfer, it is true, basically renders a milieu. It portrays, that is, the conditions in which its characters must act. But unlike Norris, Dreiser, and the Crane of The Red Badge of Courage, Dos Passos does not make "freely" willed acts and the conditions surrounding them the focus of his work. He follows the related but somewhat different aspect of the Hobbesian vision, reducing to determinism the Hobbesian view of liberty of self rather than that of choice. From his central angle of vision he sees that social conditions create a social self indistinguishable from its environment and alienated from a more fundamental self, the source of man's freedom, a second self denied development and expression in society.

Of what this second self consists, what the contents of its consciousness are, Dos Passos gives no clear indication, though both Steinbeck and Faulkner do. He does, however, endow it with a dim awareness, by way of conclusion, that man and nature are one, not two, and that this recognition is the starting point for releasing it from its social bondage and permitting it freedom. In their own ways, of course, Crane, Norris, and Dreiser share the view that man and nature are one, not two,52 but their visions emphasize a view of nature as animated by destructive impulses. Since societies are a part of the continuum of nature, they in their relation to the individual necessarily exhibit the same destructive tendencies evident in all of nature. Dos Passos's benign view of nonhuman nature alters this angle of vision by viewing the destructiveness of human societies as part of the distinctiveness setting apart human societies from other things in nature. Man's connections to nonhuman nature, therefore, seem the possible source of man's salvation.

And they become so for Steinbeck, although his work shows significant differences in center of interest. He follows Dos Passos in working with the Hobbesian view of liberty of self rather than choice (his characters, seen as separate identities, make numerous moral choices), but his determinism focuses not on individuals but on the group treated as a single entity or individual, if you will. It also has two selves. One, its social self, is purely a product of society. The other, an animal self, is only initially a creature of determinism; for it gains its freedom, paradoxically, by virtue of the recognition by a few of its members that they do possess an animal nature relating them to all of nature and more immediately to the other animal natures of which they are by force of circumstance a part. This recognition gives nature that explicit redemptive value only dimly shadowed in Manhattan Transfer, and it even gives determinism a special kind of value. The group transcends biological determinism to fulfill a predicated historical one, but the determinism of its initial condition is the essential precondition for its freedom.

The book concludes with discussions of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!--the other exceptions to the book's main focus on determinism in American literary naturalism--in order to show that Faulkner's work is very much an outgrowth of the philosophic climate that nourishes the classic phase of American literary naturalism and is in some ways its climax. For Bergson not only illuminates a major development in American literary naturalism; because he is a direct influence on Faulkner, Faulkner's work is a part of that development. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner uses Bergsonian concepts to delineate a naturalistic vision of man in its broader sense--the sense in which the phrase applies to "The Open Boat"--that man, though unique in nature, is a part of it. Benjy is on Faulkner's dividing line between man and the animals. He is a parody of that durational self so fully developed in Dilsey, yet not so far "advanced" as Jason, who is a parody of the social self that Bergson imaged as a shadow. It is this self that Quentin tries to escape by tricking his shadow in order to remain in contact with a durational self threatened by clock time and to retain the freedom that acts performed by that self alone enjoy.

Hence, by way of Bergson, Faulkner comes into possession of all the component elements of a naturalistic vision that logically ally him to the naturalists discussed earlier. Like Dos Passos and the later Dreiser, he sees dual selves and renders social selves that are indistinguishable from society. Unlike theirs, however, his central theme is not determinism--though it is inevitably there, in Quentin's desperate attempt to escape "the sequence of natural events and their causes which shadows every man's brow even benjy's." For Faulkner's central subject is the second self, the durational self, man's true identity and the source of his freedom, and he brings it into sharpest focus by contrasting it to the shadow self. Faulkner uses the contrast, however, not to make the point that the shadow self is a product of social determinism, its acts of the will beyond moral judgment. Rather, he uses it to show the primacy of the durational self as a measure of man's spiritual condition. Thereby he portrays the pathos of Quentin Compson, whose fear is that he will lose the durational self. Thereafter he portrayed the pitiable condition of Rosa Coldfield, whose rage is that Sutpen stifled that self; the spiritual emptiness of Thomas Sutpen, whose flaw is that he abandoned it; and the freedom of Henry Sutpen, whose tragedy is that he obeyed it. The conflicts between that self and the world became the source of Faulkner's tragic vision. In The Sound and the Fury he forged those elements of naturalistic tragedy which Quentin Compson and his roommate use to create the tragic love story called Absalom, Absalom!


1. For representative views of the difference between American literary realism and American literary naturalism, see the following: Edwin H. Cady, The Light of Common Day: Realism in American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 43-52; Everett Carter, Howells and the Age of Realism (Hamden, Conn., Archon Books, 1966), chap. 5, esp. pp. 238-39 for Howells's own recognition of a change. See also Ronald E. Martin, American Literature and the Universe of Force (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1981), esp. chap. 3, for a discussion of the force philosophy which subsequently affected the course of American fiction.

2. See Lars Ahnebrink, The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction (Upsala: Upsala Univ. Press, 1950), p. 185; George J. Becker, "Introduction: Modern Realism as a Literary Movement," in George J. Becker, ed., Documents of Modern Literary Realism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1963), p. 35; Oscar Cargill, Intellectual America: Ideas on the March (New York: Macmillan, 1941), pp. 13, 85, 97-98, 107; Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957), p. 186n., pp. 185-204; Malcolm Cowley, "A Natural History of American Naturalism," in Becker, ed., Documents, pp. 430, 431, 447; Harry Hartwick, The Foreground of American Fiction (New York: American Book Co., 1934), pp. 17-20, 45; Stuart P. Sherman, in Becker, ed., Documents, pp. 456-59. Ahnebrink and Cowley part from others in finding Norris a determinist but really optimistic (Ahnebrink, p. 232), or partly so (Cowley, p. 430).

3. For a composite list, with some overlap of works and writers and modest degrees of differences about the depth of the pessimism, see the following: Cargill, Intellectual America, pp. 159-60; Cowley, "American Naturalism," p. 447; Leslie Fiedler, "Naturalism and Ritual Slaughter," New Leader 21 (18 December 1948), 10; Hartwick, American Fiction, 43, 160; Michael Millgate, American Social Fiction: James to Cozzens (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1964), p. 131; Randall Stewart, American Literature and Christian Doctrine (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 107, 113, 120.

4. For such a denial of Crane's naturalism, see Marston LaFrance, A Reading of Stephen Crane (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 38-43, 96-97, 199, 221-22. For Cady's denial of the movement, see Light of Common Day, pp. 51, 45. Denials of the naturalism of other writers or works will appear in notes or bibliographical essays for future chapters.

5. Charles Child Walcutt, American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn. Press, 1956), p. 20.

6. Ibid., p. 27. See also pp. 23-27 for fuller development of this view.

7. On failure, see Ibid., p. 28; on Crane, pp. 66-67.

8. For an especially clear rendering of Walcutt's view of these parallel conflicts, see his treatment of Norris's The Octopus, Ibid., pp. 142-150. For his view of a doctrinal conflict alone, see his treatment of Vandover and the Brute, in which Vandover lacks freedom but is judged morally: Ibid., pp. 119-122.

9. In his bibliographical essay on Stephen Crane, Pizer assesses his own relation to Walcutt. See Robert A. Rees and Earl N. Harbert, eds., 15 American Authors Before 1900: Bibliographic Essays on Research and Criticism (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1971), pp. 114-15. See also his denial of coherence to the movement in Donald Pizer, Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1966), p. 36.

10. Quoted phrase is in Pizer, Realism and Naturalism, p. 31. For role of determinism, see my bibliographical essay for this chapter.

11. The point is made especially clear by the reason Walcutt finds Crane a supreme naturalist: "Nowhere does a character operate as a genuinely free ethical agent in defiance of the author's intentions" (Naturalism, p. 67).

12. Cf. Pizer on moral ambiguity, Realism and Naturalism, pp. 12-14, 30.

13. In Naturalism, Walcutt finds both Crane and true naturalism monistic. On naturalism, see p. 12. On Crane as "pure naturalist," see pp. 66, 67. Edwin Cady agrees that naturalism is monistic but denies Crane's monism-naturalism: Stephen Crane (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962), p. 131; (revised edition 1980), pp. 131-32. Pizer's description of Crane makes Crane a dualist: Realism and Naturalism, p. 28. Yet he clearly thinks Crane is a naturalist: p. 32.

14. James T. Farrell, "Some Observations on Naturalism, So Called, in Fiction," in Reflections at Fifty and Other Essays (New York: Vanguard Press, 1954), p. 150.

15. Ibid., p. 148, n. 2.

16. Ibid., p. 150.

17. For this distinction between methodological and ontological monism, see Arthur C. Danto, "Naturalism," Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards. 8 Vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1967) 5:448.

18. Quoted from Roland Hall, "Monism and Pluralism," Encyclopedia, 5:363. On naturalistic posture, see Danto, n. 17.

19. Sterling P. Lamprecht, The Metaphysics of Naturalism (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967), p. 160.

20. Ibid., p. 161.

21. Ibid., p. 196.

22. Ibid., p. 172.

23. Ibid., pp. 162, 199.

24. Ibid., p. 162.

25. Ibid.

26. Farrell would accept Lamprecht's ontological monism and the view that man is free, but Farrell's view of character is geared not to stress that man is free but that the relationship between character and environment creates a complicated vision of freedom. On his ontological monism, see Edgar M. Branch, "Freedom and Determinism in James T. Farrell's Fiction," in Sydney J. Krause, ed., Essays on Determinism in American Literature (Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 89, 90, 93. For an expanded discussion of Studs Lonigan which includes the complex view of freedom, see Edgar M. Branch, James T. Farrell (New York: Twayne, 1971), esp. chap. 3. He quotes Farrell as follows: "Environment affected character, and character itself is a social product which is a result of society. In turn, character affects and changes environment": p. 52.

27. Farrell, "Observations," p. 148 n.

28. Ibid., p. 148 text and p. 148 n.

29. Cf. Frank Bergon's view of current criticism of Crane: Stephen Crane's Artistry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1975), pp. ix-x.

30. Farrell, "Observations," p. 148.

31. William F. Edwards, "Foreword," in Lamprecht, Metaphysics, p. x.

32. See my bibliographical essay on Crane.

33. Farrell, "Observations," p. 150.

34. Ibid., p. 152.

35. Richard Taylor, "Determinism," in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2:359.

36. On this point cf. Taylor, p. 365. I find Taylor's account of Hobbes's relation to determinism useful because it is so comprehensive, and my discussion parallels and echoes his. I identify the original source of Taylor's quotations from Hobbes.

37. Thomas Hobbes, "Of Liberty and Necessity," in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Sir William Molesworth. 11 vols. (London, 1840), 4:274. Hereafter cited as Works of Hobbes.

38. For Hobbes on voluntary action, deliberation, "last appetite" (or "last will"), see Works of Hobbes, 4:272-73. See p. 274 for "voluntary actions" as "necessitated."

39. Ibid., 273.

40. Ibid., 273-74.

41. The quoted words are Taylor's, Encyclopedia, 2:365. The view is a standard one. See Sidney Morgenbesser and James Walsh, eds., Free Will (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962), p. 6.

42. Quoted words are Taylor's, Encyclopedia, 2:365. See Works of Hobbes, 4:275, for original words. Taylor concisely highlights the problems in Hobbes's view and Hobbes's defense against them.

43. William James, "The Dilemma of Determinism," in Essays in Pragmatism (New York: Hafner, 1969), p. 40.

44. See Ahnebrink, Beginnings of Naturalism, pp. 7 ff. For more recent and extensive background, see Martin, Universe of Force, esp. chap. 2 ("Herbert Spencer's Universe of Force") and chap. 3 ("The Americanization of the Universe of Force").

45. Quoted words are Taylor's, Encyclopedia, 2:367. For an ironic contrast between scientific and literary views of causation, see Martin, Universe of Force, pp. 28, 94-95.

I agree with Malcolm Cowley's emphasis on "conditions, forces, physical laws, or nature herself" (Becker, ed., Documents, p. 435) as important to the naturalistic novel, but he does not see how they manifest themselves within a Hobbesian vision.

46. Cady, Stephen Crane (New York: Twayne, 1962), p. 109. Cady quotes from Walcutt's Naturalism, p. 67.

47. On dual selves, see Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. by F. L. Pogson (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1910), pp. 128 ff. On views of science, see Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. by Mabelle L. Andison (New York: The Wisdom Library, 1946), pp. 43, 44, 46. On man as part of nature, see H. Wilson Carr, The Philosophy of Change (London: Macmillan, 1914), p. 160. On the English school of philosophers, see Bergson, Time and Free Will, pp. 99 ff. For a general overview of Bergson's thought which I found helpful, see T. A. Goudge, "Henri Bergson," Encyclopedia 1: esp. pp. 290, 292, 287, 288.

48. See Bergson, Time and Free Will, pp. 140-48.

49. On psychological determinism, see Bergson, Time and Free Will, pp. 148-63. On escape from determinism through duration or pure time, see pp. 158-221, esp. pp. 175 ff. On pure time or duration, see also pp. 100, 110, 229, 231.

50. On freedom of the self living in pure time, see Bergson, Time and Free Will, pp. 167, 172, 173. For dual selves, see pp. 129-139, 240; and for one reference to the spatialized (social) self as a shadow, see p. 231. For free acts as rare, see pp. 167, 231.

51. Marguerite Tjader and John J. McAleer, eds., Notes on Life by Theodore Dreiser (University, Ala.: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1974), p. 87.

52. My phrasing is indebted to Donald Pizer's contrasting view of man and nature in The Red Badge. He writes: "Crane dramatizes Fleming's realization that ... nature and man are really two, not one" (Realism and Naturalism, p. 28); and he links Fleming's view and Crane's.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420074926