Naturalism, Realism and Modernism 1900-1940’s


Early twentieth century writing was marked by the growth of the Naturalist movement in fiction. Naturalist fiction was characterized by a deterministic ethos. Characters were often depicted as being driven by forces beyond their control toward inevitable fates. They were not usually depicted as individuals with distinct interior worlds, and they were not often able to control their destinies. They were often lower class, sometimes described in mechanistic or dehumanizing ways.


Our character Wakefield may be seen as a precursor to the naturalist character. He is painted as a creature bound by his habits, and by a dehumanizing overcrowded newly industrial London. Unlike Wakefield, however, typical naturalist characters don’t usually find their way back to cozy habits, but end up sacrificed to a system of unjust social and or economic forces. The naturalist movement coincided with cries for social reform in industry, and race relations. American naturalists include Frank Norris, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Anzia Yezierska.


Naturalism mostly died out in the early forties and was largely replaced by “realism,” a movement that had been gathering momentum alongside naturalism. Realism depicted characters as psychologically complex. The idea of an interior world within a character began to flourish. Unlike Naturalist characters, realist characters, where held accountable for the choices they made. They could step aside from the forces of social and economic systems. Their actions were self-determined.


Realism coincided with Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist idea that we re-create ourselves continually. This notion had great dramatic implications for fiction.  Short stories began to look at everyday occurrences. Within the space of one day the choices a character made where acts of creation with dramatic moral implications. Realism began to examine ordinary conflicts within families, and day today interactions. Realism is also marked by fullness of physical detail.


Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The White Heron,” with its careful depiction of natural detail could be seen as a precursor to realism. The central character Sylvie teeters between naturalism and realism. Sylvie is a creature of nature, described in animalistic terms and, driven by rules of nature – yet Jewett gives her choice over her destiny.



After World War I Modernism, a third movement began to show its influence on the short story. Much American modernist fiction and poetry dealt with the disillusionment after World War I, when early modern values such as progress, freedom, and social equality where called into question. Progress had been made, yet modernist artists saw the “great war” as senseless and horrifying with its mechanized slaughter. The science and technology that early modern artists had embraced as progress had made the slaughter possible. Old social orders such as the aristocracy had fallen, and many people had lost faith in religious institutions, but the new social orders such as communism where not creating the kind of equality and freedom modern artists had desired.  The world was new and confusing, and the modernists reflected this in their language. Much modernist writing presented the word in fragmentary, impressionistic prose meant to represent the confusion of the new world. Modernist writing also emphasized peoples’ isolation from one another through the technique of “stream of consciousness” writing.



Within the modernist movement was the Imagist group, with their motto “make it new.” The world was new, thus, they believed language should be new too. Imagism aimed for clarity, concision and precise visual imagery.

Here is a fragment from and imagist manifesto:

1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ the exact  word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.  
2.We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better  expressed in free verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new  cadence means a new idea.  
3.Absolute freedom in the choice of subject.  
4.To present an image. We are not a school of painters, but we  believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in  vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this  reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real  difficulties of his art.  
5. To produce a poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.   
6.Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very  essence of poetry.


American short story writers such as Kaye Boyle, Jean Toomer and Hemingway took inspiration from Imagism even though it was primarily a movement within poetry. They wanted to do away with the stuffiness of overdressed, aristocratic and romantic language and exchange it with prose that was sparse and direct, and that did not shy away from depicting sensations – smell, touch, taste, ect.


In general, Modernist writing is distinguished by:


A break up of narrative continuity (fragmented perspective, imagery, stream of consciousness)

Focus on conveying an experience in an immediate sensory way

Departure from standard ways of representing characters – stream of consciousness (less through what they do, more through what they think)

Violation of traditional syntax

Commentary on the breakdown of postwar values, of all forms of old order

An attempt to crate a new order out of the fragments


Jean Toomer


Jean Toomer worked alongside the leading modernists of the 1920’s. He was a man of mixed race who lived at different times as both a black man and a white man, yet ultimately claimed neither identity. He left behind racial identity for a kind of Hinduism transcendentalist philosophy that aspired to a universal self. Like Walt Whitman, from whom he took inspiration, he believed everyone had a bit of God within himself or herself. Though many African American activists who asserted the importance of claiming one’s racial identity saw this as a copout, it is perhaps what made him able to write from such varied perspectives – black men and women in the rural south, and gentrified white men and women in the north.


Toomer was drawn to the modernists for their experimental techniques – notably those of the imagists, for whom narrative was often overshadowed by imagery. As with Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” the attempt was to create a mystical moment of vision, of precise sensory detail that could turn the ordinary into something extraordinary. He was also drawn to the imagist notion of distilling an experience, cutting down to the few details that could convey the essence of the idea or experience.


“Blood Burning Moon,” is part of Toomer’s famous work “Cane.” Some critics call Cane a short story cycle due to its use of interconnected vignettes that tell a larger unified story. Yet Cane is made up of poems, contains a one-act play, and snatches of music lyrics. In it’s larger construction Cane can be viewed as a series of fragments for diverse cultures and genres, pasted together to make a whole. Rather than wallow in the fragmented disordered state of the world, Toomer’s goal was to look for a new way to unite very disparate things.


Questions and prompts:


Describe some of the “imagistic” moments in “Blood Burning Moon.”  What is the effect of these moments?


“Blood Burning Moon” is told from multiple perspectives. What are those perspectives, and why might Toomer have chosen to tell his story in this way?




Ernest Hemingway, while not poetically complex, used very sparse language – language that shunned any whiff of the old guard.


He is considered by many to be one of the most influential stylists in American prose. Although Hemmingway’s prose seems natural, he worked very hard to achieve his effects. Hemingway was an obsessive editor.


Here are some characteristics of Hemingway’s prose:


Use of vigorous words

Use of everyday words

Dialogue that is sharply focused, yet repetitious

One stark, chiseled image which reoccurs

Quick shifts from outside situation to a character’s inner thoughts.