Naturalism and the American Novel


In 1953 Erskine Caldwell recorded a feisty audio lecture (or “Sound Seminar”) entitled “Naturalism and the American Novel,” which I draw on at length in the first chapter of Literary Obscenities. As the recording itself is awfully hard to track down, I submit for your review a sizeable selection of choice quotes from it here.

It has been brought to my attention that in some quarters I am looked upon as a writer who, to some extent at least, I suppose, belongs to the naturalistic school of the American novelist. Well, this sounds interesting. It had sound [sic] interesting now and it has sound [sic] interesting when I first heard of this. And so I have gone to some length to try to found out what the meaning of this can be.

As I would put it, there are discussions of this nature should [sic] belong wholly to the critical man of letters, who, by reason of heritage, birth, and environment, is a man far superior in mind and morals, and a man who can outtalk a mere writer of fiction anytime, anywhere.

Some critics have called me a realist, and I came to believe them. Other critics have called me a romanticist, and I came to believe them too. Now, if I am to be called a naturalist, I shall no doubt believe that as well, but I can’t be all things, and until the question is resolved for once and for all, I would be content to remain just what I thought I was: a writer of fiction, a storyteller from Georgia.

[Caldwell is attempting to determine] the meaning of such a term as naturalistic fiction.

[Caldwell was] somewhat surprised and well-taken-back too [at being among the] “Undisputed Naturalists” [in Floyd Stovall’s American Idealism (1943):] I find that all comfort and peace of mind has been taken from me.

I do not agree in full with some of the definitions of naturalism, many of which I think are pessimistic to an extreme.

[Caldwell quotes one source as defining naturalism as] the depiction of the violent and the ugly, of poverty and class conflicts. [He himself  sees not only the violent and the ugly, poverty and class conflicts in life, but also] spasms of laughter, the horseplay of humor, and the enjoyment of living.

I’m not happy when catalogued and categoried and pigeon-holed and told I must subscribe to, and stay within the bounds of, any school of writing. I think I’d rather play hooky.

[Caldwell with respect to the effect of naturalism on the American novel:] I would like to be dogmatic and opinionated about this, if I may: I think the effect has been a good one. The proof of this is outstandingly evident in the works of the authors as listed by Mr. Stovall.

[Caldwell defends naturalism so strongly because he feels] that all creative writing, regardless of schools and categories, leads to understanding and tolerance in an intolerant world. [Therefore, he would] defend all schools of writing. Life itself is many-sided, and storytelling should be as many-sided as life if it is to reflect and interpret the living of this life. The gloom of naturalism is every bit as important in literature as the glow of romance and the chuckle of humor.

[According to Caldwell, critics would do well] to give up the baleful and unsocial habit of frittering away their lives in making propaganda for their prejudiced points of view. [Furthermore, critics would lead happier lives were they to look upon American literature as] an untamed, rampaging creature ranging the land, [instead of as a] laboratory frog to be sliced, pickled in a jar, and labeled this, that, and the other thing.

[Caldwell’s purpose in doing this Sound Seminar:] to prick the minds of the critics, to goad them into looking up from the contemplation of their navels.

Next to a dull novel, I don’t know anything more depressing than a critic who has mewed himself up from the world, and especially a naturalistic critic.