Archive for the ‘Naturalism’ Category

Webinar Vignettes – Part 2

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrial North and the agricultural, slave-owning South was a turning point in American history. The innocent optimism of the young nation gave way, after the war, to a period of exhaustion. Reconstruction grew out of this fatigue–it was as if the American political system was not going to try to solve its problems. Before the war, Idealists and Romantics championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealized progress and the self-made man. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau remained as icons of inevitable American progress. However, many philosophical changes were in the air. This was the era of the millionaire manufacturer and the speculator, robber barons and trust busters, when Darwinian evolution and the “survival of the fittest” seemed to sanction the sometimes unethical methods of the successful business tycoon. Naturalism grew naturally out of the fertile ground of social Darwinism. This so-called “Gilded Age,” a term coined by Mark Twain, was an age of thoughtless excess.

Business boomed after the war. The new intercontinental rail system, inaugurated in 1869, and the transcontinental telegraph, which began operating in 1861, gave industry access to materials, markets, and communications. The constant influx of immigrants provided a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive labor as well. More than 23 million foreigners — German, Scandinavian, and Irish in the early years, and increasingly Central and Southern Europeans thereafter — flowed into the United States between 1860 and 1910. American business interests imported Asian contract laborers on the West Coast. This created tensions that remain in America even today. In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half the population was concentrated in about twelve cities. Problems of urbanization and industrialization appeared. From 1860 to 1914, the United States changed from a small, young, agricultural country to a huge, modern, industrial nation.

America, however, was full of problems. The differences among people groups were immense and growing larger. It was to this world that men like Stephen Crane wrote. He attacked social problems. American literature openly discussed significant social problems. Previously American fiction was entertaining and didactic, but not evaluative. Characteristic American novels of the period Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London’s Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy depict the damage of economic forces and alienation of the vulnerable individual. Survivors, like Twain’s Huck Finn, Humphrey Vanderveyden in London’s The Sea-Wolf, Hemingway’s Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms, and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, endure through inner strength and, above all, individuality. No longer is there a hint in American literature that there is a loving, caring God. The world that Anne Bradstreet knew is dead . . . Research the Gilded Age and write a three page explanatory essay on this important era.

A particularly popular writer of the Gilded Age social history was Sinclair Lewis. Lewis brought late 19th Century Americans into the small towns and bedrooms of American homes all over the land. Why not read one of his books?

Webinar Vignettes

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Peter will return soon with the end of his marriage saga–It promises to be interesting.

Meanwhile, I want to offer a few vignettes from my webinars. The first is re: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.

This impressive novel is one of the few unchallenged classics of modern American literature. Stephen Crane’s immense talent is everywhere evident in his great work. This is not to say, though, that Crane’s vision is correct. No, Crane’s novel is full of Naturalism–a germinating and menacing world view still spreading across America. The Naturalistic stories and novels of Stephen Crane truly mark the maturation of modernity. Major revealing features of modernity are an unrestrained, individual freedom–the goal of which is to liberate one from all restrictions, constraints, traditions, and all social patterning–all of which are ipso facto presumed to be dehumanizing. Modernity has a contempt for other viewpoints. Ironically in its nihilistic pursuit of tolerance it becomes intolerant! Modernity is reductionist Naturalism. What does the word “reductionist” mean? Yes, Crane’s works are wholly modern in both philosophy and technique. While remnants of Romanticism may be found in the poems of Dickinson and Whitman, and some in Melville, none remains in Crane. At one point Henry faces death and “he had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.” The man Crane and his contemporaries create is not the man created in the image of God, the man who is precious and vital, but a man in a mob, a man who has no future. Crane offers his reader no salvation, no hope. Crane only validates the now, the sensory touch, the empirical.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, by the way, Many historians argue that we are in a post-modern era. Now, many Americans are suspicious of science and any authority. This viewpoint has as a central credo: “Anything goes if I believe it sincerely.” Stephen Crane brought us well along on this slippery trail.

In the scheme of things The Red Badge of Courage and Naturalism ushered in a new philosophical era. It was one of the genuinely new cultural events in American history. It was not to be the last.

An Excuse To Be Redeemed

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Friedrich Nietzsche is one of my favorite philosophers. No, I do not agree with him. But I really appreciate that he called the hand of the naturalists. If life is a struggle for existence in which the fittest survive, then strength is the ultimate virtue–to call “strength” a virtue truly was even too radical for the naturalists/evolutionists. But, Neitzsche is right. For the first time, virtue is not connected to knowledge (Plato). Good is what survives, which wins; bad is what gives way and falls (Will Durant). The naturalists were brave enough to reject religion, Nietzsche said, but too cowardly to reject Christian morality.

Nietzsche warned us, though, that with the collapse of Christianity and the rise of nascent naturalism, a totalitarian state was inevitable. We see in the life of Adolf Hitler the dark fulfillment of that prophecy.

The good news, however, is that there is strength in weakness, in Christ. We are crucified with Christ nonetheless we live . . . Gals. 2: 20. Nietzsche got it wrong. Christianity is not an excuse to be powerless but an excuse to be redeemed. Within that theological concept–something that cannot be duplicated philosophically–the believer is more fulfilled that Nietzsche taunted superman.