The Documentary Strategies of Naturalism

Keith Newlin

in The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Naturalism

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780195368932
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

 The Documentary Strategies of Naturalism

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This article discusses naturalism's use of documentary detail. The naturalists revered the “human document”—the story that pointed to human foibles, perplexing events, astonishing coincidences, behaviors that tested credulity—and in their effort to explain that story, they drew upon their training as journalists, an education that taught them to pay attention to the unusual event and to describe it accurately, with the aim of producing a narrative to enable readers to see, not just the event itself, but also the underlying reasons or causes of that event. In constructing their fictions, they often incorporated the “facts” as they found them in newspapers and other documents, sometimes altering them but more often reproducing them accurately, knowing that the texture of detail convinces. Some, like Dreiser and London, were so enthralled with the fact itself that they lost sight of the necessity of selection, and so their fictions sometimes incorporate documents wholesale, piling on detail upon detail to demonstrate the accuracy of scene, behavior, or character as a means of illustrating the causes of behavior. Unlike realism, naturalism is an essentially didactic literature with a thesis to prove, whether it be economic determinism, the latent atavism of man, or the inescapable force of heredity. To entertain readers while also convincing them of the plausibility of the thesis that controls their fictions, the naturalists therefore adapted the narrative strategies of documentary reporting to their larger fictional aim.

Keywords: naturalists; human document; documentary reporting; facts; fiction; realism

Article.  6991 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Literary Studies (Fiction, Novelists, and Prose Writers)

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