English 2013: Introduction to American Literature
Assignment Two-- The Natural World


Emily Dickinson

The thematic focus of the literature that we are examining in the first assignments of this course is the natural world.

This second assignment asks you to read works by three American poets--Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams--and two American fiction writers--Stephen Crane, and Jack London. In all of the assigned works the natural world is used metaphorically to explore human mortality and our relationship to the divine.

In the five assigned Dickinson poems the birds, the fly, the sky, and the sea are used to explore human existence and its relationship to the natural world. In the title line of "The brain is wider than the sky" Dickinson bravely maintains the power of human consciousness and imagination to contain the natural world, but in other assigned poems the ephemerality of summer and the buzzing fly are reminders of mortality, a natural phenomenum that humans cannot overcome. In "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church" Dickinson contrasts communing with nature to traditional forms of worship in a way that is reminiscent of transcendental pantheism of Freneau, Emerson, and Thoreau.

Jack London and Stephen Crane are usually identified as literary naturalists. Naturalism was an extreme form of hyper-realism that developed in the late nineteenth century from the example of French writer Emile Zola. Naturalists were influenced by the evolutionary theories of Darwin as well as the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution. In general, naturalist writers (1) dismissed the validity of comforting moral truths, (2) attempted to achieve extreme objectivity and frankness in their writing, (3) saw the world as amoral, (4) saw people as lacking free will and driven by biological impulses, (5) believed that religious faith was an illusion, (6) saw the true human destiny as misery in life and oblivion in death.


Jack London

 


Stephen Crane

Robert Frost

In "To Build a Fire," Jack London portrays the harsh and unforgiving indifference of nature. We never learn the protagonist's name, but by the end of the story we see him through the consciousness of his dog as merely a "food-provider," who can be replaced by another. A brief biography of Jack London can be viewed at the web site maintained by the Jack London State Historical Park of Sonoma, California.

In "The Open Boat," Stephen Crane shows a diverse group of men in a lifeboat facing the indifference of a natural world that doesn't care if they live or die. This grim story, which seems to argue that life is driven by nothing more than chance, offers one bit of solace in the men's realization that they can turn to one another for comfort. Read "Stephen Crane's Own Story," the news report that Crane wrote about his experience aboard the Commodore that sank off the Florida coast. Crane eliminated many parts of that factual account when he rewrote the experience as fiction.

The five assigned Frost poems focus on the brevity and mystery of human existence. "Nothing Gold Can Stay" equates the autumnal falling of leaves with human loss of innocence or the original Fall into sin. "Desert Places" presents the reader with a blank, expressionless landscape that seems as lonely as the inhuman "empty spaces/ Between stars." Compare Frost's description of a snowblanketed night landscape in "Desert Places" with the seductively "lovely, dark, and deep" setting of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." "Design" contrasts the harsh natural process of predation, exemplified by a white spider destroying a white moth on a white flower, with the usual connotations of white as pure and innocent. The poem suggests that the purpose behind such a cruel natural system must be a "design of darkness to appall."

 


William Carlos Williams (1926)
William Carlos Williams was a practicing pediatrician in Patterson, New Jersey as well as one of America's most notable early-twentieth century poets. The introductory note to Williams in our text notes how he critcized both the obscurity of T.S. Eliot's poetry and the rural nostalgia of Frost's. "Williams' poetry rises from its accumulation of detail; he opposed the use of poetry for general statements ... 'No ideas but in things,' he wrote" Vol II (p. 787). The poem "Spring and All" is certainly informed by his experiences delivering babies as well as his observation of the dreary New Jersey landscape at the end of winter.

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updated: June 14, 2018