Naturalism is a literary movement that arose in the late-ninteenth century and was prominent throughout the 20th century. Naturalism depicts people in their base, physiologically dependent states. These stories heavily suggest Darwinian ideals. Published in the mid-nineteenth century, the novellas Benito Cereno and The Heroic Slave, written by Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass respectively, arguably featured thematic that can be described as naturalist. Their depictions of race, slavery, and purpose in life seem to follow naturalist ideals, however different they are from one another.
Benito Cereno suggests conflict rather than outright narrating it. It isn’t clear to the reader that black rebellion has taken place, but Delano’s rhetoric shows that he is untrustworthy of his peers. We soon come to learn that the ship is under the influence of the black slaves, and that a number of white sailors were killed by them. To comment on the flu outbreak, the narrative states that more of the white sailors died from it than the slaves. This indicates that the black’s willpower to prevail under harsh circumstances is stronger than white mens’. Returning to the naturalist theme of this analysis, Melville continuously alludes to the idea of people being “born” to specific modes of living. “Most negroes are natural valet and hair-dressers” (Melville 212). And again, he generalizes race here, too: “But as a nation–continued he in his reveries–these Spaniards are all an odd set; the very word Spaniard has a curious, Guy-Fawkish twang to it” (206). Melville explicitly comments on naturalism in this final quote: “The whites , too, by nature, were the shrewder race” (201). Melville’s depiction of slave rebellion lies more in sub-text. He reinvents the white-black power dynamic by exploring naturalist themes, and in a way, shows the men as irrational-thinking animals by doing so.
The Heroic Slave is much more upfront about its themes than Melville is with his story. Within the first few pages, we come to see that Washington views black slaves as less than animals. “Those birds, perched on the swinging boughs… They live free, though they may die slaves… I am a slave–, born a slave… But here am I, a man–yes, a man!–with thoughts and wishes, with powers and faculties as far as angel’s flight above that hated reptile–yet he is my superior… I am galled with irons; yet even these are more tolerable than the consciousness” (Douglass, 5-6). Washington expresses than men are slaves to each other and to themselves. Consciousness is a prison in itself. His slavery is all the more suffering because he is aware that he is one. Douglass shows that slavery is unique among of humans in the animal kingdom, because we have a word for it. Humans have concepts of freedom and liberty, power and happiness. This is absent in the animal kingdom; wild animals are only slaves to their physiology, yet to them that is just life. Circumstances are much more important to humans than they are to animals. To Douglass, there is a certain humility and embarrassment to being a slave, because it appears to unnatural, and therefore irrational.
Melville and Douglass commentate on naturalism in there own unique ways. Their works are perhaps pre-cursors to the naturalism literary movement.