Stephen Crane is considered to be one of the most prominent literary naturalists in American literature. Naturalism was a movement in American literature during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Other notable American naturalist authors include Frank Norris, John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, and Jack London.
American naturalism has various key features that distinguish it from French literary naturalism and American realism, its closest cousins. American naturalist authors strove to adopt neutral, objective tones in their works. Their characters also were portrayed as victims of their environments and circumstances. Instead of featuring man’s free will, naturalists emphasized the deterministic nature of human life. In other words, man's fate is dictated by factors other than his own free will. People may try to do better, but they are small and ineffectual compared with the natural environment. The universe, indifferent to the state of humankind, will go on regardless of what humans do. Characters in naturalist literature are deeply impacted by hereditary and environmental factors.
Many American naturalist novels focused on poor characters living in industrialized or industrializing cities. Similar to American realists, naturalist authors did not attempt to make poverty appear glamorous or redeemable to readers. On the contrary, maintaining objectivity, American naturalists did not shy away from depicting the daily horrors of life in extreme poverty.
Stephen Crane's Great Short Works clearly demonstrates his skill as a naturalist author, particularly "Maggie" and "The Open Boat." In "Maggie," the title character certainly falls victim to her environment and to hereditary factors. The destitution in which Maggie is raised deeply impacts her perception of Pete, causing her to believe that he is an upstanding young man who truly cares for her, when in fact he is a good-for-nothing louse. Her mistreatment at the hands of her brother and mother also lead to her demise. Maggie's death occurs anonymously with little detail, another sign of the universe's indifference to her brief life.
"The Open Boat" emphasizes naturalist themes as well. The men stranded on the boat are certainly at the mercy of the ocean, an entity that is indifferent to their survival. Crane does not describe the men as heroic survivors either, but adopts a more distanced tone when describing each character. They do work hard to ensure their own survival, but it is almost a random survival. Free will is not enough; chance plays a large role in life. This is best exemplified by the oiler's death; his strength does not make him immune to the obstacles they face or the violence of nature.