Jutta Ernst, Sabina Matter-Seibel, and Klaus H. Schmidt, eds., Revisionist Approaches to American Realism and Naturalism (Heidelberg: Winter, 2018), 283 pp.
In spite of the persistent “Problem of Definition” (Donald Pizer) and the accompanying difficulty of delineating clear boundaries, a comprehensive aesthetic program, or the definite political, ideological, and philosophical currents that inform these movements, critical academic discourse has identified realism and naturalism as important literary movements that can help us understand the historical development of U.S. society and culture, but also give insight into contemporary developments. The flexibility of the literary and aesthetic modes that realism and naturalism championed should therefore be understood as part of a historical period of tremendous development and upheaval in American society that was highly complex and which cannot easily be summarized under a universal banner. One might argue that what Christopher Schaberg calls the current “Age of Post-Truth” holds similar challenges to what realist and naturalist authors experienced in their time. When even the “hard facts” of natural sciences can be called into question, the role of literature as a staging ground for the (de-)construction of different realities and the testing of different modes of experience becomes increasingly important. In this context, revisiting and revising literary realism and naturalism is a highly relevant endeavor. It is capable of adapting critical perspectives to new findings while also correcting the mistakes critical discourse made in the past by neglecting contributions by female writers and writers of color.
By engaging, challenging, and modifying the revisionist approaches to realism and naturalism in American literature, the essays in the present collection intend to take a first step in that direction. The collection emerged from “a symposium hosted by the American Studies division of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germersheim campus” (vii), which discussed a paradoxical situation within American literary studies where realism and naturalism receive little discursive attention by way of conferences while at the same time remaining a popular subject in a steady flow of academic publications. The editors consider the continued discursive interest in these two literary movements a reflection of present-day developments, such as the advent of the above-mentioned Post-Truth debates, the related precarious state of moral consensus, and the “renaissance of realist and naturalist strains in recent American fiction” (viii). Realism and naturalism, they argue, remain important topics of study and critical analysis also because realist and naturalist literature continue to be used in classrooms “to teach the social tensions and ideological conflicts underlying the formation of American culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (ix). While the volume is not partitioned into subsections, its contributions to the revisionist debate begin with a broad introductory essay followed by case studies in more or less chronological order. Thematically, the essays attempt meta-analyses and broader elaborations on the state of the realist and naturalist projects, re-readings of established canonical texts, the sketching of fruitful interdisciplinary approaches, readings of heretofore neglected or barely perceived texts, and fresh contributions to the questions of genre.
The first essay by Winfried Fluck offers a critical engagement with revisionist approaches ranging from the period following World War II to the present. Fluck argues that realism’s status as the “stepchild of American literary history” (1) is largely a result of revisionist criticism aimed at exposing realism’s flaws and highlighting its complicity in reinforcing problematic ideological and epistemological foundations. He outlines four areas of revisionist critique: poststructuralist, multicultural, sociological, and transnational. Although acknowledging the legitimacy and merit of their individual inquiries, Fluck criticizes revisionist approaches for making present-day political ideals the sole criterion of evaluating realist writing. In doing so, “revisionists give up any idea of a specific potential and function of literature” (29) and dismiss the importance of the relation between a fictional text and its readers. As Fluck sums up, the discourse now consists of two distinct critical approaches in what he calls “dissertation realism” (30) and “companion realism” (31). While the former promotes the radical critique of realism in the interest of innovative insights, the latter is content to reaffirm the importance of the movement in American literary history. His claim that this leaves academics “with the conundrum to decide which version of realism we should now take for ‘the real thing’” (31) provides an insightful comment on the sometimes paradoxical nature of critical discourse and academic publishing.
In the first case study of the volume, Stefan L. Brandt offers a comparative reading of Mark Twain’s “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” and William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham. The essay analyzes how both writers, despite their different approaches to writing literature, developed an “aesthetics of the commonplace” (36) which allowed them to use their writing to proliferate democratic ideas and values. Brandt argues that it is the “structural openness” (38) in their use of the word “common” that allows it to signify the ordinary on the one hand, and the idea of universally shared democratic values on the other. Twain and Howells thus contributed, each from his own vantage point, to the realist ideal of a “democratic literature” making the world intelligible by employing “the common man’s simple and natural view” (40).
Stephanie Metz provides an analysis of the portrayal of female agency in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Old Woman Magoun.” Although Freeman has been categorized primarily as a realist and regionalist, Metz argues that the short story about a woman who symbolically sacrifices her granddaughter to save her from her abusive father demonstrates how “Freeman employs the Gothic and naturalism to write a hybrid genre which foregrounds these modes while also forging them together” (48). While agency is of course always an important issue in naturalist writing, Metz’s interpretation shows how Freeman’s combination of Gothic elements of the uncanny and supernatural with naturalism’s deterministic worldview enabled her to shed light on the precarious status of female agency at the time. In doing so, Metz challenges the “long-shot view of naturalism […] that is largely white and male, and seen through a realist filter” (51).
James Dorson’s contribution discusses the relationship of naturalist writing with capitalist ideology at the end of the nineteenth century through a reading of Jack London’s Call of the Wild and Martin Eden. He proposes a historicist approach to naturalism that abandons ideas of holism, enabling it to recognize that the various beliefs and ideals in naturalist writing “cannot be reconciled into a single whole, but reflect the intermediary position of writers at the time between two historical phases of capitalism” (75). Dorson opposes critical accounts that draw an image of naturalist writing as complicit with either market capitalism or managed capitalism, arguing that they were also engaged in “anticipating the future development of capitalism through their critique” (76). The following analysis of Martin Eden’s transformation into what could be called a mechanical / machine subject highlights London’s critique of the psychological toll of industrial labor organized after the principles of scientific management and mechanization. Read against a backdrop of a soul- and inspiration-crushing industrial capitalism, his eventual suicide is convincingly reframed here as “the supreme assertion of his autonomous spirit over his automatic body” (92) in a “radical act of self-unification” (93) that mirrors London’s own transition from industrial laborer to successful author.
Eva Boesenberg interrogates two seminal works of the American literary naturalist canon, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Frank Norris’s McTeague, on their connection to the ideology of settler colonialism. In doing so, Boesenberg challenges settler colonialism’s status as “an ongoing regime that informs all aspects of U.S. American culture, politics, social life, etc. as well as those of North American indigenous nations” (98) by zooming in on the way these texts represent and reinforce the dominant hegemony of white, predominantly male settlers over non-white, non-male minorities. She demonstrates how the representational strategies of both novels work to discredit Native American experience, discursive contributions, and suffering. For example, Sister Carrie is situated in a logic of settler colonialism, as Boesenberg highlights through the “discursive obliteration of indigenous presences” (112) in Dreiser’s description of Chicago, a city whose name originates in Native American language. Both novels ultimately “contribute to the production of whiteness as settler colonial modernity” (113) and thus help to reproduce a problematic colonial order.
Staying with Sister Carrie, the essay by Günter Leypoldt recontextualizes Dreiser’s classic in the tradition of the artist novel. He argues that the dominant reading as a pessimistic naturalist text and as a treatment of the capitalist notion of commodity fetishism fails to take the context of the novel’s creation into account. Leypoldt highlights Dreiser’s connection to a “romantic intellectual background mediated through 1890s middlebrow culture” and rereads Carrie’s development as a move away from the materialism that dominates large parts of her younger years and towards “a kind of spiritual upward mobility, as the object of unattainable beauty shifts from department store wares to capital C culture” (132).
In the collection’s only essay on poetry, Carol S. Loranger examines the work of Robert Frost, specifically the poems collected in North of Boston. Loranger makes a strong case for including Frost into the discourse on naturalist writing, arguing that he was categorized as naturalist by his contemporary reviewers, but that this view has since faded into obscurity. In demonstrating how he uses long dialogue poems for the complex portrayal of topics such as vacated landscapes, hard labor, and the role of gender, Loranger convincingly underlines her claim that Frost’s poetry offers “the reader just that kind of microscopic examination of the impact of impersonal forces on these people that is characteristic of the naturalist short story” (146). Against this backdrop, North of Boston thus should be understood as an important body of naturalist poetry that “captures a region at a historical moment when a shift threatened to disintegrate long-existing social structures” (164).
Cara Erdheim Kilgallen adds to the endeavor of rethinking naturalism along lines that acknowledge issues of race, class, gender, and embodiment by examining the constitutive function of hunger for identity construction in Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy (American Hunger). Using Wright’s manuscripts, she explores how what she calls “racialized hunger” (170) became a persistent source of shame and suppression in the identity of many African Americans. Her analysis convincingly demonstrates the transformation of this concept of hunger, “which prompts a purely physical numbing of the senses through impulsive eating and drinking, into an appetite for literacy, stories, and songs about African American ancestry, community, and identity” (171). Through a complex portrayal of the compulsive behaviors, power struggles, and desires that African Americans feel, Kilgallen argues, Wright’s memoir connects both to a naturalist sense of a struggle for survival and to the Soul Food movement of the 1960s, with titular character Black Boy challenging white expectations through his refusal of their offerings of food, land, and knowledge.
In the next contribution, Sabine Sielke starts from the observation that current discourses seem to express a nostalgia for reality as “a place and time that never was” (197). Using filmic and literary adaptations of Henry James’s work as examples, she explores the possibility of a fruitful transdisciplinary cooperation between cultural studies and cognitive sciences, represented here by a juxtaposition of portraiture and close-up as aesthetic techniques with processes of face recognition. Sielke demonstrates the importance of “the human face—invisible to the subject’s own gaze, yet seen and read by others” (207) not only for the formation of individual identity but also for the establishing of intersubjectivity, defined as “the subject’s or spectator’s relation to an other” (207).
Continuing the transdisciplinary approach, Gerd Hurm investigates how the work of influential photographer Edward Steichen can inform debates about realism and naturalism as documentary texts as well as questions of an “inherent reality” within a medium. Using the photographer’s own writings and pictures, Hurm shows that Steichen had always been skeptical of his craft’s claim to objectivity, despite having been labeled as “a naïve, unreflected realist” (243) by critics. Steichen in fact contended that “every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible” (218), demonstrating an “awareness that any photo, pure record or not, can be turned into ‘propaganda’” (244). Revealing that even an eminent professional such as Steichen has always questioned the possibility of an objective portrayal of reality is highly relevant in the present age, where technical advancements have made it possible to edit photographs to manipulate public opinion and channel political energy.
In the collection’s final essay, Keith Newlin promotes a periodical studies approach by fusing a statistical analysis of the topics pertaining to realism and naturalism most searched and downloaded from databases such as the MLA Bibliography, Project Muse, and JSTOR with a case study of Jack London’s dealings with two magazines that eventually led to the publication of the collection of non-fictional writing The Cruise of the Snark. Newlin’s analysis opens up parallels between the contemporary circumstances of publishing critical writing and Jack London’s struggles in negotiating with magazine publishers who had their circulation numbers and their own readers’ interests in mind.
The collection covers a large variety of topics that contribute to current debates surrounding revisionist approaches to realism and naturalism in different but always intriguing ways. The essays open up new directions of thinking and inquiry, but also retrieve insights critical discourse had forgotten over the years. As such, the collection is successful in showcasing how the study of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature can be helpful in understanding present developments, for example in underlining that the concepts of reality and objectivity have always been contested, or by once more addressing the problematic of a holistic view of history. Yet the perspective could have been broadened by investigating how realist as well as naturalist aesthetics and techniques are used for political purposes in the debates on (post-)truth and factuality and how critical discourse can push back against the danger of right-wing conservative discourses instrumentalizing literary modes that were meant to promote democracy. Also, readers look in vain for a further elaboration on the renaissance realist / naturalist authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, or Teju Cole that were mentioned in the introduction. However, this does not diminish the collection’s contribution to American Studies in providing new perspectives into the contested field of studies in realism and naturalism and attesting to their ongoing contemporary relevance.
Stefan Danter (Mannheim)