Jutta Ernst, Sabina Matter-Siebel, and Klaus H. Schmidt, editors. Revisionist Approaches to American Realism and Naturalism. Universitätsverlag Winter, 2018.
Using “revisionist” in the title of a text is something of a hostage to fortune, and it sets the contributors to Revisionist Approaches to American Realism and Naturalism a considerable challenge. Fortunately, most of the essays in this timely collection achieve this claim in broad terms, providing some provocative textual readings and sustained engagement with existing theoretical positions. The emphasis overall is weighted slightly towards naturalism rather than realism, which may be for a number of reasons. Firstly, theoretical arguments concerning realism—especially the validity of its representational claims—have been well rehearsed over at least the last three decades, as Winfried Fluck’s opening essay notes. Secondly, naturalism has thus been relatively overlooked in terms of these critical debates and so is arguably more ripe for revisionist interventions at this point in time. Perhaps indeed, as some of the essays herein suggest, there is more theoretical meat available to “revise” with regard to naturalism.
The collection is also heavily weighted towards American realism and naturalism of their respective “classic” periods, despite the Introduction noting that a resurgence of critical interest is in part attributable to “the renaissance of realist and naturalist strains in recent American fiction” (viii). This is telling in terms of the cultural forms analysed by this collection, which tends towards a multi-media, multi-genre, and interdisciplinary approach, with essays on a number of novels, obviously, but also on poetry and photography. There is almost nothing on film, however, while television is entirely absent, which is both a little surprising and slightly disappointing, given that they are strongly narrative mediums associated with realism and, to a certain extent, naturalism. Certainly one of the most striking elements in the recent resurgence of realism and naturalism noted in the Introduction is the forms’ manifestation through lengthy TV narratives, as in notable twenty-first-century American serials including The Shield, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Dexter, and The Night Of. The general absence of discussion of more recent manifestations of realism and naturalism in American culture does mean, however, that revisionist approaches broached within these pages may be adaptable for scholars examining these more recent texts.
Winfried Fluck’s opening chapter surveys a variety of theoretical approaches to the interpretation of realist texts from about the middle of the twentieth century. The chapter pays particular attention to the aftermath of postmodernist and poststructuralist approaches which castigated realism for its alleged dishonesty and conservatism in presenting itself as merely reflective of an objective reality. Such a theoretical stance has been widely criticised for its reductiveness which, as Fluck points out, marginalises crucial components such as realism’s democratising tendencies and its historical commitment to social reform. Fluck is also scathing with regard to, for example, the propensity of such critiques to elide potentially wide and significant aesthetic differences between individual writers. In the face of a further criticism of realism, this time from a multicultural perspective, that realism reifies conventional concepts of race and gender, Fluck usefully draws on Elizabeth Ammons’s work, which points out that for those disenfranchised by real inequalities, realist modes actually provide a means to articulate their concerns. In the face of such urgent demands, poststructuralist epistemological critiques of realism tend to fade in significance. Fluck also usefully investigates the effect of the literary marketplace on the production of realist texts, here drawing on Mark McGurl’s reading of Henry James’s formal innovations as a useful selling point.
The remainder of the collection mainly comprises analyses of particular writers, pairings of writers, and texts. Stefan Brandt discusses the work of key realists, William Dean Howells and Mark Twain, finding in the language used in their novels a democratising urge, an aesthetic of the commonplace which pays attention to difference and inequalities in social class. Sabine Sielke’s chapter, much later in the collection, is also focused predominantly on realism, specifically analysing the realist aesthetic principles of Henry James, and his work’s tendency towards portraiture, through the contemporary lens of cognitive science. Sielke’s argument is interesting not least for taking into account our culture’s current hunger for the real—in this regard she also discusses the film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady—but a real that, post-constructivism, we now more readily appreciate as perennially mediated.
Turning to naturalism, Stephanie Metz provides an accomplished reading of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s short story, “Old Woman Magoun,” as an important piece of gothic naturalism. In doing so, Metz usefully reminds the reader of naturalism’s malleability, its capacity to embrace other forms and ideologies to produce interesting hybrids. Metz’s chapter also constructs a telling gender-based reading of Freeman’s story which underlines the comparative levels of agency typically exercised by male and female characters in naturalist fiction. This is an issue which has recently been noted by a number of feminist naturalist critics; see for example Donna Campbell’s recent monograph on naturalism and early cinema in women’s writing which coincidentally also discusses agency in Freeman’s story. Naturalism conventionally permits its protagonists no or highly limited free will, but as Metz’s subtle reading underlines, this tends not to be equally mapped across gender lines.
The following two chapters also readily fulfil the volume’s commitment to supplying agile and revisionist perspectives on canonical texts. James Dorson’s reading of Jack London’s Martin Eden is a nuanced yet provocative analysis of the dialogical urges in London’s authorship and the work itself. His heavily historicised methodology enables some telling insights into the aesthetic tension in London’s output between a dedication to work—even of the mechanised variety—and his simultaneous celebration of the free artistic spirit. As has been frequently noted, London’s work is riven with ideological inconsistencies, but Dorson performs an admirable service in identifying specific historical sources underlying yet another set of contradictions. Similarly historicist is Eva Boesenberg’s approach in her chapter on money and gender in Frank Norris’s McTeague and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Boesenberg’s ingenious analysis notes how a highly masculinist “settler colonialism” is articulated through naturalist texts. She notes these novels’ preoccupation with gold and money, and the way in which this is expressed through associations with gender: gold and masculinity are connected in McTeague, whereas Sister Carrie associates credit with Carrie’s defiantly non-normative sexuality. But this is to do a disservice to the subtleties of Boesenberg’s argument, which effectively sheds light on a matrix of race, gender, and money running through these and other naturalist texts, sustained by particular aesthetic and discursive authorial choices.
Günter Leypoldt takes a different approach to Sister Carrie, placing it in the historical context of the middle-brow “artist novel.” This chapter usefully situates Dreiser in an earlier nineteenth-century tradition than is generally the case amongst critics and thus foregrounds neglected transcendentalist and romantic elements in his fiction, which Leypoldt identifies as part of a persistent middle-brow impulse. This position pays off in illuminating Carrie’s motivation—in particular her “passions” —in ways that other critics tend to overlook and that pay proper attention to Dreiser’s cultural context. If this chapter has a fault, it is the latter section, which becomes sidetracked into a discussion of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, which yields relatively little for the length.
In one of the few chapters not focused on prose narrative, Carol Loranger examines naturalist tendencies in Robert Frost’s poetry, specifically his North of Boston collection, much of which is told through constructed narrating personae. For all her efforts, such an attempt to broaden naturalism as a literary mode cannot help but come across as slightly tendentious. The chapter nevertheless raises the interesting question of the purpose of so far extending naturalism as a critical idiom; what, in other words, is to be gained by such moves towards universality? The danger, as this chapter unfortunately illustrates, is that definitions of naturalism, already a remarkably broad, expansive—even at time omnivorous—form, become so diluted as to empty them of meaning. As suggested previously, naturalism in more recognisable forms has resurged to such an extent that it is arguably redundant to broaden its purview to more questionable literary forms and practitioners.
The following chapter, by Cara Erdheim Kilgallen, returns to more obviously canonical naturalist ground, through a discussion of imagery of food and hunger in the work of Richard Wright. In terms of revisionism, this is a particularly interesting chapter, since it enhances and enlarges our reading of Wright’s naturalist texts with only minimal recourse to existing naturalist theory or indeed to the wider naturalist canon. This may be regarded as a strength, however, since this exploration of Wright’s work through “culinary culture” both provides the means to investigate the work of other naturalist writers and fulfils Kilgallen’s stated aim of “rethink[ing] naturalism in terms of race, gender, the body, ethnicity, and class” (169). Indeed, Kilgallen’s argument also leads her to conclude, again usefully, that critics of naturalism should no longer “overlook those moments […] where the narrative protagonist asserts agency” (191).
The penultimate chapter in the collection, by Gerd Hurm, again switches medium, focusing on photographer and critic Edward Steichen’s important intervention in Depression Era photography. Although Steichen’s reputation has only recently begun a process of repair, after he was written off mid-twentieth-century as an old-fashioned conservative, Hurm shows how influential Steichen was in the reception of the work of other Depression Era photographers including Russell Lee and Dorothea Lange, whom he promoted through curated exhibitions and magazine features. Hurm’s chapter delivers a lively reading of Steichen’s work, considering it in the light of debates concerning photography and realism—not least Steichen’s own polemical interventions into such debates—and drawing attention to the explicitly political characteristics of the way in which Steichen presented the work of his fellow photographers.
The final chapter, by Keith Newlin, is a curious two-part beast. The first is a more or less empirical study of recent critical trends in realism and naturalism, conducted through a survey of recently published articles and monographs and of what evidence there is (namely Project Muse downloads) of their readership. The chapter then doglegs into a wonderfully entertaining and enlightening study of the unusual—to say the least—publishing history of Jack London’s Cruise of the Snark, a book about his abortive 1907-09 attempt to sail around the world. Employing an arguably foolhardy strategy to fund the trip and the building of the sailing vessel, London audaciously sold “exclusive” rights for publishing extracts of his writing about the voyage to a number of magazines, including Cosmopolitan and the Women’s Home Companion. Newlin beautifully documents the predictably chaotic outcome of this piece of chutzpah, shedding new light not only on London’s already compelling character but also on the effect of the vagaries of early twentieth-century publishing practices upon the emerging naturalist form. As such, the chapter brings to a satisfying conclusion a collection which, for the most part, ably fulfils some of the ambitious claims of providing revisionist readings of realist and, especially, naturalist works. If this collection does not widen the canon of realism and naturalism as much as certain other recent interventions—especially feminist critiques—it nevertheless represents a welcome contribution to debates in the field and will provide some valuable foundations for further study in the area.
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