Domesticating Naturalism: The Example of 'The Pit.' (the Genders of Naturalism)

By Eby, Clare Virginia | Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 1994 | Go to article overview

Domesticating Naturalism: The Example of 'The Pit.' (the Genders of Naturalism)


Eby, Clare Virginia, Studies in American Fiction


Behind the release of the new paperback edition of The Pit in the summer of 1994 lies a disagreement between the editor and publisher over the cover art for it. The editor, Joseph McElrath, Jr., originally selected an art nouveau print by the graphic artist Alphonse Mucha, perhaps best known for his posters of Sarah Bernhardt. Plate 47 from Mucha's Documents Decoratifs (published in 1902, the same year as The Pit) is a vertical composition featuring a voluptuous woman with dark hair piled on top of her head. Her torso and legs are covered by a rich-looking teal wrap that spills out in sensuous disarray over the ornamental border beneath. The woman's breasts are uncovered, one hand rests suggestively on her hip, and she gazes directly at the viewer. To the left, a bear snarls at the viewer (the animal's head is in front of the woman's right breast and obscures it). The bear and woman are framed by an ornate, stylized floral pattern which, in the lower half, has the effect of both peacock feathers and stained glass. The iconography of this print is richly suggestive of The Pit. The bear (even if it is a bear rug) evokes Curtis Jadwin, whose stock market strategies alternate between being bullish and bearish; the peacock pattern suggests his narcissistic rival, the artist of stained glass, Sheldon Corthell; but the focal point is the languorous, self-absorbed woman. McElrath selected this image to focus readers of the book not on the Chicago Board of Trade or Jadwin, but on Laura Dearborn as femme fatale--or so she likes to see herself. Penguin, however, rejected the Mucha in favor of a photograph of the Chicago Board of Trade. The vintage photograph of "the pit" is also a vertical composition, the top two-thirds showing a vast, hazily-lit room. In the bottom third, a huge crowd of men in business suits (and, oddly, at least one child in the lower left) look toward the camera. Penguin's decision to play up the commodities market plot, which I think is unfortunate, encapsulates the longstanding critical misjudgment about how The Pit should be read that is the point of departure for this essay.(1)

American literary naturalism flourished during a period that historians have described as marking a "crisis of masculinity."(2) Not surprisingly, naturalism has generally been seen as hypermasculine, and the place of women in the naturalist aesthetic is thus--as Penguin's decision illustrates--precarious at best. Turn-of-the-century novels that depict the breakdown of families and social relationships or feature "fallen women" are likely to be labelled naturalistic, along with tales of such Strenuous Life pastimes as commodities trading, muckraking, and dog sledding. Literary-historical labels have their necessary uses, but the problem with how naturalism has been constructed is that all the works of certain authors tend to be interpreted within a framework that is both too broad (in the number of novels it seeks to encompass) and too narrow (in the issues said to be definitive). Particularly with the works of Frank Norris and Jack London, and to a lesser degree, Theodore Dreiser, naturalist novels are often read in terms of how they succeed or fail in embodying a masculine code, a code believed to leave its traces on the pages of novels and in the events of authors' lives. Because of the initial crudeness and startling endurance of critical constructions about the gender of naturalism and some of its key players, a number of novels that do not fit the mold have been trivialized or ignored.(3)

A case in point is the reception of The Pit. Frank Norris's final novel has been pronounced a blunder by most of its commentators, but the grounds for indicting it were initially chauvinistic, and remain rooted in dubious assumptions about gender. Like all of Norris's novels and much of his nonfiction, The Pit is surely concerned with gender issues, but not so as to advertise some juvenile or bellicose idea of its author's masculinity. …

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