Form and History in American Literary Naturalism

Form and History in American Literary Naturalism

Form and History in American Literary Naturalism

Form and History in American Literary Naturalism

Synopsis

Examining the novels of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and other writers, June Howard presents a study of American literary naturalism as a genre. Naturalism, she states, is a way of imagining the world and the relation of the self to the world, a way of making sense -- and making narrative -- out of the comforts and discomforts of its historical moment.

Howard believes that naturalism accomodates the sense of perilousness, uncertainty, and disorder that many Americans felt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She argues for a redefinition of the form which allows it to be seen as an immanent ideology responding to a specific historical situation.

Working both from accepted definitions of naturalism and from close analysis of the literary texts themselves, Howard consructs a new description of the genre in terms of its thematic antinomies, patterns of characterization, and narrative strategies. She defines a range of historical and cultural reference for the ideas and images of American naturalism and suggests that the form has affinities with such contemporary ideologies as political progressivism and criminal anthropology. In the process, she demonstrates that genre criticism and historical analysis can be combined to create a powerful method for writing literary history.

Throughout Howard's study, the concept of genre is used not as a prescriptive straitjacket but as a category allowing the perception of significant similarities and differences among literary works and the coordination of textual analysis with the history of literary and social forces. For Howard, naturalism is a dynamic solution to the problem of generating narrative from the particular historical and cultural materials available to the authors.

Originally published in 1985.

Excerpt

The present study is a detailed reading of a single literary genre, American literary naturalism, as a distinctive response to its historical moment. As I make that statement its implications clamor for annotation -- I may not mean exactly what the reader expects when I speak of genre, of history, or of literary texts as responses to history. The chapters that follow make those discriminations; they proceed more or less inductively, working from within familiar formulations to reconstruct our ideas of genre criticism, of the relation between literary form and history, and of naturalism and American naturalism. Let me here suggest more summarily just where those arguments will lead us.

When Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries voiced their thoughts for contemporaries or recorded them for posterity they often reported that they felt themselves living in a perilous time, a period of change and uncertainty, of dislocations and disorders. Naturalism is a literary form that struggles to accommodate that sense of discomfort and danger, a form that unremittingly attends to the large social questions of its period. An investigation of naturalism thus doubly entails an investigation of its historical moment -- as the condition of its production and as the source of discourses embedded within the works. I will sketch a range of historical and cultural reference for the ideas and images we encounter in the pages of American naturalist novels; in this matrix, narrative strategies, literary conventions, and passing references to concepts or stereotypes take on significances unsuspected when one is reading only in terms of a single text. I conceive my task to be reading across the texts not to uncover but to construct an object of study: naturalism as a literary form. My contention will not be that naturalism has an ideology or reflects an ideology, but that the form itself is an immanent ideology. It is a way of imagining the world and the relation of the self to the world, a way of making sense -- and making narrative -- out of the comforts and discomforts of the historical moment. Those reports of disorder and that narrative sense express, we should note, not "America" but some Americans. Our generalizing habit of speech, embodied in so many discussions of American literature, is itself continuous with the assumption that certain points of view matter more than others, with a systematic forgetfulness organized along the lines of class, race, and gender. To elicit the voices of nonhegemonic groups from the historical record is not the task I have taken on here. But naturalism does bear within itself the memory of that forgetfulness, for . . .

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