Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Gender and Genre: Nature, Naturalism, and Authority in 'The Sea-Wolf.' (the Genders of Naturalism)

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Gender and Genre: Nature, Naturalism, and Authority in 'The Sea-Wolf.' (the Genders of Naturalism)

Article excerpt

The notion of God, ... however inferior it may be in clearness to those mathematical notions so current in mechanical philosophy, has at least this practical superiority over them, that it guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved. A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is still only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things.

William James(1)

In 1904, best-selling author Jack London published The Sea-Wolf,(2) and Wallace Stevens, newly admitted to the New York bar, wrote a meditative entry in his journal on the precarious instability of the middle class life to which he was accustomed. Superficially, the narratives appear to have little in common: London's novel of shipwreck and romance, shaped according to his own rules for popular fiction (and for earning a large income as a writer), seems far removed from the private meditations of a failed journalist and would-be poet, scared away from a career in writing by what he had seen (in 1901) as the "wretched, rag, tag, and bobtail" funeral of a barely mourned Stephen Crane. However, London's tale of an aesthete forced into manual labour and Stevens' journal entry on how "starting with nothing whatsoever ... is not wholly inspiring after a fellow has spent more or less time lolling about"(3) have at least one thing in common. They share what Frank Lentricchia (referring to Stevens) calls the "sense that he has been expelled from Eden, that his particular form of the American Dream involves the recapturing of a lost social and economic status that he had never earned but which he had nevertheless enjoyed, the resumption of a life that had fashioned the mode of his desire and had given him a taste of the good life."(4)

Lentricchia suggests that Stevens' reflections make him the "reallife brother" of Carrie Meeber and G. W. Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, of Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!, and of Jay Gatsby, with the proviso that Stevens is "different and maybe more typical" of the American experience (because of his expulsion "from Eden"), and that "neither Dreiser nor Faulkner nor Fitzgerald would tell his story." Because Stevens experienced separation from the class-comforts of his childhood and youth, but later regained these comforts with interest as vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, he differs from the unidirectional (either up or down) protagonists of Dreiser, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. Indeed, the naturalism of the turn-of-the-century abounds with examples of the proletarianization of the middle classes--Vandover, Hurstwood, Lily Bart--in representations of a world where social climbing is virtually impossible for the middle class, since only a handful of the super-rich are above them, and where social descent is a constant source of fear. Only the rise and fall of Silas Lapham (and, arguably, Hank Morgan) comes to mind as a "canonical" example of the journey in reverse, though the financial experiences of both London and Mark Twain remind us that such a journey was possible.

Given this, the question remains as to why London's novel should so resemble Stevens' journal entry. While it is easy to see why Stevens might fear, if not the abyss, then at least an undesirable form of downward mobility, London's own biography--as a socialist who was economically (again, in 1904) upwardly mobile--provides little motivation for his concern with Humphrey Van Weyden, the central figure in The Sea-Wolf. Given the paucity of similar characters in American literary naturalism (the protagonist may fall or rise, but is unlikely to do both), even the "purely" economic explanation that London had struck gold with his deconstruction of formula fiction, and would continue to repackage its generic traits, fails to create a cultural logic within which both Stevens' and London's texts would operate. …

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