Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women's Writing

By Freitas, Molly J. | Studies in the Novel, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women's Writing


Freitas, Molly J., Studies in the Novel


CAMPBELL, DONNA M. Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women's Writing. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2016. 400 pp. $64.95 hardcover.

Donna M. Campbell's new study challenges the traditional, male-conceived boundaries of American literary naturalism as it catalogues an immense range of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women writers and examines their connections to early film. Bitter Tastes "places women writers at the center rather than at the periphery of American literature of the period" (2) and asks the deceptively simple question, "what is to be gained by this additional classification" (324) of naturalism? Through an extraordinarily wide-ranging study that invokes canonical (e.g. Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Gertrude Stein), popular (e.g., Edna Ferber, Ruth Suckow, Fannie Hurst), and sometimes obscure (e.g., Kate Cleary. Dorothy Scarborough. Batterman Lindsay) women authors writing in a diverse variety of forms (novels, short stories, prostitution testimonials, etc.) and connects these women's writings to the early film industry, Campbell "restores a missing context" (325) of naturalism and proves that literary critics indeed have much to gain through such an expanded, interdisciplinary understanding of naturalism's cultural categorization.

"Classic" (male) naturalists such as Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris. and Jack London emphasized the connection between one's innate traits and the environment and thus called into question the concept of free will. Although similarly concerned with deterministic forces encroaching upon women's bodies and experiences, women writers of the same period, Campbell argues, demonstrated a more complicated understanding of the biological and social forces at work in human life than their male counterparts. Reading these authors in the naturalistic vein therefore productively disrupts the category's traditional boundaries and demands renewed conceptual attention from the reader and the critic.

Developing a definition that becomes a presiding principle of the text, Campbell terms this expanded classification "unruly naturalism" because it "provides a different way of looking at pervasive strains existing in the background rather than the foreground of classic naturalism, including the issues of waste and abjection. disability and age, structural unevenness or excess, sentimentalism and melodrama, social reform, and women's use of technology" (4). Each of the book's seven chapters touches upon at least one of these themes and intelligently puts them in conversation with historically specific issues of immigration, urbanization, mechanization, and national identity. Naturalistic women writers examine such issues through the medium of the woman's body, a site of "private surveillance and public spectacle" (9) but also of agency not seen in the works of male writers like Dreiser and Crane.

Campbell's inclusive treatment of naturalism is a welcome addition to contemporary studies in the field, including Mary E. Papke's Twisted from the Ordinary: Essays on American Literary Naturalism (2003), which considers naturalism in relation to imperialism, sentimentalism, chaos theory, and detective and social justice fiction, and Eric Carl Link's The Vast and Terrible Drama, which argues that the confusion surrounding naturalism's classification stems from its links to multiple fields, including philosophy, science, and literature. More broadly, "placing women's naturalism at the center also responds to the need for a more inclusive canon of American literature" (7), a call echoed by other eminent American literature critics such as Elizabeth Ammons and Wai Chee Dimock.

The majority of Bitter Tastes' chapters are lively and persuasive. Chapter three's argument concerning "Bohemian Time," for instance, convincingly studies writers like Willa Cather (in "Coming, Aphrodite!") and Ellen Glasgow (in Phases of an Inferior Planet) to observe the peculiar and difficult position of the woman artist. …

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