- Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885–1915
While many critics have examined the relationship between naturalism and realism, Donna Campbell’s study differs from others by focusing on “the ways in which the naturalists’ response to women’s local color fiction was shaped not only by literary generation or by genre but by gender as well.” She argues that naturalists in fact fashioned their literature as a direct response to what they perceived as the domination of literature by feminine tastes and women writers.
Campbell begins by accounting for both the popular and critical success of local color literature. Flourishing in the 1870s and 1880s and written largely by women, local color documents and celebrates the lives of ordinary, humble people in places increasingly threatened by external social and political forces (industrialization, urbanization, westward migration) as well as by time itself. Preservation serves as both a theme and as a method, whereby the essential virtues of village life can be distilled and passed on through community rituals and traditions and through storytelling. As such, Campbell argues, local color fulfills a number of significant cultural functions: “for nostalgia; for a retreat into mildly exotic locales; for a semblance of order preserved in ritual; for positively regarded values.”
By the 1890s, local color’s popularity had waned, and Campbell charts the rise of naturalism through its conscious and almost conscientious resistance to what naturalism’s chief practitioners deemed the “feminine” elements of realism. Offended by what they perceived as the “unnatural,” “unreal” elements of realism and local color—namely, its insistence on bourgeois values and people, its celebration of continuity, its (in Frank Norris’s terms) “drama of the broken teacup”—naturalists sought out the excessive, the grotesque, the extreme, the brutish. They shifted their focus to urban landscapes and followed the methods and models of journalism; they sough to depict a grittier, more “realistic” picture of “real life.” Campbell situates the naturalists’ anxiety about effeminacy within a larger matrix of cultural forces (including Theodore Roosevelt’s politics and machismo) and then carefully traces, both in naturalistic fiction and in statements, reviews, and [End Page 434] criticism written especially by Norris, Crane, and Dreiser, the conception of an aesthetic and literary practice designed expressly to counteract this perceived reign of effeminacy. In the chapters that follow, Campbell provides perceptive, meticulous readings of works by Frank Norris ( McTeague and Vandover the Brute ), Harold Frederic ( The Damnation of Theron Ware ), Jack London ( Martin’s Eden ), Stephen Crane ( George’s Mother and The Monster ), Theodore Dreiser ( Sister Carrie ), and Edith Wharton ( Ethan Frome, The Bunner Sisters, and “Miss Mansty’s View”). She carefully tracks and highlights the intertextual moments wherein naturalist texts revise, rewrite, and critique local color’s themes, plots, values, and methods.
Campbell’s careful readings of the naturalist texts, especially of Vandover and The Bunner Sisters, are illuminating and persuasive, as is her argument that fear of femininity drove the naturalists to structure their work in opposition to their perceptions of local color literature. But, while Campbell acknowledges that the naturalists may have misperceived local color literature and while she asserts local color’s importance to literary history, her treatment of that earlier tradition is problematic. Relying largely on feminist formulations of local color literature (by Fetterley and Pryse, Donovan, and Douglas), Campbell presents the enormous, variegated body of writing known as regionalism as a fairly uniform and unified tradition. While she cites the work of Richard Brodhead and Amy Kaplan, she fails to follow their lead in examining those disruptive elements within regionalism, elements that problematize and unsettle easy readings of its relationship to the past, its apotheosis of village life, its understanding of femininity, domesticity, and home. Perhaps most disappointing is her treatment of Rose Terry Cooke (who receives little critical attention) and Mary Wilkins Freeman; the rigorous critiques of the narrowness, traditions, and stifling isolation of rural villages found in the works of Cooke and Freeman suggest a vision quite akin to that of naturalism as Campbell maps it. Whatever the naturalists’ misperceptions...