June Howard's Form and History in American Naturalism redefines the genre of naturalistic fiction, which she sees not as a repository for an ideology in fictional trappings but as a dynamic development of an ideology by novelists confronting the history and culture of the period between the Civil War and 1914. They created and reshaped narrative strategies to define and structure a distinctive genre. Considering the same period, Christopher P. Wilson in The Labor of Words critically examines bestselling writers who rose to prominence during the emergence of Progressive activism and who became shapers and then disillusioned products of the renovated mass-appeal publishing structure. Although Howard and Wilson mostly ask different questions as they focus on the years between 1890 and 1910, their books in many ways complement and confirm each other.
Howard's particular intention is to explain and define as carefully as she can "the distinctive character of . . . American literary naturalism" in relation to the "historical moment" in which it developed and flourished. She first offers a critical summary of contemporary genre theories without committing herself to any one theoretic formulation, if favoring those of Lukács, Jameson, and Althusser. She then rigorously coordinates a "close analysis of individual texts with the history of literary forms and with social and economic history" in order "to evoke a sense of naturalism as a mediating concept that enables us to perceive significant similarities and differences" among the texts she chooses, primarily those by Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and, in lesser detail, Stephen Crane and Upton Sinclair. Her analysis demonstrates that naturalist novelists, coming to see themselves as both scientists and lay preachers, needed and sought narrative strategies to lend formal unity to fictions that would resolve the contradictory aims of documenting reality and reforming society. The result was that their novels "reinvent the possibilities of narrative at their historical moment."
But implied throughout her study and made explicit at the end of the book is a more ambitious purpose. That purpose becomes evident in the dextrous way her own method reflects that of the naturalists themselves. She documents the character and qualities of naturalistic fiction relative to the contemporary social and cultural history that informs it with the intention of reforming, or, as she phrases it, reinventing American naturalism so that her method can be a model for "a new literary history."
She begins by examining closely the "thematic structure" of three model naturalist novels: Dreiser's Sister Carrie, London's White Fang, and Norris' Vandover and the Brute. Using A. G. Greimas' "'elementary structure of signification' . . . as an analytical tool," her analysis, although recognizing differences, reveals that the characteristic oppositions in the genre show a similar pattern in their tensions between instinct and free will, between the human and the brutal. She can then confirm the conventional perception of naturalism as pessimistic determinism and move beyond that limited truism and cautiously but firmly assert that the naturalists, in seeking to unify determinism and reformism, managed to create a narrative structure of their own. [End Page 257]
Examining several naturalist novels, Howard shows that their narrators are spectators (or characters who serve as spectators for the implied author) who come to understand the unpredictable deterministic forces at work in the lives of the brutalized victims of society. The narrators, however, inevitably find themselves trapped into passivity because "they can never put the suggestions of their understanding into effect." "The image of immobility" seems inherent in the naturalist's endeavor because an unbridgeable gap exists between the fictional narrator and the brutal lives he documents.
Howard wisely treads lightly through the period of the Progressive reform movement and the controversial analyses of its social historians, but she offers sufficient evidence that the literary naturalists anticipated it. Affinities can be found between the naturalists and Progressivists in their ethical attitudes and rhetorical modes. The growing influence of scientific investigation...