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Preface Naturalism is dead.Notwithstanding Paul Alexis’s famous 1891 telegram to Jules Huret (“Naturalism not dead. Letter follows.”), according to at least one periodical, by the turn of the twentieth century the only thing naturalism lacked was an elegy by Emmeline Grangerford. In 1900 an obituary entitled “The Passing of Naturalism” in The Outlook officially declared the literary movement deceased. Sadly, implies the eulogist, naturalism may never have lived at all: even the works of Émile Zola,in retrospect,turn out to be little more than moral tracts against a parade of vices.Zola’s attempt to create a scientific literature—an experimental novel—was a failure.According to the eulogist, naturalism as a literary method proved to be “impracticable and untenable” and has thus been abandoned—and wisely so—by the younger generation of authors.1 Someone should have told Dreiser, I suppose. The writer for The Outlook declared naturalism dead because the fiction associatedwiththemovementdidnotseemtofittheallegedprinciplesupon which the movement was founded. In light of what we believe to be the achievements of certain works by Rebecca Harding Davis, Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Jack London,Edith Wharton,and Kate Chopin, just to mention a few of the more notable authors of the late nineteenth and early twentiethcenturies ,thisseemsabrashclaim.Yet,theimpulsebehindsuchaclaim warrants investigation, and in fact has resurfaced from time to time as critics have occasionally paused to scratch their heads and ask what literary naturalism, in the final analysis, is. The common answer that emerges from these collective musings is that naturalism is a branch of the realist movement , a branch informed by a reasonably well-defined set of philosophical attitudes regarding the relationship of humans to their environment. On x Preface occasion,however,a skeptic tolls the same bell as The Outlook, rejecting literary naturalism as a failed movement based on failed premises. ArecentexampleofsuchskepticismcanbefoundinSidneyGendin’s1995 article“WasStephenCrane(orAnybodyElse)aNaturalist?”2 Inwhatamounts to one of the more engaging and entertaining articles on the subject in recent years,Gendin,a philosopher by trade rather than a literary critic,begins with a standard definition of naturalism (derived from Lars Åhnebrink, and from Zola through Åhnebrink) and proceeds to demonstrate—using Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) as his test case—that it is philosophically naïve to imagine that Crane, or anyone else, can accurately be labeledanaturalist .Butwhatifweshiftthedefinitionofliterarynaturalismaway from philosophy and toward methodology,toward the study of human documentsandthephotographicdepictionofthesordidlivesofthelowerclasses ? This definition fails too,argues Gendin,as a work like Maggie demonstrates, with its dreamlike episodes and, at times, sparse textual detail based upon Crane’s own objective observation of slum life. In the end, Gendin suggests, the only definition of naturalism that actually works is “the portrayal without false sentiment of certain classes of people.It neither presupposes,evinces or arguesforanyphilosophictheoryofdeterminism;itisart,notscience;itnever permits improbably happy endings; it is imaginative and may freely employ metaphors and similes; it is not pseudo-documentary.It is none the worse for any of this.Maggie, for one,is the better for all of this” (101). It need hardly be observed that, while amazingly accurate in its way, the definition offered here by Gendin really says very little about literary naturalism .Andyet,Gendin’sobservationsregardingthedifficultiesencountered when one brings forward virtually any major work of literary naturalism,includingMaggie ,asadefinitionaltestcaseareastute,anditishardnottoagree with Gendin that the standard definitions of literary naturalism should be “cast into the flames, never to be heard from again” (89). After all, does literary naturalism really do what Zola says it does? And who was paying attention to Zola anyway? Let us return for a moment to our eulogist and grant—for the sake of argument —that naturalism is dead and in fact never lived. If we momentarily discount the context of Zola’s theoretical writings,in what context,then,do we see Frank Norris’s McTeague emerging? Or Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills”? Or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening? Or Jack Preface xi London’s Martin Eden? Or . . . fill in your own favorite here. Easy, one replies , they emerged within the dynamic of their cultural context. A reasonable answer, to be sure. Perhaps we might begin to paint our picture of the second half of the nineteenth century in America by looking at the table of contents of a few leading periodicals of the day. Here are a few titles: “The Progress from Brute to Man” —John Fiske, North American Review 1873 “Arthur Schopenhauer and His Pessimistic Philosophy” —E. Gryzanovski, North American Review 1873 “Spencer’s...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780817390891
Related ISBN
9780817313852
MARC Record
OCLC
1016777872
Pages
238
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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