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2 The Naturalist Aesthetic Theexpectationswebringtoatexthelpshapethewaywereadandrespond to it. This point was not lost on nineteenth-century authors, who at times took delight in manipulating their reader’s genre expectations.Edgar Allan Poe was a master at this game, casting certain of his most fantastic gothic romancesintheformofrealisticreportageorautobiography.Suchisthecase in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” in which a gruesome tale of mesmerism and bodily decay is presented as a true account of an actual scientific experiment, and in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, in which an increasingly fantastic account of a trip to the South Pole is presented as an authorized account only edited by Poe. Herman Melville also had some fun with this type of ruse as early readers debated whether Typee was a romantic adventure tale of the South Seas or an autobiographical rendering of real events. Perhaps it was both. Melville, of course, did draw heavily upon his own experiences when writing Typee and Omoo, however embellished the finished products may be.Writinghisthirdnovel,Mardi, wasadifferentprospectaltogether.Inthis work Melville set aside any pretensions about rendering experiences realistically or factually and let his imagination roam with abandon. In a letter to publisher John Murray dated March 25, 1848, Melville wrote that in Mardi he would “out with the Romance.”1 Melville makes it perfectly clear to Murray that Mardi is to be read as a romance rather than an autobiographical travel narrative or realistic novel. Melville emphasized this point in order to clarify for Murray what he should expect to find in the novel, thus preventing Mardi from being judged by the wrong genre conventions and literary standards. The antebellum historical romance writer William Gilmore Simms made 22 Naturalist Aesthetic asimilarpointinhisprefacetoTheYemassee(1835).“Ihaveentitledthisstory a romance,” Simms writes, “and not a novel—the reader will permit me to insist upon the distinction.I am unwilling that ‘THE YEMASSEE’should be examined by any other than those standards which have governed me in its composition.”2 Simms’s insistence in this passage emphasizes just how important certain nineteenth-century writers felt genre distinctions were.If we read The Yemassee expecting a novel, we will find the work seriously flawed—full of extravagant indulgences that cross the boundaries of realistic representation. If we read it as a romance, however, then The Yemassee will strike us,presumably,as one of the better historical romances written in antebellum America. For many years, a theme running through accounts of late-nineteenthcenturyAmericanliteraturehasbeenthatNorris ,London,Frederic,Dreiser, and even Crane, wrote “flawed” narratives—fiction that is often labeled “powerful”though less than masterful,if not downright inartistic.The reasons critics have labeled such works “flawed” are various; for example, American literary naturalists are sometimes charged with failing to create a perfectly deterministic world or for failing to live up to the standards of realistic fiction as practiced by Howells and James.Or sometimes they simply write bad novels, as seems to be the case with Norris’s A Man’s Woman, to name just one of the lesser lights in the naturalist pantheon. Staying with Frank Norris for a moment,one notes that he has been criticizedforanoverlyformalstyle ,theearnest(andsometimescondescendingly judgmental) tone of his authorial commentary,strains of anti-Semitism,and posturing that smacks of ill-conceived notions of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Regardingthose“flaws”thatareattributabletocommonattitudesofthetime (e.g.,Norris’s racial beliefs) or to artistic shortcomings (e.g.,Norris’s overly formal passages),we can do little; there is no special pleading that can erase racialstereotypingfoundinthepagesofMcTeagueorVandoverandtheBrute. And even if there were,this study is not concerned with acting as an apologia for the lesser (or even the greater) works of Holmes,Norris,Crane,London , Chopin, Wharton, or anyone else. Occasionally, however, naturalistic narratives are regarded as flawed for reasons related to definitional concerns and matters of narrative genre, and it is these alleged “flaws”that we can address with some assurance.In other Naturalist Aesthetic 23 words, certain types of criticism leveled against naturalistic novels may be the result of critics bringing misdirected genre expectations to bear upon these texts. Taking Norris as an example again, his works are often considered flawed for being improbable, for not being realistic enough, and for beingmelodramatic.Butwhatifwedon’tassumethatNorrisiswritingwithin the tradition of the novel of social realism? What happens if we look at Norris’snovelsinthecontextoftheAmericanromancetradition?Tochange the definition of the genre of naturalistic fiction (along the lines proposed in chapter 1) is to change the expectations one brings to its texts. Surely, if we view certain naturalistic novels as participating in the tradition...

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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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