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3 Naturalism and Utopia Viewing literary naturalism as the thematic exploration of naturalist theory has the surprising result of joining together two seemingly very different literary types.Just as Frank Norris in Vandover and the Brute, Stephen Crane in Maggie, and Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie all explore naturalist theory, so too—to an extent—do Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward, William Dean Howells in A Traveler from Altruria (1894), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Herland (1915).These idealistic utopian novels,from one perspective,are as much a product of the late-nineteenth-century naturalist paradigm shift as McTeague, The Sea-Wolf, and The Damnation of Theron Ware. As radically different as Looking Backward is from “The Open Boat,” elements rising out of philosophical and scientific naturalism play a central thematic role in each of these narratives. Certainly in terms of their participation in the school of “literary” naturalism ,one principal difference between a text like A Traveler from Altruria and McTeague lies in how the naturalist theory is used in the narrative. For instance,thetheorycanbeusedtothematicallyjustifyorcontextualizeaplot of incline or a plot of decline. It can aid in the presentation of an optimistic or pessimistic interpretation of man and experience.The theory can be accepted , questioned, or rejected. For sure, reading Sister Carrie against HerlandorTheAwakeningagainstLookingBackward suggeststheprovocative ways in which utopian fiction and the texts traditionally associated with literary naturalism operate in what we might call a cultural dialogue. Seen in this light,a work like “Life in the Iron Mills”becomes a study in compromise , balancing the bleakness of a harsh factory environment against the promise of faith and charity. At risk of overusing what has proven a useful taxonomic system during Naturalism and Utopia 69 the last fifty years, one does notice that lumping together certain late-nineteenth -century utopian novels with the classic texts of American literary naturalism suggests a loose division between a “light”or “positive” literary naturalism and a “dark” or “negative” literary naturalism. Positive literary naturalism is substantially idealistic, progressive, and often utopian, as in Bellamy’s Looking Backward. In contrast,negative literary naturalism typically questions the often monological,millennialist,and optimistic assumptions found in positive literary naturalism.1 Norris’sMcTeague andVandover and the Brute, Crane’s Maggie and The Red Badge of Courage, and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie can best be characterized as examples of negative literary naturalism . Positive literary naturalism, on the other hand, seems to have found its primary outlet in the wave of utopian fiction that flooded presses during the 1880s,Bellamy’s Looking Backward being both the model and most renownedexample .Thesepositiveandnegativeorientations,however,areonly broad distinctions useful for critical taxonomy.Often a text will exhibit both positive and negative orientations.Texts like Norris’s The Octopus and The Pit, as well as Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt (to a lesser extent) and London’s The Sea-Wolf, are neither wholly negative nor wholly positive, but blend positive and negative tendencies within the narrative,as in the juxtaposition of the Vanamee and Annixter plots in The Octopus, the dialogues between Maud Brewster and Wolf Larson in The Sea-Wolf, or earlier,in the blend of faith and failure in “Life in the Iron Mills.” The roots of both positive and negative literary naturalism are contained within naturalist theory itself. The darker Malthusian current running just below the surface in the “natural selection” paradigm of Charles Darwin stands in stark contrast to the progressive and utopian evolutionary theory of Herbert Spencer and his American disciple John Fiske. Spencer’s “utopian ” theory of evolutionary progress implied that humankind simply had to submit itself to the cosmic process that was ever urging onward toward greater and higher goods and not fret over the minor “adjustments” nature had to make along the way.2 Spencerian evolutionary thinking claimed that evolutionary forces were gradually producing more complex and stable organisms , and this process opened up the possibilities for social,biological, moral, and environmental perfection.3 Spencer and like-minded theorists in the nineteenth century,in a sense,created a metaphysic of evolution that layered Darwinian thinking with a progressive or optimistic teleology.4 The 70 Naturalism and Utopia darker implications of naturalist theory are revealed when one focuses not onthe“progress”ofevolution,butonthosemomentsof “adjustment”along the way.This focus exposes the violent and brutal implications of Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” model, and Darwin’s paradigm of natural selection itself highlights the endless struggle,the violence,the accidental and chance elements inherent in the operation of natural...

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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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