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5 Reading American Literary Naturalism What can we say with assurance about naturalistic texts? We can say that they all engage in the thematic exploration of naturalist theory—but, of course, that is how we defined the term “literary naturalism” in chapter 1, so there is no grand revelation to be realized in its restatement here.Beyond this bald definitional claim, there is little else we can claim about naturalistictextswithsuchsweepingassurance ,andasitturnsout,thisisagoodthing, for it emphasizes the fact that naturalism is a literary movement that benefits when it is taken for what it is rather than discussed as an afterthought at the end of studies of literary realism. More importantly, it reveals that our understanding of literary naturalism benefits most when we look at the evolutionofthisliterarymovementnotsolelywithinthecontextofliteraryrealism , butwithinthecontextofthewholenineteenthcentury—socially,philosophically ,culturally,andaesthetically.Fortunately,thisisthedirectionsomescholars have been taking in recent years.June Howard’s study of the relationship between literary naturalism and the social and economic environment of the late nineteenth century in Form and History in American Literary Naturalism ; Jennifer Fleissner’s exploration of, among other things, the rise of the New Woman in the 1890s and the major figures of American literary naturalism in her essay “The Work of Womanhood in American Naturalism”; and Donna Campbell’s remarkable study of the relationship between literary naturalism and American regionalism inResistingRegionalism,all reach beyond earlier studies of literary naturalism in an attempt to demonstrate the vitality of the movement within the broad cultural context of the late nineteenth century. One of the motifs in the current work is to join the efforts of these and other critics in their attempt to redefine how we read and discuss works by 142 Reading American Literary Naturalism authors as diverse as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Rebecca Harding Davis.In this examination we have noticed certain trends,such as the inclination on the part of many naturalistic authors to revitalize the tradition of the romance through the integration of scientific and philosophical themes in their works. We also note that scientific and philosophical naturalism— in its many shapes and guises—has played a much larger role in nineteenthcentury American literature than we might have previously imagined. Although we still profit from focusing on the 1890s,works such as Holmes’s Elsie Venner and Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills” from the early 1860s form a clear bridge between the first and second half of the nineteenth century and suggest that the literary roots of American literary naturalism (as opposed to merely the philosophical roots) stretch back further than the publication of Maggie in 1893. Surely these early texts, not to mention Mark Twain’s exploration of certain deterministic themes in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889,demonstrate that literary naturalism did notspringforthfull-grown—likeAthenafromtheheadofZeus—inthe1890s (although it’s likely that the image of naturalism leaping forward in full battle dress from the cleft head of realism would have had some appeal for Norris). And what of the wave of utopian fiction in the late 1880s and 1890s? Surely a study of the relationship between utopian fiction and literary naturalism in the 1890s along lines similar to Campbell’s Resisting Regionalism would broaden even further our understanding of naturalism as a literary movement in America.Equally rewarding for our understanding of literary naturalism and its prominent role in American literature are recent studies that examine how deterministic and evolutionary concepts play important roles in texts such as Chopin’s The Awakening and Wharton’s The House of Mirth.1 Aside from broadening our appreciation of the impact of naturalism in American literature, these and studies like them underscore the fact that literary naturalism is certainly not a gender-specific movement, even though studies of the movement have tended to focus primarily on Norris, Crane, and Dreiser. Even noting that the tradition of the romance in America had a dramatic impact upon literary naturalism only illustrates a trend,not a definitive characteristic , and when we read the texts of literary naturalism, we quickly become aware of their diversity,ranging from the out-and-out romance ofElsie Venner and The Sea-Wolf, to the more delicate Hawthorne-influenced ro- Reading American Literary Naturalism 143 manceofTheDamnationofTheronWare,totheutopianfantasiesofGilman and Bellamy, to the much more novelistic orientations of Dreiser’s Cowperwood trilogy and Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Therefore, it becomes a testament to the strength of literary naturalism as a movement in the second half of the nineteenth century that readings of these texts benefit...


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