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Afterword The American literary naturalists were reformist not only in a social sense, but also in the sense that they revealed new dimensions of the human experience .Theybroughtlate-nineteenth-centuryfictionoutofthedrawingroom and into the open air.They took their characters into wheat fields and Death Valley, battlefields and frontiers, slums and the open ocean. These borderlands and sweeping settings gave the literary naturalists the space they neededtocreatevast,extraordinarydramas.Theirneedtostagedramasand to explore heightened experience stemmed, at least in part, from their investigations of naturalist theory.The implications of philosophical and scientific naturalism,particularly as they clashed with religious belief,loomed large enough in the minds of the American literary naturalists to require the creation of expansive, symbolic, extraordinary narratives. When the American literary naturalists succeed, they do so by integrating the scientific and philosophical concepts they are working with seamlessly into a narrative structure that can support them.When they fail, they fail through an inability to match their narrative structure with the ideas it contains,resulting in a disjointed narrative or an unappealing melodrama. Fortunately,their successes are many.But because the literary naturalists are often misunderstood, they are often undervalued. To be sure, few would claim that the coterie of Crane,Norris,London,and Dreiser produced what Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Thoreau created in the 1850s or what Faulkner, Lewis, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald created in the 1920s. Even in their own time—the twenty years between 1890 and 1910—one would be hard-pressed to claim they were the leaders per se in American literature; after all,these are also the years of James,Howells,Twain,Jewett,Freeman, Wharton,and Stein.And what was the reading public consuming? Kipling? 166 Afterword Well-thumbedcopiesofBenHur?Trilby?Sheldon’sInHisSteps?Certainly some London as well, of course. Even still,there is a distinct sense that late-nineteenth-century American literature would be a much-diminished spectacle for want of Crane,Norris, and London,not to mention Frederic and Dreiser.They provide something no others provided: a body of writing that grasps without flinching at the most provocative scientific and philosophical theories of their day.Perhaps the core group of literary naturalists is difficult to come to terms with because their productions are so unique in comparison to their own peers. It is hard to imagine Crane in the same category as London,who is in the same category as Norris and Dreiser.One can say that James is like Wharton,who islikeHowells,orthatSarahOrneJewettislikeMaryWilkinsFreeman,who is like Charles Chesnutt and George Washington Cable. But is it equally plausible to suggest that the works of London are like Dreiser, or that the worksof NorrisarelikeCrane?Somehowtheanalogydoesn’tseemtowork. Within the larger context of American literary history,however,there is a more reasonable comparison,and this is the comparison of the core American romantics and the American literary naturalists. Although Charles Brockden Brown is indeed like Hawthorne and one doesn’t balk at lumping Melville together with Poe, still, Crane, London, and Norris share with these authors (as well as Emerson and Whitman) an artistic orientation differentfromthatof James,Howells,orothermajornineteenth-centuryfigures associatedwiththe“riseofthenovel”andthe“riseofrealism.”Namely,these authors use their texts to grapple with things beyond us, while the realists grappled intensely with ourselves. The realists asked—directly or indirectly, as the individual case may be—what can we know about nature and human nature by studying, directly and with careful regard for honest, nonembellished documentation,human behavior,culture,and psychology themselves? The romantics and the literary naturalists asked a slightly different question—what can we know about nature and human nature by studying the relationship between facets of human behavior and human psychology and the environment of forces influencing these facets of behavior and affecting our interpretation of them? This “environment of forces” takesawidevarietyofshapes,fromHawthorne’s“truthofthehumanheart,” to Poe’s glimpse of “supernal beauty,” to Melville’s threatening visage behindthe “pasteboardmask”ofnature,tothenaturallawsofDreiser,thebrute Afterword 167 within McTeague, and the blend of scientific and providential determinisms in Crane. Of course, it would be naïve to think that James and Howells did not bring to bear upon their texts their own theories of nature and human nature,butthereisclearlyashiftinfocuswhenonereadstextssuchasPierre and The Sea-Wolf. These are, in a sense, novels of ideas in ways that The Portrait of a Lady and The Rise of Silas Lapham are not. Do we understand our world better by turning toward the everyday, the details of life, the subtle and complex behaviors of people not unlike ourselves ? Or do we better understand our world...

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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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