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American Literature 72.1 (2000) 153-180

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Naturalism’s Nation:
Toward An American Tragedy

Joseph Karaganis *

Though there’s much to be said for reading Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) as a belated product of turn-of-the-century naturalism, it was utterly contemporary in the claims it made on the national experience. The twenties were the salad days of the Great American Novel, when even writers who derided that grizzled project felt its authority. Titles alone suggest the pervasiveness of the ambition, from Lewis’s Main Street to Williams’s Great American Novel (1923) and In the American Grain (1925), to Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925), to Dos Passos’s USA trilogy (1930–1936). On the editorial side, Horace Liveright put that authority to effective use. Perhaps the keenest broker of literary reputation and market value in those years, he understood the degree to which national self-consciousness had become a literary litmus test, and in 1922 he implored Dreiser not to “let Sinclair Lewis, Floyd Dell, Sherwood Anderson, etc. do all the writing of the ‘great American novel.’”1 Three years later, Dreiser complied.

Although discussions of naturalism often intersect these texts, they rarely intersect these national concerns. It isn’t difficult to see why. Naturalism found its coherence in new theories of psychology and emerging scientific doctrines of determinism, predominantly Darwinism and its social and Spencerian varieties. But the assumption of a determined world bears no particular relationship to nationalism; indeed, the behavioral mechanics of naturalism tend to marginalize the political, cultural, and historical issues that inform most debates about national identity. There is, for instance, no anxiety in Dreiser’s work about the lack of an American tradition, nor any dissection of [End Page 153] the old problem, still central to James at the turn of the century, of what differentiated the American from the European.

As numerous critics have observed, naturalist fiction translates determinist assumptions about the human subject into literary problems, most persistently, one could argue, by refusing to describe persons as autonomous individuals capable of moral choice.2 I won’t dispute that proposition, but I want to suggest that as Dreiser took up the burden of saying something about the nation, the values that structured that deterministic framework shifted. If Dreiser’s two Cowperwood novels of the nineteen-teens, The Financier and The Titan, follow a classic naturalist trajectory in linking the “success-dream” of economic mobility to the “reality” of social Darwinism, An American Tragedy begins to thematize a new narrative economy based on spectacular relationships and the value of visibility within them. In this new economy, selfhood is conferred by the public rather than confirmed by “the accumulation of wealth implying power, social superiority, even social domination.”3 The novel presents this public realm not as a sphere against which the individual develops his interior life within the private or domestic space, but as a realm that in important respects stands for the individual by providing him with the rhetoric of subjectivity and the narrative intelligibility that his actions otherwise lack.

The new economy finds its ideal person in the celebrity and its ideal public, I will argue, in the nation. It doesn’t so much replace the schema of personal ambition, transgression, and punishment that overtly organizes Dreiser’s novel as generate scenes—ultimately, Clyde’s trial—that can accommodate both systems of value. This juxtaposition, I suggest, marks the high point of Dreiser’s strange acuity concerning the changing status of public and private identity, the intersections of individual and collective fantasies of community, and the function of the state as an agent in and mediator of those domains. It also represents, I would argue, a transitory set of insights proper to boom times and the limitless extension of the commodity form imaginable in the mid-twenties. As the Depression took hold in the thirties, the appeal of economic determinism more conventionally understood reasserted itself in Dreiser’s work and in the work of younger authors who brought about a significant, if ultimately less complex, renewal of literary...


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pp. 153-180
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Archived 2005
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