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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.1 (2005) 183-191
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Jeffory A. Clymer
Over the past several years, much of the interesting scholarship on naturalist writers has forced us to rethink our customary critical shorthand by explicitly avoiding naturalism as an interpretive paradigm. Christopher Wilson's Cop Knowledge persuasively reads Stephen Crane's urban sketches as entries in a discursive struggle over how the "symbolic social space of the city streets and their inhabitants" would be framed and given meaning at the century's turn (21). Crane further provides Wilson with a test case demonstrating how brittle, monolithic, and ultimately unrevealing certain strands of Foucauldian New Historicism can be. Bill Brown's The Material Unconscious similarly avoids conventional questions of genre en route to his overarching and eye-opening reinterpretation of Crane in relation to an emergent mass culture. Like Wilson, Brown also [End Page 183] seeks to steer clear of New Historicism's sometimes totalizing logic in favor of what he terms a "new materialism" (18). Jonathan Auerbach's impressive 1996 study of Jack London, Male Call, and Loren Glass's more recent work on London in Authors Inc., eschew worrying about naturalism and instead offer illuminating accounts of London's authorial position in an emergent celebrity culture. The more revealing recent criticism on the small cadre of female authors who are sometimes grouped with male naturalists, such as Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin, has interpreted the racial politics encoded in their literary production, rather than arguing for the naturalistic bent of their plots of decline. And finally, when using naturalism as an interpretive lens, scholars, such as those anthologized in Twisted From the Ordinary (ed. Mary Papke), have generally worked to expand our chronological notions of naturalism, instead of focusing on the traditional years right around 1900.
These recent studies testify both to the continuing prevalence of historicist or cultural criticism and its theoretical revisions. The withdrawal from organizing interpretations around naturalism per se may also represent a critical exhaustion with reconciling the genre's inconsistencies or a weariness with its easily lampooned characteristics: the frequent conflation of sordidness with "life," its notoriously purple prose, the repellant moments of Anglo-Saxon male chest-thumping, and the risible comments such as Frank Norris makes regarding women writers in "Why Women Should Write the Best Novels: And Why They Don't." Indeed, naturalism can certainly appear to be a genre that is at best, in Mark Seltzer's memorable formulation, "the terminator-version of the realist project" (108) and is, at worst, a genre bordering on the ridiculous and obviously racist.
Nonetheless, the three books under review here take the genre's claims seriously and organize their interpretations explicitly around naturalism's turn-of-the-century American version. Taken together, these new studies represent one of the most concentrated bursts of activity around this genre since the particularly influential work of June Howard, Walter Benn Michaels, and Mark Seltzer in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. As such, they provide an opportunity to think about what genre criticism—which is generally associated with critics such as Charles Walcutt, Jay Martin, and Donald Pizer who largely predate the theoretical revolution—can offer in our own period.1 What, that is, does genre criticism look like during a critical moment in which poststructuralist assumptions structure most scholarship and in which, as Jennifer L. Fleissner crisply puts it, an urge to "'historicize' without concern . . . has become our default interpretative tendency" (46)?
Of the three books under review here, Eric Carl Link's The Vast and Terrible Drama offers the most traditional entrée into the interpretation [End Page 184] of naturalism. He starts with the notoriously difficult...