- Genre Matters:Embodying American Literary Naturalism
American literary naturalism has always been a rather sketchy character in the ongoing drama of our national literary genealogy. Is he the debauched heir of literary romanticism? The less radical cousin of European naturalism? Or, as is most often claimed, is he the pessimistic and overcompensating kid brother of the more respectable American realism? Finally, as Jennifer Fleissner has recently suggested, is "he" really a "she," a compulsive new woman clamoring for our attention? Rather than arguing for naturalism's rightful place in the literary family (as well as its "true" gender), in this essay I explore the imperatives of American literary genealogy itself. Specifically, the most recent critical work on naturalism highlights the gendered nature of the literary historical project, a narrative that almost always gets hung up on the indeterminacies of naturalism. Like gender itself, naturalism disorders the literary landscape in contemporary considerations of American literary history of the turn of the twentieth century, both vexing and energizing the field. I argue that our unwillingness to abandon contesting this literary genealogy is also a gendered strategy; our revisions of literary history maintain power regimes, even while they allow in writers not initially part of the core group, while unseating others from the assumed center. As with gender and, I conclude, with race, however, the more closely one looks at naturalism, its borders and fine distinctions, the more it does not quite hold, which begs the question I raise here: What are the costs and benefits of continuing to nurture naturalism?
In A Man's Game: Masculinity and the Anti-Aesthetics of American Literary Naturalism (2004), John Dudley begins from a traditional gendered premise—that white masculinity is central to the business of literary naturalism. As Dudley implies, naturalism is unstable precisely because it is tied to notions of white [End Page 160] masculinity which are precarious and which must be endlessly iterated and defended. In particular, Dudley argues that American naturalists, men and women alike, sought to develop a muscular (and "misogynist and homophobic" ) American "anti-aesthetic" (13) to combat the "effete" (12) and "decadent" (4) English aesthetic embraced by the American intelligentsia at the fin-de-siècle and embodied in the figure of Oscar Wilde. Since the work of the naturalists apparently lacks an internal or stylistic coherence, Dudley argues that it is this "construction of a hypermasculine definition of the writer" that links naturalist writers—unstable gender, not incoherent genre (5). This "masculine force" became central not only to the naturalists in the late nineteenth century, but also has "remained central to the critical understanding of American authorship," Dudley contends (4). Rather than challenge this commonplace, Dudley explores the kind of masculinity seen as integral to naturalist aesthetics and authorship. Consequently, he genders naturalism in a way that does not broaden the parameters of the genre but, rather, deepens our understanding of traditional views and how those seemingly excluded by virtue of their gender or race can participate in this (white) "man's game" (33).
Dudley begins by arguing persuasively that the male naturalist is not akin to the modern scientist but is, rather, a sports fan. The story of fledgling professional sports is as central to Dudley's vision of late nineteenth-century masculine writing as are naturalist codes, as Stephen Crane's coverage of the football team of the American Indian School in Carlisle, PA and Jack London's coverage of the bouts of well-known African-American boxer, Jack Johnson, show. Dudley demonstrates through a number of histories on nineteenth-century sport and masculinity, treating topics such as rough-riding camp cures, Roosevelt's strenuous life, the boy scouts, and the emergence of football and boxing, that athletics struggled to become a "commercial enterprise, masculine performance, and [a] nascent profession," the very issues with which the naturalist writers were struggling (19). For Dudley's naturalists, Crane, London, and Frank Norris, the field of sport became a metaphoric space where the brutal determinacies of "real life" were played out in a relatively rule-bound environment. In particular, Dudley contends that naturalist writers used depictions of sporting events to negotiate their new masculinized...