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  • Late-19th-Century Literature
  • Nicolas S. Witschi

The question of how one defines a genre, how one might categorize a literary text amid the wash of all the other texts in the period, is particularly highlighted by this year’s scholarship, with a collection of essays on the topic of American literary naturalism serving as the keynote publication. Perhaps coincidentally, examinations of literary realism are not nearly as numerous as they have been in previous years, though the few that did appear are of compelling quality. Studies of the works of Frank Norris and Stephen Crane are particularly strong, as is the scholarship on Charles Chesnutt. The trio of Pauline Hopkins, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Kate Chopin also receive their usual amount of attention, and quality interpretations of works by Sarah Orne Jewett, an author for several years entirely absent from this essay, are making it into print once again. Two particularly noteworthy events this year are the publication of an anthology of Native American poetry and the release of a major bibliographic effort documenting the work of women writers in and about the American West, while the past decade’s increase in intercontinental and transoceanic scholarship continues unabated with the publication of several books and essays analyzing literary expressions related to empire and imperialism. Finally, studies of the intersections of literature with religion and, in the case of Jewish authors and characters in particular, with religiously informed cultural and ethnic identity continue to increase in quantity and quality. [End Page 263]

i Naturalism and Realism

The 28 essays in Oxford Handbook of American Literary Naturalism address a wide array of topics, among them naturalism’s European antecedents and influences, its indebtedness to Darwinian and Spencerian philosophies (among others), its connections to other genres and art forms, and, most intriguing, the tensions over race and gender and the marketplace evident in naturalist texts from the late 19th century through the 21st. Keith Newlin’s rather daring and well-argued introduction (pp. 3–17) attempts to reset the terms by which the genre is known, defining naturalism not as a literary artifact seen “primarily in terms of evolutionary and deterministic philosophy applied to realism but rather in terms of popular narrative strategies, derived from melodrama, enlisted in support of a propagandistic cause.” Not all of the book’s essays take this particular tack, to be sure, yet they all deftly expand how one might think about the accomplishments and legacies of fiction from the late 19th century. Just about every one of the essays in this collection at some point invokes Frank Norris and Stephen Crane, as well as Theodore Dreiser and Jack London. Paul Laurence Dunbar makes a few intriguing appearances (though, strangely enough, not in the essay on poetry), and the consideration of literary naturalism’s narrative tendencies in early- and even a few late-20th-century writers succeeds nicely in making the argument that the mode encompasses far more than a mere moment in literary history. Of particular note are the essays by Newlin, Zena Meadowsong, June Howard, Steven Frye, Donna M. Campbell, John Dudley, Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Gary Scharnhorst, and Charles Johanningsmeier, though each one of the 28 scholars included in this book offers a rewarding and engaging angle on the question of genre and periodization.

A nice complement to Newlin’s book may be found in Donna M. Campbell’s “American Literary Naturalism: Critical Perspectives” (LiteratureC 8: 499–513), which provides a critical overview that includes brief discussions of the forms and themes found in works by writers such as Norris, Crane, and Dunbar and by numerous writers in the 20th century. Campbell’s most valuable contribution in this essay, however, may in fact be her evaluative survey of the ways naturalism has been framed by critical debates over the past century, a survey that ultimately shows naturalism to be a vital mode of discussing texts more than it is a method for defining or categorizing them. Several of the essays in [End Page 264] Newlin’s Handbook also cover this territory, among them those by Eric Carl Link, Christophe Den Tandt, and Howard. Taken together, these works offer a thorough means for understanding the history...


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