The Birth of a Jungle: Animality in Progressive-era U.S. Literature and Culture by Michael Lundblad
This book approaches several texts central to the tradition of American literary naturalism from the perspective of "Animality Studies," sometimes identified as Human-Animal Studies, which examines the ways in which traits or characteristics associated with animals are deployed within literature and culture, particularly in response to ideological tensions such as those surrounding issues of race, class, and gender. Indeed, it is these cultural tensions that constitute the primary focus of Lundblad's analysis. If this seems like familiar territory for the study of Progressive-era literature, The Birth of a Jungle is enlivened by its interrogation of conventional assumptions about the familiar figures of the "brute" or the "beast" and by Lundblad's fresh and engaging readings of works by Henry and William James, Frank Norris, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Lundblad explicitly cites recent theoretical work on human-animal relationships by Donna Haraway and Cary Wolfe in his critical elaboration of a "discourse of the jungle" within literary works at the turn of the twentieth century. Readers of Progressive-era literature have traditionally approached these works as aligned with evolutionary science and the hegemony of Social Darwinism, and The Birth of a Jungle joins other recent scholarship in redefining Darwinism as a cultural phenomenon and the role of literature and culture in its development. In place of a uniform ideology, derived from Darwinian and Spencerian principles, Lundblad convincingly argues for the inconsistency and complexity of human-animal discourse, which ultimately resists easy or reductive conclusions.
Lundblad's book is divided into three sections. The first addresses the question of masculinity and "the naturalization of heterosexuality that is produced by the discourse of the jungle." Extending and refining work by [End Page 249] Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, Scott Derrick, and Jonathan Auerbach, Lundblad examines Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle" and Jack London's The Sea-Wolf, The Call of the Wild, and White Fang in light of emergent notions of gender normativity and animal instinct, claiming that the animal presence in these texts ultimately undermines the argument for biological determinism that the process of naturalization would eventually codify in the twentieth century. The book's second part contends with issues of class, labor, and the capitalist marketplace. Lundblad interprets the unsettled rhetoric of the marketplace in Frank Norris's The Octopus and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, exploring the paradoxical application of Herbert Spencer's doctrine of "survival of the fittest" as both natural process and unnatural monster. Finally, in the third section, Lundblad examines the development of "humane" standards for the treatment of both animals and criminals alongside racist characterizations that mark racial "others" as beasts. In a provocative reading of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes, Lundblad points to an important distinction between animality and "savagery" in the novel's racial characterizations. The third section emerges as the book's most fully realized argument, linking the development of the ASPCA, anti-lynching writings from William James and Ida B. Wells, and representations of surprisingly complex notions of racial difference.
In addition to its grounding in Human-Animal Studies, The Birth of a Jungle draws upon Lundblad's exploration of the intertwining impact of Darwinian and Freudian concepts of the animal, as well as critical studies of naturalist fiction and its depictions of animals, both literal and figurative. While the book's interrogation of cultural and intellectual history is particularly insightful, scholars of American literary naturalism are likely to be interested in Lundblad's relatively narrow—albeit productive—engagement with naturalist criticism. According to Lundblad, "Arguing for more subtlety and nuance in studies of naturalism is not necessarily new, but assumptions about the stability and consistency of what it means to be an animal within a naturalist text tend to remain in place." For an assessment of the place of animality within naturalist criticism, Lundblad relies heavily on Walter Benn Michaels's The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism, and to a lesser degree the work of June Howard, Jennifer Fleissner, and Christophe Den Tandt. A somewhat broader consideration of both primary and critical sources would present a fuller picture of the range of interpretations of animality within naturalist fiction. For instance, the reading provided by Eric Carl Link, in The Vast and Terrible Drama, of Norris's Vandover and the Brute as a convergence of the gothic romance and evolutionary thought suggests a more ambiguous notion [End Page 250] of the human/animal relationship than might be found within the more Marxist/historicist critical vein cited by Lundblad.
Despite some concerns about its limited attention to naturalist scholarship, The Birth of a Jungle succeeds largely because of its compelling consideration of Darwinian and Freudian ideas, not as separate intellectual developments, but as essential strands of a distinct discourse that arises in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While Lundblad incorporates Foucauldian critique, both directly and indirectly, in his argument, he is quick to point out the limitations of drawing large-scale conclusions about modernity without attending to the unique characteristics of the either the text or its historical moment, as well as rapidly shifting attitudes about human-animal relationships during this period. The text further benefits from brief analyses of largely forgotten incidents, such as the public execution a circus elephant in 1903 in Coney Island, as well as more familiar episodes, such as the William Jennings Bryan's involvement in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. While Lundblad's analyses are contingent upon reconsidering the place of animals in Progressiveera culture, his arguments are ultimately very much about ideology and literary representation, rather than a direct engagement with theoretical debates about animals and their relationships with humans. As a result, while some readers may fault the book for failing to provide a definitive, over-arching thesis on the meaning of animals within Progressive-era literature and culture, The Birth of a Jungle succeeds in offering distinct and suggestive readings of a easily recognized, but deceptively complex, discourse of animality in this period.
John Dudley, Associate Professor and Chair of the English Department at the University of South Dakota, is the author of A Man's Game: Masculinity and the Anti-Aesthetics of American Literary Naturalism (2004) and several articles on naturalism, African American literature, and Western American literature.