- Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism by Ira Wells
Fighting Words will strike all readers as an ambitious book. Ira Wells reconstitutes literary naturalism in reverse through a compelling reading of Richard Wright's discovery of H. L. Mencken. No mere stylistic conceit, this move should also provide plenty of inspiration for future reimaginations of the flows of time, narrative, and concept, and how the confluence of these produces literary history and scholarship—and polemics, Wells would hasten to add. For Wells's dramatically simple argument is just this: that whatever else it else, however else it may be described, what is called literary naturalism is essentially polemic.
In his introduction, Wells positions himself quite vocally on the shoulders of June Howard and Lisa Long, desiring much clearer formulations of naturalism's meaning and value. Yet, throughout his book, Wells himself skirts head-on engagement—polemical or otherwise—with those scholars he, citing Long's influential review article, "Genre Matters," sees as not participating in the struggle for clarity. The ground that John Dudley has already cleared is not mentioned (to say nothing of the irony that the painting detail adorning the dust jacket of Fighting Words could have been found on Dudley's A Man's Game just as readily). Jennifer L. Fleissner's complex and sensitive reformulation of naturalism is not even glossed. Moreover, Eric Carl Link's claim that naturalism is a theme rather than a genre is not at all considered (a slip that our author has perhaps inherited from Long's polemical review of these three critics).
For some reason—never quite articulated though nods are made toward Howard, Jacques Derrida, Frederic Jameson, and others who have thought about genre—Wells proceeds from the assumption that naturalism must be a genre, or that it is at least genre-l ike. Hence his clearest claim: whatever else (the genre of) naturalism does, it is polemic first. The claim, which I will examine momentarily, has its uses—especially considering the careful historical work the author does to establish canonical texts of naturalism as early instances of contemporary debates.
The book is conceptually divided into two parts, a multi-chapter theoretical-critical essay followed by three case studies. The first of these case studies reads Norris's The Octopus as an anticipation of today's ecological debates. The second investigates the conceptual overlap of censorship [End Page 257] and abortion involved in Dreiser's An American Tragedy. The final study returns to Wright, this time reading Native Son in light of the international community's discussions of terror and terrorism just prior to World War II. Each case study can hold its own weight as a self-contained reading of a naturalist novel, and taken together they support Wells's secondary thesis—that, through their respective polemics, naturalist authors and their critic-champions profoundly shaped the 20th and 21st centuries. Such work is, indeed, important scholarly endeavor adding to the perhaps too-thin understanding of literary naturalists' riskier political sallies. Scholars should welcome a time when, seeking to work on The Octopus, An American Tragedy, or Native Son, they are directed to start with Wells's readings.
However, I have my own polemic to deploy concerning the theoretical-critical essay of the volume's first half. Wells invites as much, I think, when he titles his introductory chapter "Naturalism: A Polemical Introduction." The first three chapters cast a shadow on the chapters that follow. Chiefly, there is a problem of vagueness and broadness. While Wells's rhetoric suggests that "polemic" is a precise thing, quantifiable and qualifiable with a high degree of exactitude, Wells attempts no direct definition of polemic until thirty pages or so into the text, and by that point it is not so satisfying. When he finally gets there, Wells defines polemic as "weaponized language." Such broadness multiplies confusion: do we recognize naturalists by their polemics, or do...