- Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative, and Modernity by Katherine Fusco
In her insightful study of shared formal and thematic devices in U.S. naturalist literature and silent film, Katherine Fusco examines the ways in which the human relation to time shaped both the narrative structures of U.S. literary naturalism and the formal techniques of early film. Using Jack London’s well-known story “To Build a Fire” as a case in point, Fusco analyzes the interplay between two different temporal modalities, man’s and nature’s: as opposed to individual interpretations of time as a finite, manageable source, natural time is an infinite force that moves inexorably forward. The inexorability of natural forces is a well-established topos in naturalist literature as well as naturalism studies. What renders Fusco’s study highly original (and much anticipated) is a carefully nuanced expression of this topos in temporal terms, which, in turn, allows her to trace not only thematic but also formal structures that are analogous in early cinema and U.S. naturalist novels. Fusco extends the scholarship on literary naturalism and early film beyond adaptation studies, placing both the literary and the cinematic in the context of early twentieth-century discourses that sacrificed individual subjects on the altars of temporal management and industrial efficiency. For Fusco, this translates into the naturalist emphasis on plot over character, as seen in novels by Frank Norris, Jack London, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
At first glance, Fusco’s choice of authors might seem narrow. Her treatment of these authors, however, is exemplary in terms of analytic rigor and interdisciplinary breadth of material—from D. W. Griffith’s controversial work to factory films, fight films, and actualities, as well as news coverage, technological developments, and sociopolitical debates. Each chapter offers well-orchestrated arguments that draw on new historicist readings of U.S. naturalism while keeping a well-wrought philosophical edge: Fusco’s analysis pays heed to important philosophers of time, such as Henri Bergson and William James, and major theorists of modernity, including Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel, and Siegfried Kracauer. As a result, her book is of interest not only to U.S. naturalism critics but also philosophy, cinema, and modernity scholars who are interested in the ways that literature and cinema participate in early twentieth-century narratives of modern progress. [End Page 99]
Chapter 1, “Unnatural Time: Frank Norris at the Cinema’s Beginnings,” draws parallels between the fragmented consciousness of the modern individual—as seen in Vandover and the Brute—and the fragmentary ontology of actualities. Keeping Bergson’s theory of duration as a steady point of reference, Fusco shows the importance of narrative for identity, since temporal continuation entails the ability to make causal connections and sustain a coherent self. The chapter weaves naturalism and early cinema scholarship in a seamless manner while incorporating Norris’s theory of fiction and references to other novels, such as McTeague. It is important to note that Fusco refrains from making sweeping arguments about Norris’s work, qualifying her argument to suggest that the naturalist distrust of fragmentary perception is not regressive or nostalgic, but modern in the sense that it draws from evolutionary and historiographical discourses.
Chapter 2, “Naturalist Historiography at the Moving Picture Show: Frank Norris, D. W. Griffith, and Naturalist Editing,” brings Norris’s work closer to early twentieth-century historiographical discourses through an analysis of the revisionist impulse in D. W. Griffith’s films A Corner in Wheat (an adaptation of The Octopus), The Birth of a Nation, and Intolerance. Especially interesting is Fusco’s reading of The Octopus in cinematic terms; she offers an excellent interpretation of Norris’s “cutting” between scenes as his attempt to shift away from individuals and gesture toward larger historical forces. Fusco draws similarities to Griffith’s parallel editing in A Corner in Wheat, as well as his alternate use of historical facsimiles and fictional scenes in The Birth of a Nation. Although high in technical detail, this chapter illustrates best the complex exchange...