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  • Naturalism's ChildrenUnruly Naturalism in Works by Darcy Steinke, Joyce Carol Oates, and Lynda Barry
  • Mary E. Papke (bio)

For a variety of reasons, much studied by American literary scholars, a handful of writers emerged at the turn of the 20th century, and their works have come to define classical American naturalism, so much so that Eric Carl Link can definitively state, "[s]pecifically, the American literary naturalists are those authors who engage, at the thematic level, post-Darwinian reconsiderations of the relationship between humans and nature" (72). That is, in response to "post-enlightenment developments in science and philosophy" (71), American writers—notably Crane, Norris, Dreiser, Chopin, London, and Wharton—invented a new literary mode that reflected new master narratives exploring the ineffable power of biology and environment to form or deform character, the aleatory nature and instability of one's social conditioning by and positioning in the habitus, the profound consequences of social and economic inequality, and the intense competition to survive and succeed in both the private and public spheres. As June Howard argues in Form and History in American Literary Naturalism, the works we mark as naturalist are products of a particular "historical moment," not vehicles for the expression of a specific set of ideological beliefs, but, as Howard insists, naturalism "itself is an immanent ideology" (ix).

We might, then, profitably see naturalism, to use Raymond Williams's term, as a new "structure of feeling" that responds both to dominant and residual ideologies even as it attempts to instantiate itself as a coherent and consistent ideology (131–32). On the literary level, naturalism writes against genteel realist and sentimentalist formulas, though it might incorporate even as it critiques traces of both. It posits the need for a moral stance about "the relation of self to the world" (Howard ix), though that call for moral reckoning might be occluded by or only vaguely implicit [End Page 56] in the seemingly objective documentary style in which Crane, Norris, and Dreiser excel. The spectacles of suffering and struggle that naturalism presents necessarily evoke strong responses from readers, though those responses might range from disgusted dismissal to pity for those unprepared or unable by virtue of deterministic forces to meet the challenge of surviving and succeeding in an amoral world. Notably, women naturalists from the start—as early on as Rebecca Harding Davis in "Life in the Iron-Mills"—have been less resistant than most male writers to offering pointed social critique in their works, and, not surprisingly, their engagement with naturalism's overarching dicta—the focus on deterministic forces of biology and environment—takes different shapes precisely because of their concerted attention to issues of gender.

Of course, critical attention to gender issues has long affected classic naturalist studies as we see in Donna Campbell's Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885–1915 (and from the other end of the gender spectrum in John Dudley's A Man's Game: Masculinity and the Anti-Aesthetic of American Literary Naturalism). Similarly, critics such as Bert Bender and Linda Kornasky have addressed in a variety of venues the importance of post-Darwinian elements of naturalism in works by women writers. Yet, as Donna Campbell makes clear in her magisterial Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women's Writing, the centrality of gender issues in naturalism requires further recognition and the necessary reimagining of what then constitutes naturalist writing. As she argues, "like their male counterparts, women writers write naturalism using its familiar elements of determinism, the interplay of heredity and environment, and the biological factors governing characters' lives" (327). At the same time, naturalism by women writers, what Campbell calls unruly naturalism, "transgresses the rules by its unevenness or excess. … It exceeds even naturalism's capacious definition of relevant details in its pursuit of truths as yet unrevealed. It expresses an interest less in philosophical consistency in its treatment of determinism than in the complex, sometimes uneven working of social forces that operate on female characters constrained with the extra complications of women's biological and social functioning" (4).

While Howard is surely correct that first-wave naturalism arose in response to a specific...


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