- Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women's Writing by Donna M. Campbell
Donna Campbell's substantial new study introduces a unique perspective on American women writers of literary naturalism. Campbell proposes that "placing women's naturalism at the center rather than the periphery of the [naturalist] movement reveals an 'unruly' counterpart to the rules of classic naturalism" by Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, etc., which, she contends, "expresses an interest less in philosophical consistency in its treatment of determinism than in the complex, sometimes uneven workings of social forces that operate on female characters constrained with the extra complications of women's biological and social functioning" (4). This alternative, re-orienting perspective suggests, nonetheless, that new attention should be paid not only to "unruly" naturalism written by women often overlooked in naturalism studies, but also to texts written by men usually not included there. Moreover, Campbell brings turn-of-the-century and early twentieth-century film into her study, paralleling naturalism and early film's emphasis on visual "authenticity" (11).
Campbell aims true when, following Donald Pizer's lead, she resituates naturalism within the territory of reform-oriented and popular middlebrow literature, and when she identifies naturalist elements in a correspondingly large group of exemplary texts—a group that far exceeds the rather limited number of mostly male-authored texts in the canon of "classic" naturalism. Moreover, she insightfully draws together separate thematic tracks that have been studied elsewhere atomistically, such as the "grim realism" authored by Rebecca Harding Davis, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and the lesser known Lillie Chace Wyman, as well as literary Darwinism, bohemianism, "white slavery" narratives, "stolen child" narratives, farm novels, and modernist-naturalist fiction. Campbell devotes a substantial chapter that is thorough in its coverage of the many texts (of widely various [End Page 75] aesthetic quality) to each of these seven tracks. And beginning with the coverage of bohemian naturalist narratives by women writers, she includes analysis of films that parallel these literary texts or are adaptations of them. The most significant film adaptation Campbell includes is screenwriter Frances Marion's and director Victor Sjöström's renowned 1928 silent film, The Wind, starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, based on Dorothy Scar-borough's 1925 novel.
In line with her well-conceived categories of "unruly" naturalism by women writers, Campbell makes some unexpected choices of exemplary texts for extended analysis among the many that are available by Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Ellen Glasgow, the women writers who have received the most critical attention as naturalist writers. Specifically, she devotes a considerably larger number of pages to Chopin's At Fault, in contrast with her lighter coverage of The Awakening; to Wharton's The Fruit of the Tree, in contrast to lighter coverage of Ethan Frome; and to Glasgow's largely forgotten (and admittedly amateurish) late-1890s bohemian naturalist novels, The Descendant and Phases of an Inferior Planet—her first and second—in contrast to Campbell's lack of coverage of her better known 1913 naturalist novel, Virginia—her tenth. Campbell's unconventional choices of these "unruly" feminist texts that are so often overlooked in naturalism studies help to provide breadth and depth to her critical enterprise. She points out that considering such texts within the genre of naturalism enacts "an extension of the spirit of excess inherent in naturalism" (4).
In Chapter 2, "The Darwinists: Borderlands, Evolution, and Trauma," Campbell's inclusion of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Mary Hallock Foote (as well as the now obscure popular writers Elia Peattie and Kate Cleary, who were friends), alongside Chopin and Wharton, whose Darwinian points of view have been frequently acknowledged by their critics, adds a new perspective to naturalism and regionalism. Campbell demonstrates that in their fiction, "borderland settings reveal anxieties sharpened by Darwinian theories implying that a continuum rather than a sharp delineation exists between human beings and other animals" (66). Similarly, in Chapter 3, "Bohemian Time: Glasgow, Austin, and Cather," Campbell considers Mary Austin...