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  • Haunting Realities: Naturalist Gothic and American Realism ed. by Monika Elbert and Wendy Ryden
  • Mary E. Papke (bio)
Haunting Realities: Naturalist Gothic and American Realism, edited by Monika Elbert and Wendy Ryden. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017. 295 pp. Cloth, $64.95.

The title—Haunting Realities—of Monika Elbert and Wendy Ryden's edited volume of essays is an evocative one, though the subtitle—Naturalist Gothic and American Realism—complicates one's first notion of the book's subject. The intentional ambiguity of the adjectival constructions immediately poses critical questions—what is haunting American realism, and how does naturalism or, perhaps, the naturalistic inform the American gothic? Whether the book will address in equal measure both the gothic and American naturalism and thus stand as a noteworthy addition to naturalism studies can be determined only by a careful reading of each essay as well as then considering whether the volume coheres as a sustained engagement with naturalism studies.

The union of naturalism and the gothic is not, of course, an altogether surprising one since both depend in great part on the irruption of the past into the present, whether that past be figured as heredity or as the uncanny. How one defines each literary mode in turn determines whether this union is a shotgun marriage or a companionate one, whether the partners are being forced together, or whether the two exist in equal balance and work to the benefit of both. One determining factor is whether the creative work in question focuses in the main on dark romanticizations of fate or demonstrates instead concerted engagement with determinist ontology/philosophy. The editors negotiate this issue by evoking inclusivity in their definition of naturalism as a subset of realism. Broadening the coverage of the essays to those works not engaging determinism as a central ontological belief system, they nevertheless find significant naturalistic tropes within the works under study. The volume as a whole thus offers deep readings of naturalistic and naturalist works, both of which types are clearly invested in Gothic effects and aesthetics, literature that the editors feel remains uncannily relevant for present-day readers. [End Page 244]

The editors highlight this continued importance of late nineteenthcentury naturalist gothic works in their opening gambit in the introduction—a gothic invocation of coming darkness, written not by one of the classic naturalists but by E. L. Doctorow. This gesture toward the present day allows them to introduce the long narrative of naturalist gothic documentation of forces beyond our control that determine the crisis of subjectivity we experience at this moment: "the 'invisible hand' haunting capitalism, the perceived horrors of mechanization, and a growing and urbanized consumer culture with its associated fluctuations in social class, racialization, and gender" (1–2). These forces, they posit, are "the horrors of the real" (1). Naturalism, they argue, focuses on "an ultrareality" (2) and, in many works, "the monstrously real" (5). The essays they have chosen for the volume all focus on works that depend for their effect upon "a Gothic ruin inflected through Darwinian science and Spencerian philosophy that can only be rendered as horrific or ghostly in human apprehension" (4).

Part I includes consideration of proto-naturalist and naturalist works that center on gender as the chief determinant of life possibilities. Stephen Arch's "Seeing Gothically: Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons" is an apt choice for an opening essay in that it introduces the female gothic used as a means "to negotiate reality" (24), the gothic figured not so much, then, as a mode or as "true" (24) but as a strategy. Cassandra Morgeson, he argues, moves from being seen as possessed to gaining self-possession by writing herself beyond the very distinct boundaries of confinement and female victimage that characterize the female gothic. Arch here somewhat paradoxically describes the female gothic as both imprisonment and inspiration for agency—uncanniness becomes canniness once one learns the self-protective strategy of interior secrecy and gains external economic security. While the essay makes some mention of heredity and thwarted primal sexual drives, its chief contribution is its insistence upon the gothic as engendering female agency in this mid-century American novel (an effect lost...


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pp. 244-250
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