- American Literary Naturalism: Late Essays by Donald Pizer
Donald Pizer’s most recent collection of writings, American Literary Naturalism: Late Essays, has appeared from Anthem Press. The volume includes ten pieces. Two are general essays about the characteristics of American naturalism, six are essays on individual authors, and two are statements by Pizer about his own work. All of this material has been published earlier: four of the items have appeared as contributions to books, the other six in academic journals. Pizer tells us in a preface that he has not significantly revised these texts; they are presented as they originally appeared. The result is a volume of strong, thoughtful writing about the writers and the issues that have concerned Pizer throughout his long academic career.
Pizer has for many years anticipated and countered the arguments of those who, for one reason or another, find naturalism distasteful and even “morally culpable” (18). He is at pains to explain that the American version of naturalism is an “impulse” which gradually became a “tradition” (132). It is not a movement or a school and is decidedly not an offshoot of French naturalism as found in the writings of Émile Zola. American literary naturalism exhibits characteristics of transcendentalism and romanticism; it is much more than “realism with a heavy overlay of pessimistic determinism”— to cite the common formula. The characters in the iconic stories and novels are not entirely at the mercy of social forces; they retain free will and often struggle against fate. This gives tension to the writing and depth to the characterization. As Pizer notes, the characters “all have a capacity to desire and therefore to suffer” (13). The influence of the classic naturalists— Crane, Dreiser, Norris, London, et al.— extends well into the twentieth century. For Pizer this influence can be discerned in the writings of Edith Wharton, H. L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, [End Page 236] John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and many others.
The six essays on specific writers and works treat such subjects as the visual arts, flapper culture of the 1920s, and the photography of Alfred Stieglitz, Jacob Riis, and Dorothea Lange. Perhaps the best of the six essays is the one entitled “Dreiser’s Relationships with Women.” Here Pizer shows a sympathetic understanding of the great writer’s personality and of his willingness to listen to and learn from the women who passed through his life. These essays are typical of Pizer’s work over the years: informative, knowledgeable, and clearly presented.
The final two pieces in the volume are among the best. The first is a personal statement by Pizer about the study of naturalism and of the writers who have most interested him; the second is an interview conducted by Stephen C. Brennan in which Pizer warns of the dangers to literary study of the New Historicism, of Cultural Studies, and of any interpretation that puts ideology ahead of the literary work under examination.
As many senior academics approach the final years of a career, they begin to think about what to do with the litter of essays and other pieces of writing that they have produced. Will the work have permanence and continue to exert influence on a field, or will it disappear into the great mosh pit of criticism and scholarship that roils and heaves in literary studies? Citations to almost everything that one has published will appear in the MLA databases or in the footnotes of published work in the field, but will anyone (other than the occasional graduate student preparing a seminar paper) bother to look? Almost all work published in journals can now be summoned online. This is reassuring: when most of us began our careers we spent hours in the stacks pulling down old volumes of journals, lugging them to the Xerox machine, and feeding coins into the slot. Sometimes we ordered items from interlibrary loan and waited weeks for the photocopies to arrive. It...