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  • Scale Shifts from Polk Street to a Broken Earth; or, Literary Naturalism's Geontological Affordances
  • Chuck Robinson (bio)

Inhis Recent "Re-Visioning American Literary Naturalism," Marc

Egnal identifies two problems in the study of American naturalism. First, naturalism scholars can be accused of a myopic preference for the canonical authors Frank Norris, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Stephen Crane. Then, based on this myopia, naturalism enjoys an undeservedly "broad temporal reach" as latter-day authors like Hemingway, DeLillo, and McCarthy earn the naturalist title by stylistic resemblance to Norris and company. Egnal proposes to solve both problems by replacing the author myopia with a Darwinian one; only "works in which the 'laws' of heredity, or environment, or both strongly influenced how characters behaved" are [End Page 47] works of literary naturalism (2018, 178). His new definition solves the first problem by recognizing Wharton, Chopin, Cather, and even Howells and James as practitioners of naturalism and the second problem by denying the possibility of any naturalism beyond the period of Darwinian scientism—essentially that period of US literary production covered by Bert Bender in his two-volume study of the topic (1996; 2004).

Without disputing the importance of Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and like evolutionary theorists, in the present essay, I treat the question of naturalism's thematic and temporal reach by focusing on the discourses of geology and ecology. I compare Frank Norris's McTeague (1899/2009) and N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy (2015; 2016; 2017) to reframe literary naturalism as a narrative mode in which geological scope meets ecological criticism, approaching what Elizabeth Povinelli calls "geontology," or the "ontological assertion" of "a distinction between Life and Nonlife that makes a difference" (2016, 8). By tracing a trajectory of image, concept, and theme from Norris to Jemisin, I reimagine literary naturalism as a perennially available narrative response to what Zach Horton calls the "trans-scalar challenge of ecology" (2019, 15). In addition to Horton, my sense of naturalism's capaciousness builds on recent arguments from Christopher Hill, Caroline Levine, and Ashley Gangi.

Hill has recently called for renewed study of naturalism's "conditions of travel" and "unexpected transformations" (2009, 1198). In Hill's definition, naturalism appears in the 1860s as fiction "focusing on documentary depiction of a milieu often chosen for the way it revealed social pathologies." Hill adds that naturalist narrative is "often"—but not always—"propelled by hereditary and environmental determinism" (1199). Whereas Egnal frontloads laws of heredity and environment, Hill suggests a contrasting operation: documentation of a milieu explores pathology in which determinism sometimes plays a role. Speaking only of American literary naturalism, Egnal seeks a description of what naturalist texts do, whereas Hill studies how naturalism, conceived as a "tendency," develops as it travels. Caroline Levine's Forms (2015), with its emphasis on portability as a paramount affordance of form, will be useful to synthesize these two approaches, foregrounding the potential to study naturalism's travels along both historical [End Page 48] and formal vectors. Hill and Levine would both argue that once someone writes a novel and declares "this is naturalism," others can port it to new times and places, transforming it for new situations. Yet, Levine would likely sustain Egnal's descriptivist prerogative by asking, "What are the affordances of literary naturalism?" Applying Levine and drawing inspiration from a second pair of scholars, Ashley Gangi and Zach Horton, I propose to think anew about naturalism's repeatable, portable features.

Gangi returns to the clash of grand-scale optimism and individual-scale misery in Frank Norris's The Octopus that has long puzzled critics, designating Norris's "technique of changing narrative scope" as the "overarching moral principle" of The Octopus (2018, 133). Revisiting several of his writings on literary technique, Gangi emphasizes Norris's artistic propensity "to shift between different perspectives so that the connections between large forces and the individuals they affected would become visible" (137), an evaluation that resounds with Horton, who finds "we have failed to develop an adequate level of scale literacy" when it comes to our sense of humanity's place in the cosmos (2019, 6).1 Horton embraces "moves to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1539-6630
Print ISSN
1532-687x
Pages
pp. 47-73
Launched on MUSE
2021-07-20
Open Access
No
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