- Naturalism's International IdentityAnti-Semitism, Alienation, and Women's Writing
Emile Zola, literary naturalism'sfounder, voiced his concerns about anti-Semitism in a series of articles that would resonate with readers in a post-COVID-19 pandemic present that has been ravaged by synagogue shootings and other violent acts against Jewish people. As extremist viewpoints of white nationalism and neo-Nazi rhetoric surface in the current day, Zola's commentary on anti-Semitism becomes all the more pertinent to our study of American literary naturalism, which the French author pioneered. This movement had international origins, not only because it grew out of Zola's French experimental novel but also because Charles Darwin's theory of evolution—a core tenet of naturalist discourse—became a fascination for American authors at the turn of the twentieth century. Darwin's 1859 narrative, The Origin of Species, set forth the British biologist's ideas [End Page 153] about natural selection, which social scientists like Herbert Spencer later applied to human behavior in their efforts to idealize the white Christian male's "survival of the fittest."1 Philosophies of racial fitness and masculinity predominated during this period, as writers wrestled with their own ideas about heredity, chance, and the environment.
Literary naturalism extended, as a historical era, from the 1880s through the 1960s; however, its deterministic themes endure in neonaturalist forms such as postapocalyptic fiction. Naturalism's beginnings coincided historically with the Progressive Era, a period during which environmental and economic reforms emerged on the one hand, but racialist science and Eugenics surfaced on the other. Muckraking fiction such as Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, prompted public health legislation like then-president Theodore Roosevelt's Food and Drug Administration Act.2 Steeped in a social Darwinist discourse, which valued Anglo-Saxon supremacy and racial purity, naturalist narratives were framed by conversations about anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad. Additionally, naturalist literature was permeated by an increasing interest in the Jew as an immigrant figure. Drawing on these discourses, this article will focus on the ambivalent attitudes about Jewish identity that emerged during the Progressive Era. Such ambivalence, I argue, reflects the divided nature of naturalist narratives, which idealize racial fitness and whiteness while expressing concerns for marginalized populations and ethnic outsiders.
This divided allegiance was particularly evident in American literary naturalism, as Progressive-era writings were simultaneously sympathetic toward and fearful of ethnic minorities. At the same time that social protest fiction like Sinclair's The Jungle exposed the deplorable treatment of Eastern European (specifically Lithuanian) labor in Chicago's polluted meatpacking plants, the naturalist narratives of Jack London and others expressed a valorization of whiteness and masculinity.3 Yet, how about the voices of immigrant women writing during this time period? To answer this question, this article turns to the work of Jewish American writer Anzia Yezierska, whose fiction centers on early twentieth-century European Jewish immigration. [End Page 154]
An interest in social reform for the worker is central to American literary naturalism, especially pieces of muckraking fiction like the previously mentioned Sinclair novel, The Jungle, and its subsequent health legislation.4 Although Yezierska's writings may not have resulted in the same large-scale initiatives that did other novels of the time, her Jewish American narratives direct readers' attention to an early twentieth-century effort to transform the college classroom.5 Bread Givers and many of her other writings point to the ways in which Yezierska criticized American colleges and universities for failing to respect fully the "growth of students," particularly women and Jewish immigrants (Shiffman 2017, 62). Furthermore, her fiction and other autobiographical writings illustrate Yezierska's commitment to a pragmatist philosophy, one that values an education "engaging the lived experience of students" (63). If Gilman and Dreiser promoted initiatives to protect children and young mothers, then Yezierska had an equally strong interest in transforming the culture of American higher education. Yezierska's writings bridge conversations about immigration, internationalism, and Jewish identity, all prominent concerns of naturalism on a global scale, as evidenced by Zola's letters.
"J'Accuse," translated from French into "I Accuse," was Zola's letter...