Archive for February, 2007

Pizer’s Companion, Part 1

Rather than wait to put up a lengthy post on Pizer’s Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London (Cambridge UP 1995) when I’ve finished reading it, I’ve decided to put up several posts along the way.  I like to think of this as somehow making my reading more of a collective effort–we chat about it as I go along, rather than my delivering the phallogocentric totemic screed upon completion. Seems pleasantly participatory and less lonely.

Pizer’s introduction tells us that “the controlling strategy of this book, in brief, is that of dialectic. It is hoped that this approach suggests something of the dynamic nature of literary history, that it is an interpretive act in process, and (more specifically) that it will contribute to an understanding of some of the distinctive characteristics of late-nineteenth  and early-twentieth-century American literature” (2).

The books is divided into three sections:  Historical Contexts, Contemporary Critical Issues, and Case Studies.

The dialectic between the American background and the European background, the two essays in the “Historical Contexts” section can rather crudely be put as follows: Zola was influential for Frank Norris.  The American naturalists were responding to a specific indigenous context, namely the genteel tradition frequently identified with Howells and James, whereas the French were concerned with the putrefaction of the second empire and inherent bourgeois decay. Everyone was influenced by Darwin, a true son of the Enlightenment, and in America, the occasion for limitless jokes about “sexual selection.”

Part Two: Contemporary Critical Issues includes Elizabeth Ammons’ “Expanding the Canon of American Realism” which I’ve discussed in another post on Pizer’s Documents, where it also appears, and Michael Anesko’s “Recent Critical Approaches” which informs the reader in the very first sentence that “the more things stay the same, the more they change.” In particular, Anesko is interested in the differences between the new Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988) and “its postwar predecessor, Literary History of the United States (1946)” whose editorial differences can be read as emblematic of changes in critical emphasis in the study of realism and American literary naturalism.

Anesko provides an adequate overview, and Ammons is excellent, but the two essays somehow look askance. It may be that expanding the canon is a movement [Night Ranger, my parent’s cat, is militantly interfering with my ability to type.]

Ahem, as I was saying, is an attempt to chart, if you’ll forgive the cliche, a new course that reflects the multiple American realisms at the turn of the century and invites new critical struggles and insight. Somehow the two essays, in fact the first four essays, while chock full of information, strike me as randomly assembled. Perhaps this is always a problem essay collections, and it may also be a definitial problem more generally in the field of American realism and naturalism, and beyond that I suppose literary studies, but nevertheless, the experience is a bit like being alone at sea on a raft and noting so many brilliant stars in the sky, but no constellation pointing home.

Fortunately, I’ve got some background. What about students who pick up the companion in search of some context? It must be fairly disorienting. Pizer’s dialectic is not so much “dynamic” as fuzzy, at least heretofore.

Here and there are some useful bits:

“In short, it is now generally held that American realism and naturalism are not similar to the European varieties, but that the differences between them should lead, not to a rejection of the use of terms in America, but rather to studies that will exploit an understanding of these differences in order to help us interpret the American literary phenomena designated by the terms” (5).

In other words, whatever it is, it ain’t that!

“Naturalism thus seems to appeal to each generation of American writers as a means of dramatizing “hard times” in America — hard times both in the sense of economic decline and of spiritual malaise, with each generation also incorporating into this continuing impulse or tradition of naturalism the social and intellectual concerna of that age: Freudianism and Marxism in the 1930s, for example, or the Viet Nam War in more recent years” (14).

Now we seem to be talking about a dialectic between history and naturalism as “continuing impulse or tradition.” By the time we get to the first case study of Howells and James, though, we’re comfortably in formalist land. That’s not by definition a problem, but I was struck by the polemical tone of John W. Crowley’s non-sequitor:

“The term realism is sometimes used these days — in the work of literary theory and it’s transformation of the literary-academic complex — with a certain trepidation. Realism, after all, has been charged by some advocates of poststructuralism with various crimes against humanity, not least of which is allegedly brainwashing captive readers with the very idea that humanity (as opposed to “humanity”) exists! Interrogated, as they say, under the thousand watt glare of a supposedly liberating critique, realism has been exposed as an insidious agent of the capitalist-imperialist-bourgeois hegemony. Through such timely intervention, a program of reeducation has now been duly resituated; shown, that is, to be relative to the ideological  formations of particular Western cultures in different periods” (118).

Here we have the trace of cold war hysteria applied to the diligent task of modern theory-baiting. Note the literary-academic complex, an obvious invocation of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex. The absence of a single name for one of the many sinister postructuralists. The rhetoric of “interrogation” and “brain-washing.” And of course, lest we not get that commie postructuralists are red, the notice of a “reeducation program.”

I have genuine reservations about poststructucturalism that I’ll share in another post, but there’s a lot to be learned from it. Crowley’s reaction is worthy of The Weekly Standard and diminishes an otherwise useful formal analaysis of the Howells technique in Silas Lapham and  James technique in The Portrait of a Lady.


February 27, 2007 at 10:01 am 5 comments

Academy Awards



I’m not really an Academy Awards fan. Don’t much go in for the whole American sentiment structure of feeling/spectacle crap. But I found Ellen, despite myself, a completely charming host. Not only were her jokes consistently humorous, but her approach was to treat reigning luminaries like Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, or whomever like they were, well, special but ordinary, menacing the front row’s feet at one point with a vacuum cleaner. Ellen comes off as the kind of friend it would be really cool to drop in on for coffee and klatchkes 2 or 3 times a week.

Al Gore seemed to be everywhere, like a benign cumulous cloud hovering over the Hollywood hills. The man looks good. He was funny. Where the hell was that in 2000?

And Pizer’s Cambridge Companion? Still working on it.

February 26, 2007 at 10:20 am Leave a comment

Snowbound Bungler

I’ve not managed to do a very good job of much of anything yet today. I’m only getting to blogs late and for some reason my extended snow-covered walk by the river has given me a chill. I think there was a toddy recipe on jetsam’s blog I may have to visit.

Still at work, er, am going to be at work on the next Pizer post. Some reading to follow this evening.

Dinner of local trout and peppercorn shrimp in linguini. Sometimes I’m surprised at the good things I’m eating while wintering here with my parents.  A few short months ago I was peanutbutter king of Chicago. Now, I’m the small-game Duke of Dalmatia. Well, Dalmatia’s a lttle ways away, but there should be an alliterative title for my well-stocked stomach.

Anaj has a cool Lent banner. I feel like I need to somehow make a cool at home in Pennsylvania banner.

And maybe another for when I’m in Houston next week. For now though, back to my Cambridge Companion.

Skunk: “Dear Companion, wither shall we wander?”

Companion: “How now Cabbage? Not work today?”

Skunk: “Forsooth and wither the snow is too bither.”

Companion: “Tis better to thaw with vermouth.”

A tale oft told in my youth.

February 26, 2007 at 12:51 am 8 comments

Strange Hours

Up at 1:15. I’m apparently working the night shift. At work today on Pizer’s (honestly, I don’t have a fetish) Cambridge companion to  Realism and Naturalism.  I’ll put something up on  when I finish.

February 24, 2007 at 7:31 pm 2 comments

Pizer’s Documents

Finally, as promised, some thoughts on Donald Pizer’s anthology, Documents of American Realism and Naturalism [Southern Illinois UP, 1998].

Let the record reflect that Pizer is Pierce Butler Professor of English at Tulane University and a heavy-hitter when it it comes to realism and American literary naturalism. He is also editor of the Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London, and has authored monographs on Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and John Dos Passos in addition to several full length-studies of  American realism and naturalism.

I feel curiously like I’ve just introduced Professor Pizer to an empty room.

Part of the strength of Documents rests in its sheer breath. Beginning with George Parsons Lathrop’s “The Novel and Its Future,” first published in the September 1874 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, the collection concludes with Elizabeth Ammons’ “Expanding the Canon of American Realism” (1995).

Of the articles, essays, and excertps collected in this volume, it is the final Ammons essay that fills me with that anxious sense that what I know about American realism and naturalism is entirely insufficient for the dissertation I’d like to write.

Ammons, emphasizing the importance of a multicultural syllabi, suggests that “when we say American realism, two immediate questions are: Whose reality? And Whose America?” (436). These questions are less reflexive than  those familiar with post-structuralist linguistic theories of language and representation might think.  They come as a bit of a shock at the end of 400 pages largely filled by critics who are themselves or are primarily concerned with Anglo-American realists and naturalists and a more or less stable representational orientation.

I’m concerned about this because the naturalists my dissertation intends to in some measure treat (Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells, Jack London, and William Faulkner) are all dead white men. What about the naturalisms I don’t even know about? Coming from a working-class background my relation to the canon is different from that of some other people. Quite problematically, I feel like cultural-capital-credit is being extended to me–by working on authors in the club I get that much closer to being in the club myself. Fucked up. And I don’t have to time to start from scratch on a new prospectus.

Here’s Ammons’ syllabus from 1992:

“Henry James, Daisy Miller; William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham; W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”; Zitkala-Sa, Old Indian Legends; Kate Chopin, The Awakening; Charles Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman; Pauline Hopkins, Of One Blood; Sui Sin Far, selections from Mrs. Spring Fragrance; Upton Sinclair, The Jungle; Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome; Maria Cristina Mena, “The Vine Leaf”; Willa Cather, O Pioneers!; and selected stories from Anzia Yezierska, Hungry Hearts. (440)

That’s a lot of realisms. I didn’t know about Zitkala Sa’s  Old Indian Legends, which apparently has characters transforming back and forth into animals–perfect for my dissertation. How does one account for a tradition that recognizes such transformations as realism? Vertiginous.

My dissertation, by the way, attempts to argue that American literary naturalism is the result of the dialectical movement between romance and realism. As the trauma of capitalist exploitation becomes increasingly visible in the late 19th century, a number of writers with ostensibly leftist political commitments recognize that realism, in so far as it reproduces reality, is not sufficiently dialectically negative. My dissertation discuses the way that animal representations fissure smooth realistic narrative planes with a kind of negative transcendence that anticipates a more humane mode of production.

For that to make any sense requires a lot of unpacking that I’ll save for another time. What do I mean by “romance,” “realism,” and “naturalism” for example.

While Charles C. Walcutt’s racism, “a third set of critics…conclude that in the critical woodpile there is indeed  a nigger,” (291) makes me want to claw my eyes out, I have to agree that “the naturalistic novelist while he portrays with loathing and bitterness the folly and degradation of man is also affirming his hope and his faith, for his unspoken strictures imply an equally unspoken ideal which stimulates and justifies his pejorative attitude toward the world about him…This denial is a term in the dialectic of art; it is as much a total effect of the work of art as its stated or implied scientific hypothesis” (294).

I appreciate Eric J. Sundquist’s vigorous account of naturalism. I’ll end this rather long post with it:

Revelling in the extraodinary, the excessive, and the grotesque in order to reveal the immutable bestiality of Man in Nature, naturalism dramatizes  the loss of individuality at a physiological level by making a Calvinism without God [echoes of Lukacs novel as the epic of an age that has lost God?] its determining order and violent death its utopia. The ease with which naturalism verges upon parody, especially in Crane and Norris, thus results in part from a gothic intensification of detail that approaches the allegorical without finding release into or through it; the characters inhabit alien landscapes filled with inflated symbols, and they die not in bed, at home, of old age and natural causes, but in open boats, in Death Valley, in the electric chair, in silos of WHEAT, in the nowhere of the Yukon–in blinding fields of force, sudden traps of mysterious making. And they do so at the level of technique by becoming bloated figures in which the human constantly threatens to detach and deform itself into the bestial (as in Norris) or, at extremity, in which the human disappears completely into the beast (as in London). (375)

I have an account of why this happens. Now I need an account of my bed.

February 24, 2007 at 7:22 am 8 comments

Morning at Noon

Part of this whole fellowship business has me waking up between 12-12:30 in the afternoon and working on projects until 4:30 in the morning. This seems to be my natural “nothing else to do” schedule. And yet there is some faint guilt about not being up with the birds and burning sphere.

When I was in elementary school one of the most uninteresting lunches was called “breakfast for lunch” in which everyone was served a sausage or two and maybe a little bit of egg, with a waffle drizzled in antediluvian syrup for good measure. There may have been a cardboard hashbrown. In many ways these prison rashions prepared me for the life of crime I am now leading.

What the august band Queensryche has called “mindcrime.” While I could not be less interested in murdering nuns (there’s a new mindcrime where this reading of the old mindcrime is problematized, but I’m struggling to garner enough interest to listen to it–Ronnie James Dio as Dr. X is almost a sufficient blandishment), I do spend my time arranging books that I’m going to read when I get out of prison. You know, the old “mind forged manacles” and such.

Maybe I just need to take a shower? Sounds revolutionary. Here’s what’s on the burner today: I’m going to finish the aforementioned Pizer anthology and put up some tasty bits before the night/morning is out.

Maybe that’s better than taking Howells and Henry James to bed?

February 23, 2007 at 6:16 pm 5 comments

Hello world!

Right. Well, Jetsam paved the way, and Anaj asked, while K said she might read it, from time to time. So here it is:  cabbage.

New Entries will go up every couple days when I’ve managed to read something of interest. Your indulgence as I stumble to work with what must be intuitive technology is appreciated.

An entry on Donald Pizer’s anthology, Documents of American Realism and Naturalism, is in the works.

February 23, 2007 at 6:29 am 14 comments