Pizer’s Documents

February 24, 2007 at 7:22 am 8 comments

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.


Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, books, Literary Criticism, Pizer, realism.

Morning at Noon Strange Hours

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. skunkcabbage  |  February 24, 2007 at 8:40 am

    Sheer breadth, not breath–though it may have that too…

  • 2. anaj  |  February 24, 2007 at 9:03 am

    Don’t worry about the naturalisms you don’t know about – that would be at least one doctorate of its own, rather twenty. If Pizer doesn’t know them (and as far as I understood – he merely pointed out that there were others) you don’t need to know them either. But it would be good for the concluding passage of a corresponding chapter to take up his thought. It suppose any thesis has at least one paragraph in which it sets out briefly the things that go beyond the scope of this thesis and, regrettably, have to be discussed at a later date and probably by someone else.

    And also don’t worry about being becoming a member of the club myself. I come from a working-class background too (although there is not such a perception of oneself in Germany – regrettably, meaning that there is very little room for expression of this position) and I sometimes felt compelled to be more ‘underground’, to be more concerned with the margins of society, literature, ideas. I have revised my thoughts meanwhile. If you grew up working-class and accumulated LOTS of (legitimate) cultural capital later in your life (like you did/do) you will forever be in a kind of diaspora. But even if the present day educated middle class gives one all reasons to not want to be part of that club, I have resolved to ignoring the club for a while and cherishing the original humanist idea: The becoming of man kind (hmm, Menschwerdung?) through education. And the original humanist project (at least from the little that I know about humanism in the later to be German areas) intended education to be a means of inclusion, of becoming human, not a means of exclusion.

    There might be some working class folk who educated themselves and had this subversiveness and taste for the margins . For my part, I needed to become a human first through my education, even if what I produced later had the mark of the club branded all over. It still allowed me to become me, or a me that I’d rather like to be (rather than what might have become of me if I hadn’t had access to education).

    Um. Don’t know whether that helps, really.

    I need to think a little more about the rest.

    But I guess it’s not to late to integrate Zitkala-Sa into your thesis?

  • 3. cerebraljetsam  |  February 24, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    @ anaj: I know, isn’t it werid how the country of Marx seems to lose all interest in traditional class struggle? To get a whiff of that you may really have to be born in the Ruhrpott, or even more precisely somewhere auf Schalke. Seems like the strongest kinds of traditional class consciousness of mediated through soccer. You are right, especially the academic radicals you meet at universities are all about global struggles (which is fun as well) but the local class struggle hav lost chic.

    @ Harvey:
    I could suggest two classics of Asian-American alternative realisms that are a quick, fun read and would REALLY fit into your politics:

    Carlos Bulosan, _America is in the Heart_ (about the 1930s, socialism, unionizing and a Philippino perspective)

    Milton Murayama, _All I Asking for is My Body_ (growing up Japanese on the sugar cane plantations of Hawaii, labor struggles, divide et impera racial and capitalist politics and a socialist teacher with a red beard)

    I am sure you would greatly enjoy both and especially the latter is very short.

  • 4. skunkcabbage  |  February 24, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    @anaj: Appreciate your thoughts on other naturalisms. Think you’re right, I’m going to have to limit myself for the time being. Maybe if I get a job someday I can be more thorough with a book. I’ll definitely need to explain in the dissertation why the naturalism I’m working on is, well, the naturalism I’m working on. I hesitate to just give a paragraph to the other naturalisms because that seems to re-stage their historical marginalization–though it’s better than omitting them in toto, I suppose.

    Really interesting to hear about class consciousness in Germany. Do you think that the reason there seems to be less is due to a more robust social-welfare state? Is that a fantasy on my part?

    I respect humanist ideals, but theoretically I have to admit that I find them problematic. Usually they tend to emphasize the development of the human individual rather than humanity plural, which looks a bit like capitalism’s recomendation to buy yourself a little something. On the other hand, if by humanism we’re talking about inclusive education, I definitely see that as a real good in the world. The state of education in the US right now is execrable. Another concern with humanism is it tends to have narrow notions of who qualifies as human. Whose humanism?

    Oh that’s interesting…what’s the relationship between realism and humanism?

    I might be able to include the Zitkals-Sa. If I ever get done reading Pizer!

    @Mathias: Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll definitely check them both out!

  • 5. anaj  |  February 24, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    You’re right, something like a separate chapter would definitely be more appropriate. Maybe you’ll even have the chance to make at least one exemplatory comparison between, for instance, Zitkala-Sa and one of your old white men (but that’s probably about as far as you can go – are you allowed to change your topic still?)

    My previous notion of inclusive education was modeled after the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (prolific, fertile, proliferate? – society) of 1617, a language association, which I remember for the anecdote that the members adopted society names which should level the class divisions (at the time meaning: divisions between petty bourgeoisie and nobility, erm…) – but meanwhile, as we know, the educational system aims to create further distinctions… here in Austria, they even address me by my Master’s title… imagine waiting for your turn at the dentist and they call you Herr/Frau Magister…:-D

    Generally, the mediation between the individual and plurality seems to be the straw that breaks any camel’s back, no matter what the matter

    One day I love mankind as such and cannot bear the individual and one day it’s the other way around. But when it comes to improving mankind, I wouldn’t know where to start if not with the individual – at the same time, that means all too often that no one feels responsible for the individual _but_ the individual… you can get it if you really want, and if you can’t, why don’t you just kill yourself?

    Drastically speaking…

    There was a Hanuta (a chocolate bar) sticker in the 1980s which said:

    Wenn jeder nur an sich selbst denkt ist an alle gedacht.

    If everybody is only looking after himself, then everybody is being looked after.


  • 6. anaj  |  February 24, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    check out the Logo of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft

    F***ing Global!

  • 7. skunkcabbage  |  February 25, 2007 at 1:43 am

    I might be able to get away with bringing the Zitkala-Sa into a chapter with one of the white men. That’s not a bad idea! It is, sadly, too late to change my topic. Any suggestion thereabout elicits a “sky is falling” response from my advisor, who points out that perhaps I should go and be an activist instead, and that the proverbial funding clock is always ticking. He means well, and I suppose the masochistic part of me appreciates it, but I sometimes wish that I could go back a couple of years and head in a slightly different direction.

    Wow, I can’t imagine being addressed as Herr Magister. I’d be completely embarrassed, though I do think there’s something to be said for respect. Adorno writes that “only by the recognition of distance in our neighbor is strangeness alleviated: accepted into consciousness. The presumption of undiminshed nearness present from the first, however, the flat denial of strangeness, does the other supreme wrong, virtually negates him as a particular human being and therefor the humanity in him, ‘counts him in’, incorporates him in the inventory of property” (Minima Moralia 182). Still, while taking Adorno’s point, I ask my students to just call me Harvey.

    Thanks for the introduction to the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft! I wonder if there’s a history of their association in English? I’ll have to look for it. There’s probably something wrong with me, but of course there’s a rather available Freudian reading of the fertility logo. An anachronism, but, well, I dunno.

    The mediation between the individual and plurality breaking the camel’s back is well put, and sounds a bit Adorno-like, itself.

    I too suffer from the oscillation between love of one’s self, and love of mankind. For example, I’m spending this fellowship working on my dissertation when I could instead be doing union work, or pitching-in in New Orleans, or Africa, or West Virginia. What we end up doing is pushing the dialectic to the point where we believe that our own interests are congruent with the interest of Humankind (a Hegelian identity of opposites)–which is another way of suggesting that we are at the end of history when history is us, having attained relations under a certain stage of capitalist production where the individual is the final horizon of solidarity.

    Dangerous indeed, because the power differential remains very much intact, and the individual has only herself to blame (or so she believes) when she suffers structural violence.

    It’s the invisibility of visibility that’s part of the danger. We see so much exploitation and degradation that we become completely inured to it.

    I’m saying all of this, but it leaves one open to charges of hypocrisy–we could all always be doing more.

    Voltaire’s temptation to tend our own gardens comes with a friendly, if overly familiar snake, whose credibility is greater than that of a neighbor, even a loved one.

    Part of where Merleau Ponty was headed in his last work was out of the self. Althusser from a Marxist position was part of the same post-cartesian/humanist ferment. I need to read a lot more.

    In the mean time, I’m like a pendulum–now nearer, now further from the people around me–always with something already in the way.

  • 8. Fall Syllabi « cabbage  |  April 20, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    […] This fall I’ll be teaching Elizabeth Ammons’ American realisms syllabus in an “Introduction to American Literature and Culture” class. I’ve written about this syllabus, here. […]


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