Pizer’s Companion, Part 1

February 27, 2007 at 10:01 am 5 comments

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.


Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, formalism, Literary Criticism, Night Ranger, Pizer, realism.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. cerebraljetsam  |  February 27, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    Just talked to Justin on Saturday who is working on Westerns and seems to back this theory. According to him most filmic engagements with the Vietnam war during the actual war were Westerns.
    I am wondering, in addition to this, if this is not very specific to a period in capitalism, meaning naturalism as a means of mediating human conflict that is often physical in nature. What happens to naturalism in an increasingly immaterial economy? Does it disappear, as we saw in the sci-fi boom from the 70s onward, does it continue and if so in which form (one could argue that e.g. _Alien_ displays certain naturalist elements)? How does naturalism deal with the stock exchange, global capital and the hyperreal? Is it outdated, or does it present an alternative (if so, is this alternative subject to Jameson’s decription of nostalgia?). I.e. does the definition and nature of naturalism depend upon its mobilization within a specifiy moment of capitalist production? What, then, does the distinction between feudalism and industrialism mean?
    Why do I keep asking questions? Seriously, why can’t I stop?

  • 2. cerebraljetsam  |  February 27, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    oh–I am referring to the quote from page 14

  • 3. skunkcabbage  |  February 28, 2007 at 12:57 am

    Thanks for the questions! I think that naturalism in an immaterial economy performs the same narrative function as prior naturalisms, namely the formal containment of unresolvable ideological contradictions. (Thank you, Frederic Jameson!)

    That said, what are the contradictions of the immaterial economy? The contradiction between labor and capital has become quite complex. This seems to lead inevitably to discussion about where our Front is.

    Eric Carl Link in *The Vast and Terrible Drama,* a book I need to write a post about sometime, defines naturalism as the thematic treatment of atavism, degeneration, evolution, and the development of various notions of Force along the lines conceived in the 19th century by Herbert Spencer, in particular. *Alien* certainly trades in hybridity, especially in IV, when Ripley’s DNA is part Alien. But note also the botched splicing attempts that she torches, having recognized herself in these monstrous “others.” I’d love to write about the Alien films.

    The anxiety they contain is related, I think, to the anxiety and identification with zombies in Romero’s films, though gender is more interestingly foregrounded in the Alien series.

    I would suggest that while naturalism can be historicized at various moments of *its* evolution, it depends not so much on a specific moment of capitalist production, as on the anxiety produced by capitalism as an ongoing mode of production that compels people to grasp ideologically and thus aesthetically toward something beyond themselves and the lives they know, in short, beyond realism as such.

    That *negative transcendence* is the inaugural naturalist gesture. It gets recontained in fairly predictable ways all of the time. See for example the liberal humanist family romance at the end of Romero’s Land of the Dead. Naturalism names a kind of aesthetic anxiety that takes manifold contemporary forms, but is in some measure of a piece with a prior moment of capitalist production.

    The essence or balance carried forward through the aesthetic dialectic is what I’m calling anxiety, notoriously imprecise as “anxiety” is. My dissertation argues that late 19th century American literary naturalism represents that anxiety through animal representations.

    This reminds me, I need to visit Jameson’s reading of Jaws again, sometime.

    As an aside, have you read any of Franco Moretti’s stuff?

  • 4. cerebraljetsam  |  March 1, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    I only read his book on the Bildungsroman (called _The Way of the World_ I believe). Didn’t he just publish a new one, though?
    I also remember one called _Signs Taken for Wonders_, but I do not think I read that one. Do you remember what it is about?
    Tim really likes Moretti, right? I think he first referred me to him.

  • 5. skunkcabbage  |  March 2, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Yep, the new one is called *Graphs, Maps, Trees*. In it he argues for what he calls “distance reading.” Apparently there’s a connection to evolutionary biology. I need to read Moretti real soon.

    Tim is a Moretti fan, and in fact put me onto him as well. How was *The Way of the World*?


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