Pizer and Michaels

March 20, 2007 at 6:13 pm Leave a comment

I finished Donald Pizer’s The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism: Selected Essays and Reviews (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993) this morning.

Amongst Pizer’s reviews, I was especially pleased with his take on Michaels’ Gold Standard, a text I’d been grappling with recently (see the several posts on Michaels).

Here is Pizer’s clear distillation of Michaels’ method in The Gold Standard:

“A typical essay in The Gold Standard will therefore initially locate in a fictional text an indirectly expressed allusion to a major economic (and thus also metaphysical and epistemological) issue of the age that also has profound pertinence for the text as a whole. In the title essay, for example, the gold theme in McTeague and Vandover’s dissipation of his inheritance in Vandover and the Brute are used to introduce the late nineteenth-century debate over gold and silver as standards of monetary value. This economic issue of the day is then discussed at great length in order to relate it to the larger philosophical question of a preference for the tangibly real as a principle of transaction over substitutions for or symbols of the tangibly real. Finally, the essay returns to the literary works in question and finds that their deep but largely unconscious participation in this debate reverses commonly held critical beliefs about the works–that in fact most turn-of-the-century naturalistic fiction endorses rather than rejects popular values of the time” (204).

“This methodology has a great deal of excitement and value,” Pizer explains. “The detailed substantiality of the naturalistic text is not merely accepted as a convention of naturalistic expression but becomes a finding place for the underlying beliefs and values that motivated this expression, and the age as a whole is revealed in far greater density of attitude and expression than is usually acknowledged” (205).

Pizer then takes a turn toward what seems to me to be the voice par excellance of the old-school advisor: “Yet The Gold Standard also has several troubling characteristics–troubling, that is, especially to someone like myself who experienced in graduate school some of the limitations of the old historicism” (205). Not surprisingly Pizer is concerned by the danger that the “absolutism” of Michaels’ “economic argument,”his “singleness of interpretive strategy… can produce distortions of the complexity of theme and motif in the literary work” (205). Not a lot of interest or room in Michaels’ logic for Pizer’s humanistic concern that naturalistic texts represent the frequently failed but necessarily ongoing search for meaning in what might in fact otherwise prove a meaningless world.

Perhaps there’s something to this, but I’m less sympathetic to Pizer’s concern that “Michael’s essays … recall the old historicism in their almost total neglect of the aesthetic nature and value of the literary texts under discussion” (205). Pizer’s concern that the texts be reduced to so many documents makes sense considering he has spent his career arguing that naturalist texts should not be considered so many botched pessimistic determinisms. Zola, only worse. A lack of aesthetic concern, from Pizer’s vantage, possibly resembles the risk of a return to an understanding of naturalism as a literature of limited document, rather than a literature of rich fictional complexity and worth.

I love the moment where Pizer takes Michaels aside (imagine in Pizer’s office, an older generation classically talking to a talented but reckless grad student): “I also have some other complaints about The Gold Standard. It is too clever by half–both in its occasionally excessive and obscure playing with ideas and language, in the manner of deconstructionist criticism . . . and in its relentlessly revisionist frame of mind, one that often produces interpretations that run counter to the felt response of several generations of readers to a specific novel” (206).

Anyone who knows Michaels, will have a difficult time imagining any sleep has been lost over these concerns. Still, I find Pizer’s “too clever by half”, choice. Not so much because Michaels method is “too clever,” but because I respect Pizer’s sincere concern for these texts. They are a serious matter, and not to be taken lightly–so too, the (useful) critical tradition that has developed in large part as a result of Pizer’s work in this area. Pizer concludes by supposing “that, as in most major movements in scholarship, there will eventually be a separating out of the chaff in the methodology of the New Historicism, with much profitable residue remaining behind” (206).

At risk of being too clever by half–chaff’s residue is wheat–which takes us back to Norris and is thus a perfect articulation of Pizer’s concern about whether New Historicism will leave a profitable residue behind, something that develops of its own inexorable force, like Norris’ wheat–a force capable of much damage prior to some benevolent equilibration (to borrow Spencer’s term) at a higher level of coherent organization.

So much for Pizer’s review of Michaels.

I want to conclude by posting some of Pizer’s thoughts about naturalism:

“I note at several points in this collection of essays Willard Thorp’s comment in 1960 that naturalism somehow refuses to die in America. Thorp was in part bemused by this insight because the long and seemingly indestructible life of American naturalism owed little to critical understanding or support. Yet, it seems, as long as American writers respond deeply to the disparity between the ideal and the actual in our national experience, naturalism will remain one of the major means for the registering of this shock of discovery” (10).

“Naturalism is thus closely related to the romance in its reliance on a sensationalistic symbolism and allegory. And if, as Richard Chase and others have argued, the romance–as in the fiction of Hawthorne and Melville–is the form most native to the distinctive American experience, then naturalism is a form that continues to fulfill this need in American life” (15).

“The naturalistic novel is therefore not so superficial or reductive as it implicitly appears to be in its conventional definition. It involves a belief that life on its lowest levels is not so simple as it seems to be from higher levels. It suggests that even the least significant human being can feel and strive powerfully and can suffer the extraordinary consequences of his emotions, and that no range of human experience is free of the moral complexities and ambiguities that Milton set his fallen angels to debating. Naturalism reflects an affirmative ethical conception of life, for it asserts the value of all life by endowing the lowest character with emotion and defeat and with moral ambiguity, no matter how poor or ignoble he may seem. The naturalistic novel derives much of its aesthetic effect from these contrasts. It involves us in the experience of a life both commonplace and extraordinary, both familiar and strange, both simple and complex. It pleases us with its sensationalism without affronting our sense of probability. It discovers the ‘romance of the commonplace,’ as Frank Norris put it. Thus the melodramatic sensationalism and moral ‘confusion’ that are often attacked in the naturalistic novel should really be incorporated into a normative definition of the mode and be recognized as its essential constituents” (87).

“A successful naturalistic novel is like any successful work of art in that it embodies a cogent relationship between its form (its particular combination of the commonplace and sensational) and its theme (its particular tension between the individually significant and the deterministic)” (101).

“I can perhaps now suggest, after having glanced both backwards and forwards, that the distinctiveness of the form of the naturalistic novel lies in the attempt of that form to persuade us, in the context of a fully depicted concrete world, that only the questioning, seeking, timeless self is real, that the temporal world outside the self is often treacherous and always apparent. The naturalistic novel thus reflects our doubts about conventional notions of character and experience while continuing to affirm through its symbolism both the sanctity of the self and the bedrock emotional reality of our basic nature and acts. Put in terms of the history of art, the late nineteenth-century naturalistic novel anticipates both the startling, convention-destroying concreteness and the profound solipsism of much modern art” (109).

“Norris placed realism, romanticism, and naturalism in a dialectic, in which realism and romanticism were opposing forces, and naturalism was transcending synthesis” (120 “Frank Norris’s Definition of Naturalism”).

Next up: Mark Seltzer’s Bodies and Machines.


Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, books, Gold Standard, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Pizer, Walter Benn Michaels.

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