Resisting Regionalism, Part 2

April 1, 2007 at 5:05 am 2 comments

I’ve completed Donna M. Campbell’s fantastic Resisting Regionalism. It’s the kind of critical work that changes the way you read an entire genre. Not bad. Her argument is simply that the naturalists, “ostensible enemies” of the local colorists, are “in some ways” their “logical heirs” (175). The naturalists (in particular Norris and London, but others, too) deplored the outmoded “teacup tragedies” of both the local colorists and a prior generation of realists that included William Dean Howells and Henry James.

Howells is such an important figure, that any discussion of his rejection by the 1890s naturalists should be qualified with stories like the following: Howells learned that a starving Stephen Crane was in New York, and invited him to dinner, after which he read Emily Dickinson to him. Can you imagine? Howells is also reputed to have personally walked Crane’s Maggie from publisher to publisher trying to get somebody to print it.

I’m going to write a book on Howells and the phenomenon of the socialist literary gentleman some day.

Here’s Campbell on Wharton‘s Ethan Frome: “Considered as the corrective rewriting of what Wharton saw as the bleak rural landscapes, grotesquely extended love affairs, excessive preserving, and incredible renunciations and self denial of local color fiction, Ethan Frome almost becomes Wharton’s blackly comic joke, a vision of the genre so extreme as to border on private parody. Ethan Frome argues that the kind of local color renunciation practiced by Ethan and his kind suggests no spiritual nobility but spiritual impoverishment; their habitual denial of healthy appetite for emotion recalls not the anorexia mirabilis of the saints but the anorexia nervosa of the cultural victim” (172).

That is a damn smart reading. So why is Wharton grinding this particular axe? “She realized that to be taken seriously in the ‘man’s game’ that American literature was becoming, she would have to repudiate the local colorists thoroughly and unmistakably. In Ethan Frome she achieves this victory over ‘the authoresses,’ and the literary power of its bleak vision has until recently all but obliterated their ‘rose and lavender pages'” (173).

Also worth note is Campbell’s reading of Crane’s The Monster as a “teacup tragedy” (144). This is in a chapter that discusses how the naturalists more readily identify with “fallen women” than the local colorists, to whom they are, as we learn from Campbell, actually quite indebted. Some of them may also have been indebted to fallen women.

Campbell relates that “[a]s men tacitly committed to social justice, Frank Norris, Jack London, Stephen Crane, and David Graham Phillips sympathized with the powerlessness of women in an inequitable social system, and they inverted and reinvented the stereotypes of fallen women to expose the economic basis of the double standard. Yet striving to create a new literature under a system they saw as dominated by feminine discourse, they exaggerated the power of ‘respectable’ women and railed against the entrenched forces allied against young male writers. Their priciple strategy for voicing this resentment was the inversion of existing attitudes on fallen women and the rearticulation of these women’s stories. By examining these women’s lives, and by surrounding with ambiguity the hitherto clear-cut moral judgments about them, the naturalists sought to ‘rescue’ these women, not merely as sterotyped or sensationalized subjects for fiction, but as representative human beings worthy of study. The relegation of women to the status of ‘other’ is preserved by emphasizing their role as objects of mystery or inspiration for male characters. Surrounding prostitutes with an air of indeterminacy provides the necessary distance” (110-11).

“Obscured by the economic rather than sexual basis of human transactions, the whole issue of women’s sexuality becomes distanced, as if of secondary importance” (113).

“Living close to the edge of starvation, Crane, Dreiser, and London understood the factory worker’s or shop girl’s losing struggle to make ends meet on $5.00 a week. They generally viewed her fall in prostitution as a matter of economic necessity–and, in the case of the kept women like Carrie Meeber, economic good sense” (114-15).

“The difference between these women and characters such as Martin Eden, Vandover, and Hurstwood, all of whom also agonize over pennies, is that the men’s poverty results from an act of choice, either a refusal to take better paying work, like Martin Eden, or a willingness to drift, like Vandover and Hurstwood. For women, the choice is really no choice. Prostitution places them at risk, but no more so, argue the naturalists, than the only other possibility open to them: monotonous jobs at inadequate wages. Turning out collars and cuffs like Maggie (and like Roberta Alden of An American Tragedy), punching out shoe uppers like Carrie, or pasting boxes and sewing hats like Susan Lenox (and Lily Bart) all offer physical and emotional debilitation similar to that of prostitution, but with less prospect of tangible reward” (115).

Norris is enormously important to my dissertation. I hope you’ll forgive my jotting a few notes on him from Campbell here:

“In his story of the Old Folks [in McTeague], Norris pays tribute to the stories”

…sorry have to pause… “A Forest” by The Cure started playing and I thought I was a sophmore undergrad writing a paper due invariably tomorrow…

“of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Yet he explores the conventions of local color and judges them to be wanting”

…a forest, all alone…

“; he finds the limitations of local color unworkable in the real world of Polk Street. Published in 1899, the novel reads both as a handbook of the novelist’s options at the century’s end, and as a parable of the path that American fiction was taking. Disdaining, like Norris, the limitations and small rooms of the old lovers, American fiction took its chances with the great world. Beset by calamities and world change, American realism, like the McTeagues, took up residence in the house of Zolaesque naturalism” (74).

…I cried myself to sleep last night…everything is integrated…for the earth and materials they may sound just right…[Sufjan Stevens]

“The principle determinant of redemption for Norris and London must nevertheless be located within the characters rather than the frontier setting; race, not region, finally emerges as the crucial determinant” (78).

And let this stand as free verse: “During his lycanthropic spells, Vandover may resemble a wolf, but, as such a scheme suggests, Geary is the novel’s true carnivore” (95).

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Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, An American Tragedy, books, David Graham Phillips, Donna M Campbell, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Ethan Frome, Frank Norris, Henry James, Jack London, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Martin Eden, Mary E Wilkins Freeman, McTeague, music, realism, regionalism, Sister Carrie, Stephen Crane, Sufjan Stevens, The Cure, Theodore Dreiser, Vandover and the Brute, William Dean Howells, Zola.

Regionalism, Local Color, and Donna M. Campbell Pizer Again

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. whetted  |  April 1, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    I’m not sure I ever feel comfortable when I hear James referred to as a “realist” or, rather, what he himself called “naturalism.” His only real, conscious effort to write within the “naturalist” genre was The Princess Casamassima, presumably after some of the critical hostility The Bostonians met with. I also think he departed from the “naturalist” experiment and felt more comfortable within the terrain of the psychical and the sexual. Of course, there is the famous adage—from a contemporaneous critic—that Henry wrote novels like psychological tracts and William did just the opposite. I’m not sure what Henry would think of us pitting him within the “genre” of psychological realism, or even modernism, but I think the case can be made against his realism more adroitly than for it. At least that’s my opinion! Does Campbell discuss the more inner realm of James’s fiction, one that seemingly denies the external power or “pull” of realist fiction?

    Her remarks on Wharton’s text seem on the mark. Ethan Frome, for many, is often seen as a book that sits rather oddly with the rest of Wharton’s “society” (and rising or falling within it) like The House of Mirth and, of course, The Age of Innocence. I think the sardonic wit in these two are read as a kind of Austenian trademark carried across the Atlantic and into a new century, so the bleakness of Ethan Frome—which is virtually entirely bleak—is often viewed as strange within Wharton’s oeuvre. I’m glad for Campbell’s remarks, then, as they seem to address the same tensions and desires Wharton displays across the fictional board instead of viewing the book as an “odd one out.”

  • 2. skunkcabbage  |  April 2, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks for these comments! I especially appreciate your concern about Henry James being lumped into a category called “realist” that seems ill-fitting at best. As you may know, one classic argument against understanding James as a realist can be found in Richard Chase’s _American Novel and Its Tradition_, where James is described as writing in the tradition Chase identifies as the “romance-novel”. With Chase, and yourself, I don’t think James is usefully thought of as a realist, if we understand “realist” to mean a writer concerned to demonstrate a high degree of verisimilitude with objective reality.”

    But regardless of what we think is going on in James, the naturalists thought of him as a realist whose accuracy fails to capture Truth (Norris’ distinction), whose genteel reality fails to recognize the “red-blooded” life of the masses, and is dangerously effete. So some of the naturalists are fighting a battle against feminine local color on the one hand, and the “teacup tragedies” that they identify with both Howells and James’ fictions on the other. This reading is, of course, unfair. It’s interest is in the way that this helps us to understand the naturalist’s project–which I’m increasingly inclined to view as a kind of schizophrenic attempt to celebrate and contain the lineaments of a “vast and terrible” modernity.

    Campbell doesn’t focus on James, other than to characterize the naturalist’s critique of a prior tradition.

    I’m just beginning to really think about Wharton, but appreciate the connection to Austen (though Wharton was at pains to differentiate herself from what she calls “authoresses,” and might not enjoy the likeness). One of the annoying things about writing the dissertation is the way that I sometimes feel like I read more about novels than the novels themselves. I hope to get to more of Wharton soon.

    Again, thank you very much for your thoughts!!


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