Pizer Again

April 3, 2007 at 3:32 am 2 comments

Sometimes I think about the argument I want to make in my dissertation and wonder if I believe what I’m saying. Doubt is largely a part of the dissertation process, I suspect, but it’s good to be reassured from time to time.

Reading Donald Pizer’s criticism calms me down. It’s easier to put the anxiety away when one has a respected critic to own as a sort of genealogical forefather (or mother) of the argument you hope to make.

I’ve been revisiting Pizer’s Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Rev ed., Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984).

My dissertation argues that as capitalist exploitation becomes increasingly visible in the latter 19th century, a group of writers frequently called “naturalists” begin to reject realism as insufficiently critical of the society their fictions represent. The result is a recrudescence of the grotesque, narratives of atavism, degeneration, and evolution that look like a resurgence of the romance tradition. Typically the protagonists of these narratives are figured as “brute” animals. I’m interested in the negative transcendence of these animal representations in naturalist fiction, in particular, the anticipation of their extinction under a different mode of production–the realism of a future called communism.

Donald Pizer writes that “[t]he naturalist appears to say that although the individual may be a cipher in a world made amoral by man’s lack of repsonsibility for his fate, the imagination refuses to accept this formula as the total meaning of life and so seeks a new basis for man’s sense of his own dignity and importance” (11).

London, Sinclair, and Dreiser all believed that this new basis would be socialism. Naturalism would be the vehicle. In naturalism we care for the brutes, for the lowest human-animals. Pizer notes that “[n]aturalism 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” (12).

So even a brute like Frank Norris’ McTeague is complicated. Norris “believed that the source of this violence beneath the surface placidity of life is the presence in all men of animal qualities which have played a major role in man’s evolutionary development but which are now frequently atavistic and destructive. Norris’s theme is that man’s racial atavism (particularly his brute sexual desires) and man’ individual family heritage (alcoholic degeneracy in McTeague’s case) can combine as a force toward reversion, toward a return to the emotions and instincts of man’s animal past” (Pizer 14).

“The possessive sexual desire of the man aroused by the first woman he experiences sensually, the instinctive desire of the woman for the sexual submission responding to the first man who assaults her–these are the atavistic animal forces which bring Trina and McTeague together” (15).

“The theme of McTeague is not that drunkenness leads to a tragic fall, but that tragedy is inherent in the human situation given man’s animal past and the possibility that he will be dominated by that past in particular circumstances. Norris does not deny the strength of man’s past or present animality, but neither does he deny the poignancy of the fall of even such a gross symbol of this animality as McTeague. It is out of this tension that much of the meaning and power of the novel arises” (17).

While in Sinclair and London men are made animals by capitalism. In Norris it is genetic degeneracy, a prior evolutionary moment that, given the right conditions, will become dominant. Pizer is interested in a humanistic reading of the tension implied by McTeague’s fall. I think Norris can be employed as an antipode to the way that the animal functions for other naturalists. In Norris this is in part attributable to his study with Joseph Le Conte at Berkeley.

Pizer is also good on Dreiser’s metaphysics of desire: “Dreiser’s central theme in Sister Carrie, however, sets forth the idea–Lionel Trilling to the contrary–that the physically real is not the only reality and that men seek something in life beyond it. His theme is that those of a finer, more intense, more emotional nature who desire to break out of their normal solid world–whether it be a Carrie oppressed by the dull repetitiousness and crudity of her sister’s home, or a Hurstwood jaded by the middle class trivialities of his family–that when such as these strive to discover a life approximate to their natures they introduce into their lives the violent and the extraordinary” (18).

“For in this his first novel Dreiser endows Carrie with the same capacity to wonder and to dream which he felt so strongly in himself. It is this ability to dream about the nature of oneself and one’s fate and of where one is going and how one will get there and to wonder whether happiness is real and possible or only an illusion–it is this capacity which ultimately questions the reality and meaning of the seemingly solid and plain world in which we find ourselves” (21).

My dissertation attempts to read the utopian possibilities in a variety of naturalist texts. Pizer’s humanism points him in the right direction, and gets me started.

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Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, animals/men, dissertation, Frank Norris, Joseph Le Conte, Lionel Trilling, Pizer, Theodore Dreiser.

Resisting Regionalism, Part 2 A Note on Pizer

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. whetted  |  April 3, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    Your dissertation topic sounds fascinating; I definitely look forward to keeping up with you and your progress here.

  • 2. skunkcabbage  |  April 4, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks, that’s really nice! I appreciate your interest. 😀


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