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Realism and Naturalism:The Problem of Definition


This selection is taken from the introduction o/Pizer's essay col-lection, The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism(1995). Pizer begins by discussing the problems associated with defining realism andnaturalism and provides a briefhistory of their definitions. This difficulty is in partdue to the fact that both ternzs have distinct definitions in philosophical discourse,which at times cloud their lneanings in literary studies. Attempts to define realismand naturalism have also been complicated by their different use in European literaryhistory. Pizer obseroes that in the United States realism has been used to describe thefiction of William Dean Howells and Henry James, (1870s and 1880s), while natu-ralisnl referred to the fiction of Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser (1890s). Afterrevietving the changing tides of critical reception of realism and naturalism, Pizerconcludes that despite an initial preference for realism, naturalism continues toattract American writers and readers.

Anyone seeking, as are the contributors to this volume, to write aboutAmerican literature between the Civil War and World War I in relation to theliterary movements known as realism and naturalism faces a twofold initialdifficulty. First, there exists a traditional suspicion, often arising from the veryattempt to write literary history, of large-scale classifying rubrics. Is there anyadvantage, one might ask, in conceptualizing the richly diverse expression ofthis period in terms of such inherent simplification as realism and natural-ism? A second problem derives from the recent theorizing of literary study.The attraction, for many theorists, of a deconstructive stance has bred skepti-cism toward interpretive enterprises that posit such communities of beliefand expression as those subsumed under the headings of realism and natu-ralism. And, from a somewhat different theoretical viewpoint, recent scholarsof a New Historicist bent have tended to discount traditional historical divi-sions in the study of American literature on the ground that they obscure

From TIle Cambridge Companion to American Realisnl and Naturalism: Howells to London,ed. Donald Pizer (Cambridge: Cambridge Ue 1995) 3-14 and 16-18.

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underlying ideological similarities present in all American writing since theCivil War.

Yet, as this volume testifies, the effort to describe and understand a his-torical phase of American writing in terms of major shared characteristics ofthat writing continues. At its deepest and probably most significant level ofimplication, this attempt derives from the same reservoir of humanistic faithwhich feeds the act of creative expression itself. The artist, putting pen topaper, is expressing a belief in the human capacity to overcome such obsta-cles to understanding as the existence in all communication acts of uncon-scious motive and value in both writer and reader, the inherent ambiguity ofthe symbolic expression which is language, and the heartbreaking distinctionin human utterance between intent and effect. He or she does so, despitethese difficulties, because of faith in the value of striving to create threads ofshared experience and meaning out of the inchoate mix of life. The literaryhistorian, in his or her own way, also functions within this charged field ofdoubt and faith. Indeed, the literary historian can profit from the increasedappreciation in recent decades of the difficulties inherent in the effort to inter-pret. An awareness of the hazards and complexities of textual and historicalanalysis can lead, not to abandonment of the attempt to understand the past,but rather to a refining of that undertaking.

As a minor reflection of this awareness, I would like briefly to describethe assumptions that underlie the contents and organization of this collectionof essays devoted to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Americanwriting. The general notion of the volume is that of an exercise in literary his-tory in which various conflicting impulses in the writing of literary historyare paired off against each other - a method, in other words, that drama-tizes some of the opposing pulls in the construction of history rather than onewhich assumes that they are somehow resolved within a single seamless nar-rative. One such opposition is social and intellectual history versus the closereading of texts. Another is the older modes of critical and historical analysisversus those currently in fashion. And a third is the traditional canon versusan emerging alternative canon. The first pair of tendencies is represented bythe opening essays on American and European intellectual and social back-ground and by the studies devoted to specific works of the period. The nextis found in the review of earlier criticism of the period undertaken later in thisintroduction and in the essay on recent critical approaches. And the last isreflected in the traditional texts examined at length and in the essay onexpanding the canon as well as in the final case studies on works by Johnsonand Du Bois. The controlling strategy of this book, in brief, is that of dialec-tic. It is hoped that this approach suggests something of the dynamic natureof literary history, that it is an interpretive act in process, and (more specifi-cally) that it will contribute to an understanding of some of the distinctivecharacteristics of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Americanliterature.

Michael Anesko, in his essay "Recent Critical Approaches," will be discussingbasic tendencies in the study of American realism and naturalism since


approximately the early 1970s. It remains for me, therefore, to describe sever-al areas of interest in earlier efforts to come to grips with the nature of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American fiction. One is the alwaystroublesome issue of whether realisln and naturalism are indeed satisfactorycritical and historical terms in relation to the writing of the period. Another isthe presence of distinctive phases in the critical interpretation of realism andnaturalism since the emergence of the movements in the late nineteenth cen-tury. In addition, although this volume is devoted to discussions of fictionwritten between the Civil War and World War I, it may be useful to commentbriefly on critical attempts to describe the existence of naturalistic strains inAmerican literature since 1918.

A major problem inherent in the use of the terms realism and naturalismin discussions of literature is the fact that both words also have distinctivemeanings in philosophical discourse that can spill over into literary analysis,with awkward consequences. For example, metaphysical and epistemologi-cal inquiries as to what is real, or the ethical implications of what is natural,can be used to undermine almost any act of literary historiography or criti-cism. This destabilization arises, not from the efforts of scholars who seek ameaningful engagement with the possible philosophical implications of a lit-erary work, but rather from the attempts of various writers from the mid-nineteenth century onward to ridicule the pretensions of works purporting tobe realistic or naturalistic by noting the emptiness, in relation to philosophi-cal usage, of any such claims. As a result of this conventional stance of criticsinstinctively hostile to realistic or naturalistic expression, it has become com-mon to preface serious discussions of the literary dimensions of realism ornaturalism with statements disclaiming any relationship between the literaryand philosophical usages of the terms.1

Another, somewhat related, problem is that the terms bear social andmoral valences that are frequently attached to any work designated as realis-tic or naturalistic, whatever the specific character of that work. The real andnatural, on the one hand, suggest the genuine and actual shorn of pretensionand subterfuge. The real, especially in America, has therefore also had a pos-itive political inflection, as is revealed by several generations of Howellsscholars who have related his literary beliefs and practices to democratic val-ues.2 On the other hand, realism and naturalism imply, through their associ-ation with the concrete immediacies of experience, a literature unmediated bythe intellect or spirit, and therefore lacking in those qualities necessary to sus-tain the mind or soul of man. Naturalism in particular is thus held to bemorally culpable because it appears to concentrate on the physical in man'snature and experience.3 (Theodore Dreiser's naturalism, Stuart ~ Shermanstated in a famous pronouncement, derived from an animal theory of humanconduct.)4 Thus, it is assumed by critics seeking to exploit the negative asso-ciations conjured up by the terms realism and naturalism that any literature sodesignated proclaims the shallowness of mind and spirit of its creator.

Realis111 and naturalisln have therefore often served as shibboleths insocial and literary controversy - comparable to liberal and reactionary in

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present-day political affairs - at various moments in American cultural his-tory. The terms played a central role during late-nineteenth-century debateson the value of the ideal versus the commonplace in experience, and theyrecurred in 1920s arguments about whether the writer should depict therational or the irrational as central to human behavior. They reappeared in19308 discussions about the need for literature to serve a social purpose ratherthan fulfill an aesthetic need, as well as in disputes during the 1960s and19708 over whether or not the romance or novel is the distinctive form ofAmer