Dominant Genres and Literary Forms - Overview

Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010

Dominant Genres and Literary Forms

The literary landscape in the late nineteenth century featured no monolithic school of Realists. There were, in effect, many realities or varieties of Realism, including local color or Regionalism (for example, the tales of Twain, Jewett, Freeman, Kate Chopin), psychological Realism (James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman), critical Realism (Howells), and Naturalism (Crane, Upton Sinclair, Jack London). The various Realists did not necessarily appreciate all contributions to the form: Twain wrote Howells in 1885 that he “would rather be damned to John Bunyan’s heaven” than be forced to read a novel by James (Selected Letters of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider, 1982). With their interest in local customs, mores, and dialects, local colorists were, in a sense, local historians. Their tales often took the form of the anecdote or character sketch (for example, Freeman’s “A New England Nun,” 1887). James’s psychological Realism was a more aestheticized form of fiction written in a prolix and periphrastic style (thus prompting the joke that James “chewed more than he bit off”). By experimenting with refined narrators or “centers of consciousness,” James presumed to re-create the play of their imaginations. The reader of James’s “Daisy Miller” (1879), for example, knows nothing more than the thoughts of the prim and stiff-necked expatriate Winterbourne. In the novella, James subverted the sentimental plot of love triumphant by contrasting the social codes of the parvenue Daisy and the Euro-Americans, and the tale ends not with the reconciliation of the young lovers but with the unexpected death of the heroine.

The forte of the Realists, especially of the critical Realists, was topical fiction. Even James’s international stories such as “Daisy Miller” exploited the growth in international travel during the last third of the nineteenth century. (With the development of the steamship, passenger departures from the United States for Europe increased from around 20,000 in 1860 to around 110,000 in 1900.) In “Roman Fever” (1934), Edith Wharton played an intriguing variation on the international theme, virtually parodying James’s “Daisy Miller.” More to the point, Realists often protested conditions, pilloried hypocrisy, or proposed social reforms. Few subjects escaped their notice. Among the topics that concerned them were immigration (for example, Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance, 1912), small-town parochialism or “the revolt from the village” (Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876; Wharton’s Ethan Frome, 1911; Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Tilbury Town), military adventurism (Howells’s “Editha,” 1905), urban squalor, prostitution, and the “fallen woman” (Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1893; Sinclair’s Jungle, 1906), and economic injustice (Garland’s “Under the Lion’s Paw,” 1889). Other narratives were devoted to the institution of marriage and the rights of women, including Chopin’s Awakening (1899), and Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). Realistic fiction was often influenced by race, too. The decade of the 1890s was punctuated by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of the Supreme Court (1896) sanctioning “separate but equal” public facilities for blacks and whites and represented the nadir of race relations in the United States. The African American writers Charles Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson published dozens of stories of the color line and dialect poems around the turn of the twentieth century that ridiculed the evil of racial discrimination, and Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby” (1893) exposed the hypocrisy that rationalized the prohibition of racial intermarriage.

Despite the early successes of Harte and Twain, Western American writers were slow to warm to Realism. Western American literature consisted for most of this period of blood-and-thunder dime novels celebrating westward expansion and conquest. As late as 1902 the novelist Frank Norris complained that rather than a school of Western Realists there were “the wretched ‘Deadwood Dicks’ and Buffalo Bills of the yellowbacks” and writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, “who lied and tricked and strutted in Pathfinder and Leather-Stocking series” (The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris, edited by Donald Pizer, 1964). Among the harbingers of Western Realism during the first decades of the twentieth century was London, especially in such tales as “To Build a Fire” (1908). This story also illustrates the strategy of literary Naturalism, perhaps best defined in three words as “Realism plus Darwin.”

All Realists adopted a quasi-scientific method of detailed observation, but in the case of the Naturalists the science was rooted in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. As Malcolm Cowley explained, “The Naturalistic writers were all determinists in that they believed in the omnipotence of abstract forces. They were pessimists so far as they believed that men and women were absolutely incapable of shaping their own destinies.” Most literary Naturalists were also social Darwinists who applied Darwin’s biological theories of natural selection to models of social organization, arguing by analogy that just as the fittest of each species in nature struggles for existence by adapting to its environment, the fittest human competitors best adapt to social conditions and thrive. Theoretically, the Naturalistic tale might be a success story, but in practice it was almost always a failure story, with the unfit protagonist doomed to death, as in “To Build a Fire.” Cowley concluded that the net effect of Naturalism was “to subtract from literature the whole notion of human responsibility.” Crime in the Naturalistic novel—for example, prostitution in Crane’s Maggie—was the result of uncontrollable and impersonal forces, not personal choice. As Crane inscribed on the flyleaf of presentation copies of Maggie, “It is inevitable that you will be greatly shocked by this book, but continue, please, with all courage to the end. For it tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless. If one proves that theory, one makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls, notably an occasional street girl, who are not confidently expected to be there by many excellent people” (Correspondence of Stephen Crane).

Yet, Crane’s comment also illustrates a dilemma faced by the Naturalist. To the extent that he objectively portrayed the plight of the underclass and described the forces that shape character, he was faithful to the tenets of Naturalism. To the extent he prepared a brief for the defense of the underclass, however, he violated the principle of scientific objectivity and instead advocated for reform. Though several of the Naturalists were socialists (for example, London and Sinclair), their literary theory warred with their politics. These proletarian writers attempted to graft their leftist politics onto Naturalism, a project that met with decidedly mixed results. Sinclair’s Jungle is often credited with catalyzing support for the Pure Food and Drug Act, but it is crudely constructed and basically breaks in half when the hero is thrown in jail. As Sinclair later conceded, he “aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach” (The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair, 1962). Given the deterministic bias of Naturalism, the proletarian writers were simply unable to explain the conversion of a character to a political point of view.

A corollary to the doctrine of determinism professed by the Naturalists was the indifference if not malevolence of nature. As Crane declared in one of his idiosyncratic poems:

A man said to the universe

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.” (War is Kind, 1899)

As the correspondent in Crane’s “Open Boat” (1897) considers his chances of survival, he realizes “the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual.” Nature “did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.” In “To Build a Fire,” London similarly described how the “cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet” in the Klondike and the doomed miner, “being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow.” As a literary school, the Naturalists exhibited an epistemological skepticism, a disbelief in a purposeful, end-directed, or teleological universe.

However crude and disturbing the Naturalistic style, it exhibited certain recurring characteristics. Virtually all Naturalistic tales were written from a third-person omniscient point of view. The Naturalist was, after all, a type of scientist; the story, a type of lab report. Whereas the Realist aimed to draw “rounded” or credible individual characters, the Naturalist portrayed representative and recurring types such as the brute or the spectator. Unfortunately, the trend among Naturalists to portray types also prompted them to reinforce some racial and ethnic stereotypes and to assert the superiority of Anglo-Saxons according to the standard science of the day. Moreover, the Naturalists frequently employed animal metaphors to describe characters. Obviously such metaphors had been used for millennia, but after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species they had a new resonance. For example, Crane compared Maggie’s brother and her ex-lover in the midst of a bar fight with wild animals, roosters, bulldogs, and cats. The men in “The Open Boat” are compared to ants in their plight, the workers in The Jungle to rats in a trap. Naturalists also often invoked sports or gaming metaphors, as when Crane compares a soldier to a football player in The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Naturalistic novels were often bloated with detailed descriptions of insulated settings (for example, Rum Alley in Maggie, based on Hell’s Kitchen on the Lower West Side of New York, and Packingtown in The Jungle). If a writer was an environmental determinist, after all, he labored under the obligation to depict the environment in minute detail.

Above all, the Naturalists tended to be critical of the so-called teacup tragedies of Howellsian Realism. “Realism is minute; it is the drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block, the excitement of an afternoon call, the adventure of an invitation to dinner,” Norris complained. In contrast, “terrible things”—particularly death—“must happen to the characters in a Naturalistic novel” (The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris). Broadly speaking, too, there were generational differences between Realists and Naturalists: James and Howells matured as writers in the 1870s and 1880s, whereas Crane and Norris matured in the 1890s. In her short novel Ethan Frome (1911) Wharton revised the local-color Realism of Freeman and Jewett; she averred later in her autobiography that she tried in the novel to “draw life as it really was” in rural New England, in contrast to the depiction of it through the “rose-coloured spectacles” of her predecessors (A Backward Glance, 1934).

Some of Crane’s writings, including The Red Badge of Courage and “The Open Boat,” represented an advance on the Naturalistic tradition and presage the advent of literary modernism. Crane once asserted that he was attempting to imitate in words what the French impressionistic painters were doing with light and color: “I bring this to you merely as an effect—an effect of mental light and shade, if you like: . . . something meaningless and at the same time overwhelming, crushing, monstrous” (“War Memories,” 1899). Put another way, Crane tried to develop Naturalistic themes in an impressionistic style. Events in The Red Badge of Courage are mediated entirely through Henry Fleming’s imagination like strokes of color from a painter’s brush. Reality in the novel exists only insofar as Fleming apprehends it. These tales anticipate Ernest Hemingway’s terse style, with frequent shifts in point of view.

Few American poets of the period are remembered today, justifiably so. Most of the forgotten ones were heirs of the sentimental tradition of British Romanticism, their verses buried in the morgues of newspapers and magazines. Howells, Harte, and other Realists wrote poetry, to be sure, but most of it was utterly conventional. Twain parodied sentimental verse in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), but his own poetry was equally forgettable. Still, the major American poets of the late nineteenth century, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, rebelled against the didacticism and formal conventions of the midcentury Fireside Poets (for example, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant). At the turn of the twentieth century, both Crane and Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote a brand of Naturalistic poetry that deserves to be resurrected from the footnote. Crane’s verse was enigmatic and bitterly ironic, influenced stylistically by Dickinson’s lyrics, and Robinson wrote such dour dramatic monologues as “Richard Cory” (1897) and “Miniver Cheevy” (1907). While Robert Frost was committed to traditional poetic forms—he famously declared that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net—his best verses were profoundly disturbing. A transitional poet, he was hardly a glib versifier of the New England woodlands in such verses as “Mending Wall” (1914) and “The Death of the Hired Man” (1914). T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in 1915, inaugurated a modernist tradition in American poetry distinct from both the innovative verse forms of Dickinson and Whitman and the terrifying tropes of Frost. That is, this poem, more than any other literary work in the early twentieth century, marked the close of one era in American literature and the start of another.

—Gary Scharnhorst