Literary Influences - Overview

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

Literary Influences

Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American literature was shaped by a variety of influences, many of them imported from Europe. Certainly American literature of this period was not written in an intellectual vacuum. Much as the European Romantics Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Immanuel Kant inspired the Transcendentalism of Emerson, the literary Realism of Europeans was rebranded a generation later by American writers. The influence of George Eliot, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and other European Realists on Henry James, William Dean Howells, Kate Chopin, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and other American Realists literally cannot be overstated. In particular, Howells championed the English, French, and Russian Realists. As Lars Ahnebrink has explained, “In his vindication of modern European literature Howells stood out perhaps more than any other American writer or critic. His knowledge of contemporary European literature was extensive.” While editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Howells “published articles on Stendhal, Dostoevsky, the brothers Goncourt, Flaubert, Zola, Merimee, Alfred de Musset, Baudelaire, Gautier, Bjornson, Renan, and many others.” Howells was profoundly influenced in the late 1880s by Tolstoy’s ideas about nonviolence and economic equality. Similarly, Winfried Fluck asserts that “The American writer who was most fully at home in a transatlantic culture of letters and most observant of European movements was Henry James” (“Morality, Modernity, and ‘Malarial Restlessness’: American Realism in its Anglo-European Contexts,” in A Companion to American Fiction, 1865—1914, 2005). As James wrote Howells in 1884, “there is nothing more interesting to me now than the effort & experiment of this little group [Flaubert, Turgenev, Zola, Daudet, Maupassant] with its truly infernal intelligence of art, form, manner—its intense artistic life. They do the only kind of work, to-day, that I respect; & in spite of their ferocious pessimism & their handling of unclean things, they are at least serious and honest” (Letters, Fictions, Lives: Henry James and William Dean Howells, edited by Michael Anesko, 1997).

Unfortunately, Howells and James paid a heavy price for championing the European Realists. As in the political debate over the protective tariff, natives and nativists in the literary debate taxed the foreign import. During the so-called war against Realism beginning in 1887, the Hoosier poet Maurice Thompson, president of the Association of Western Writers, repeatedly complained that Howells had foisted the “raw, nauseous Realism of the Russians and the Zola school of France” upon an American reading public hungry for pleasant and patriotic books (Scharnhorst). As Thompson protested in his essay “Foreign Influence on American Fiction,” “Just now we are trying to be French; yesterday we were cultivating the Russians; last week the English had us under their thumbs” (North American Review, July 1889). Thompson and others of his ilk responded with a flood of trite historical romances about wholesome rural maidens, medieval chivalry, and so forth, including Alice of Old Vincennes (Thompson, 1900), Ben-Hur (Lew Wallace, 1880), Prince Saroni’s Wife (Julian Hawthorne, 1882), and When Knighthood Was in Flower (Charles Major, 1898).

In the long run, of course, Howells, James, Mark Twain, and the other Realists won the war. Though controversial on its first publication, James’s “Daisy Miller” (1879) was modeled on Victor Cherbuliez’s Paule Mere (1865), and James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881) betrayed the influence of Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). Howells’s novel Annie Kilburn (1889) glossed Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877), as the initials of their eponymous heroines suggest. Twain was indebted to both Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1485) and Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution: A History (1837) in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Bret Harte’s best stories, including “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868) and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1869), were written in the “Dickensian mode,” and Upton Sinclair claimed that he tried to put “the content of Shelley into the form of Zola” in his novel The Jungle (“What Lives Means to Me,” Cosmopolitan, October 1906). Chopin read Maupassant’s stories in 1888 “and marveled at them. Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story telling” (Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, 1969). She echoed Maupassant’s tales “Solitude” and “Suicide” in parts of The Awakening (1899). Not that the American Realists merely wished to copy the Europeans. They preferred to “draw on Realism’s cultural capital as a ‘modern’ movement in order to define modern life in American terms” (Fluck, “Morality, Modernity, and ‘Malarial Restlessness’”).

The European intellectual influence on American literary Naturalism was even more pronounced. In his pamphlet Le Roman experimental (translated as “The Experimental Novel,” 1893), Zola developed an elaborate analogy between empirical fiction and medical science. According to Zola, the experimental (that is, the Naturalistic) novelist simply adopts “the scientific method, which has been

in use for a long time.” He “institutes the experiment, that is, sets the characters of a particular story in motion, in order to show that the series of events therein

will be those demanded by the determinism of the phenomena under study”

(Becker). The Naturalistic novel was something of a lab report, usually narrated

from an omniscient narrator. “By substituting for the word ‘doctor’ the word

‘novelist,’” Ahnebrink adds, Zola “could make his meaning clear and give to the

work of art the rigidity of a scientific truth.” Norris sometimes signed his letters “the boy Zola” and modeled entire chapters of his novel McTeague (1899) on Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877). Crane’s Maggie, according to Ahnebrink, also “owes a considerable debt to L’Assommoir,” and The Red Badge of Courage, according to Vernon Parrington, was inspired partly by Zola’s Le Debacle (1892) and Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869; Main Currents in American Thought, 1930).

As Bert Bender and others have shown, moreover, Charles Darwin’s theories

of natural selection and sexual selection also inform Naturalistic texts. Crane alle

gorized the notion of natural selection—in a nutshell, the idea that species must adapt to their environments to survive and reproduce—in one of his poems:

The trees in the garden rained flowers.

Children ran there joyously.

They gathered the flowers

Each to himself.

Now there were some

Who gathered great heaps—

Having opportunity and skill—

Until, behold, only chance blossoms

Remained for the feeble.

Then a little spindling tutor

Ran importantly to the father, crying:

“Pray, come hither!

See this unjust thing in your garden!”

But when the father had surveyed,

He admonished the tutor:

“Not so, small sage!

This thing is just.

For, look you,

Are not they who possess the flowers

Stronger, bolder, shrewder

Than they who have none?

Why should the strong—

The beautiful strong—

Why should they not have the flowers?”

Upon reflection, the tutor bowed to the ground,

“My lord,” he said,

“The stars are displaced

By this towering wisdom.” (War is Kind, 1899)

The concept of sexual selection, too, was hotly contested in the fiction of the period. When in chapter 4 of McTeague Marcus Schouler yields to the dentist his claim to his cousin Trina—“Mac, I’ll give her up to you”— Norris affirms that men select their mates and that women have little or no say in the matter. He illustrates the conventional understanding of sexual selection that Darwin proposed in The Descent of Man (1871). But when Edna Pontellier in chapter 36 of The Awakening spurns the overtures of Robert Lebrun, Chopin challenges Darwin, no less: “I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.” Like the peahen or the female pigeon, Edna selects her mate in the world of Chopin’s imagination.

Even more than Darwin’s writings, Herbert Spencer’s philosophy appealed to American readers. As Richard Hofstadter has explained, Spencer became “the metaphysician of the homemade intellectual and the prophet of the cracker-barrel agnostic.” Whereas Darwin had applied the notion of cutthroat competition or survival of the fittest to organisms, Spencer applied it to society and social institutions. (The complex of ideas that paraded under the banner of “social Darwinism” was, in fact, more indebted to Spencer than to Darwin. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”) While on the surface Spencer’s social ethics seemed progressive and optimistic—evolution would inevitably lead to the perfection of humankind—the devil was in the details. Spencer opposed all forms of state aid to the poor, believing they were inherently “unfit” and that permitting them to survive and propagate would prolong the course of social evolution. The only justification for altruism, he allowed, was that it ennobled the giver. He even opposed publicly supported, universal education. The purpose of sociology and other social sciences was to demonstrate the impracticality of reform or of intervening in the operation of natural laws. Among Spencer’s champions, predictably enough, were the “captains of industry” John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. But the literary Naturalists, even leftists such as Theodore Dreiser, Hamlin Garland, and Jack London were apostles, too. In chapter 13 of his semiautobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909), London described his own enthusiasm for Spencer’s First Principles (1860-1862): “here was the man Spencer, organizing all knowledge for him, reducing everything to unity, elaborating ultimate realities, and presenting to his startled gaze a universe so concrete of realization that it was like the model of a ship such as sailors make and put into glass bottles. There was no caprice, no chance. All was law.” He incorporated these deterministic ideas into such stories as The Call of the Wild (1903) and “To Build a Fire” (1908). In all, the Naturalists gleaned from Zola a scientific model for diagnosing social ills; from Darwin the metaphor of the jungle; from Spencer the notions of “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest”; from Karl Marx a sense of economic determinism; from Hippolyte Taine the idea of literature as the product of race or national character, moment, and social milieu; and from Sigmund Freud the discovery of the irresistible force of the unconscious (C. Hugh Holman, Handbook to Literature, 1986).

American Realist/Naturalist texts often fit hand in glove with many of the social essays of the period, including Henry Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth against Commonwealth (1894), a muckraking expose of the Standard Oil Company; Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), a satire of the “conspicuous consumption” and “pecuniary canons of taste” of the wealthy and privileged; Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, a photoessay documenting the plight of the urban poor; and Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879), which proposed a “single tax” on the “unearned increment” in property values, a measure designed to discourage land speculation. The predatory policies of Standard Oil loom in the background of Howells’s novel A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), for example, and Crane’s Maggie has often been compared to How the Other Half Lives. Hamlin Garland wrote “Under the Lion’s Paw” (1889) specifically as a campaign document on behalf of the single tax and even read it aloud at political rallies. The story resonated with midwestern farmers who lost land and money during the drought and economic depression of the 1890s.

Only one American writer of fiction from the previous era seems to have exerted much influence on post-Civil War U.S. authors: Nathaniel Hawthorne. He epitomized for James, Howells, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and other postwar writers the critically and commercially successful American man of letters. Little wonder so many of Hawthorne’s stories became paradigm texts for the Realists. Richard H. Brodhead asserts that Hawthorne “is the only American author always to have been part of our significant past,” the “only major American author never to have been underestimated,” and Brodhead tracks his influence on the works of the Realists, particularly James, who knew him personally and wrote a book about him (The School of Hawthorne, 1986). Both Howells’s Undiscovered Country (1880) and James’s Bostonians (1886), for example, may be best understood as Realist rewritings of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852). Freeman’s short story “The Slip of the Leash” (1904) and the Joanna Todd episode in Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), in which characters resign their places on the “electric chain of humanity,” should be read in light of Hawthorne’s similar sketch “Wakefield” (1837).

The writings of the Realists were featured throughout the late nineteenth century in the pages of the leading middle-class parlor magazines, the Atlantic, Harper’s, Century, and Cosmopolitan, all of them published in Boston or New York. Howells, in fact, was editor of three of these four monthlies at different times between 1871 and 1892, and he served as a literary patron over the years to Twain, James, Freeman, Jewett, Crane, and Dreiser. Partly as a result of the invention of the linotype machine, the number of magazines published in the United States increased from about 200 in 1860 to 1,800 in 1900 with a corresponding increase in the opportunities for literary careers. Most commercially successful novels and magazines were pitched to middle-class women readers. Howells estimated that some 75 percent of all books sold in the United States during this period were bought by women, and John W. De Forest similarly asserted that women composed four-fifths of the reading public. Once asked why he “always had a boy and girl in love” in his books, De Forest explained that “it was the only kind of plot a writer could get the public interested in” (Edwin Oviatt, “J. W. De Forest in New Haven,” New York Times Saturday Review, 17 December 1898). According to H. H. Boyesen, the American writer during this period was condemned to mollify “the young American girl. She is the Iron Madonna who strangles in her fond embrace the American novelist; the Moloch upon whose altar he sacrifices, willingly or unwillingly, his chances of greatness” (Borus). The novel, even the realistic novel, usually contained a love interest to spur sales. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Red Badge of Courage were rare and notable exceptions to the rule, and in the case of other realistic tales, for example, “Editha,” The Awakening, “Daisy Miller,” and Ethan Frome, it was a love interest often disappointed.

—Gary Scharnhorst