Readings:

We Shall Remain “Geronimo”

Mark Twain – “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”

Theodore Dreiser – Sister Carrie (excerpt)

The Background:

One of the most important and formative periods of American literary production occurs at the turn of the twentieth century, a time when American literary culture (as well as the larger culture) began to reflect the needs and identities of a wider and more diverse audience. Previous to this time, the vast majority of literary works were produced by and directed at members of the social and economic elite as they, by and large, were the only ones who could both afford books and had the ability to read or write them. The later nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, marked a period of both economic and social expansion, a time when universal education provided literacy to a wider population and economic development made books more accessible. As a result we see both readers and writers of books come to reflect a wider and more diverse segment of the American population and as a consequence the contents and tenor of that literary production also changes. For literary critics and scholars of American Literature, this change in American literature is characterized by two principle forms of literature, what we have come to call Realism and Naturalism.

Realism and Naturalism emerge from an era of American social and cultural history known as the “Progressive Era” a time when America’s physical expansion had slowed, but its cultural and social expansion was reaching its height. The processes of civilizing the West, expanding education, providing better working conditions, pushing for increased regulation, and technological development all promised to help form a better and more inclusive life for the wider American population. Progress was seen as the eventual solution to a variety of social, material, and cultural ills. Born of this impetus towards betterment, Realism and Naturalism both sought to utilize literary production as a means to further progress and create better societies. Each kind of literature uses social critique to highlight social ills and steer progress in particular directions. But each of these two types of literary production seeks to accomplish this goal in a differing way.

Realism and Naturalism: Differences in Form/Differences in Purpose:

The collection of readings listed above is intended to provide a crash course in the topics of literary realism and naturalism, a means to describe their basic characteristics and understand their basic motivations. The introduction to Realism and Naturalism should provide a basic understanding of what these two kinds of literature are, and how they differ, but some additional comments might help to make this distinction more clear. Although literary critics will certainly differ in their interpretations, I have always made sense of the distinction in this way. Both Realism and Naturalism are driven by the same basic literary motivation: a desire to tell things like they are, to represent the true nature of human existence and describe life in a manner that remains true to reality. As such, both Realism and Naturalism tend to describe the darker and more sordid details of life, the things that lie behind closed doors, are hidden down dark alleys, and aren’t talked about openly in polite society. In other words, both Realism and Naturalism are motivated by the same basic sense of purpose and tend to manifest that purpose in similar kinds of writing.

Realism and Naturalism do differ in the specific ways that they approach problems however. The true measure of difference between Realism and Naturalism tends to lie in their subjects and their outcomes. Realism tends to focus on upper and middle class characters and on issues of morality and psychology as the sources of its social critique. Realist works tend to offer significant portrayals of conflict and problems, but they also tend to offer solutions that don’t insinuate cataclysmic or systemic change. Realism tends to argue that people, when given better morals, more information, increased culture, and better knowledge, will be able to overcome and rectify the problems society faces. Thus, it might be said that while Realism does offer some critique or criticism of society, it doesn’t seek to upset or alter established social and political systems. Life will continue on largely unchanged.

Naturalism is, arguably, a more politically motivated form of literary expression and tends to argue for wider systemic or social change. Naturalist works tend to focus predominantly on working and lower class characters and tend to provide darker and more pessimistic resolutions. They portray their human subjects within the context of larger forces that are generally out of their control – be those forces social or natural. Arising from an American culture that was increasingly consumed by capitalism and the struggle for individual prosperity and survival, Naturalist fiction often finds expression in two principle forms. As the name might suggest, the theme of nature is generally pronounced in Naturalist works. We might see this theme typified in one way through Upton Sinclair’s famous novel The Jungle, a novel which portrays the working conditions and competitive business environment of the meat-packing industry in Chicago. Though the novel ostensibly portrays the civilized environments of an American city and its principle industry, these civilized environments are depicted within the novel in a manner that resembles the animalistic world of the work’s title. Clearly critical of both capitalism and turn of the century American society, The Jungle seeks to illuminate the exploitative and damaging nature of life in modern, industrial America.

The second major type of naturalist fiction is perhaps best typified by Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, and “To Build a Fire” or Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” works which depict the world outside of human society and the natural forces outside of man’s control. The natural world is depicted as larger and more powerful than any human creation, a threatening and dangerous environment that inspires certain reactions. Through stories such “To Build a Fire” and “The Open Boat,” these Naturalist tales illustrate our basic need to human tendencies which serve to guard us against natural forces. They tend to argue for human responses that help to keep humans safe and alive in a world that is largely out of their control. Together we might see these two forms of Naturalist social criticism as two sides of the same coin – one side that illustrates problems and the other which shows us solutions.

Beyond these two examples, we might consider a slightly more complex manifestation of Naturalism, one that seeks to combine these two more simple forms. Novels such as Frank Norris’ McTeague and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie are similar to Sinclair in the sense that they portray characters caught within dangerous and potentially damaging social systems, but these novels also share a focus on nature similar to that of Crane and London. Norris and Dreiser focus considerable attention on the “natural” makeup of their principle characters. McTeague and Sister Carrie are both characters that emerge from particular social and material conditions. They are each lower/working class. They are born in situations evocative of America’s past rather than her future. Thus, these characters are hindered by two forces, both their own identities and the larger social systems which surround them. They cannot change who they are, but their identities tend to get in the way of them forging a place in the world. McTeague will always be rough, stupid, and uncivilized. Carrie will always be naïve, easily manipulated, and desirous of status and wealth.

The Early Twentieth Century:

Although the twentieth century begins in 1900, literary critics and social historians will most generally cite the years of 1914-1918 as the true inauguration of twentieth century thought and experience. Through the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, it is possible to see the cultural and social mentalities of the nineteenth century persisting, but they meet their eventual end in the First World War. To understand the general disillusionment that characterizes the First World War and the Modernist period that stems from it, we can focus attention on a common symbol of this process – the machine gun. The machine gun emerges from the industrial, technical, and educational impetus of the progressive era. It is a complex machine that evidences the significant process of development characterized by the later nineteenth century. When first introduced by Hiram Maxim, the machine gun was billed as a weapon that would bring an end to war. It was thought that the machine gun would be so terrible, so efficient at killing, and so easy to use, that no sensible person would ever seek to fight against it. But much to Hiram Maxim’s chagrin, the machine gun was put to terrible use in World War I killing hundreds of thousands of soldiers and wiping entire generations off the face of the earth. The First World War acts as a telling symbol in man’s general process of advancement. Although we might progress, we never seem to really change.

The Modernist/Early 20th Century Literary Movement:

The four works of literature listed under the Modernist/Early Twentieth century heading below are all indicative of literary production in the Inter-war period and are generally evocative of the kind of pessimism that characterized the first half of the twentieth century. Although not all of these works might be considered part of Modernism, all are evocative of a modern sensibility and each embodies that sensibility in different ways. In choosing these works I tried to focus on quintessential American writers, the big names in literary production during the era. Although these writers are not indicative of all that might have been going on in Literature during the time, they do represent the most widely read and respected authors of their era. As such, they are influential and certainly representative of the dominant literary culture. For our purposes in this essay, we will by trying to come to terms with how the supposed optimism of the progressive era comes to an end in the pessimistic attitudes of the modern era.

The Question:

1. How does the world depicted by Mark Twain in “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” represent the historical and social contexts that surround the stories of Geronimo and Sister Carrie and how does that context lead to the inevitability and pessimism contained within their tales.

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