TitleThe smithy of truth?
NameSchaffner, Joseph P. (author), Singley, Carol (chair), Fitter, Christopher (internal member), Rutgers University, Camden Graduate School,
American literature--19th century--History and criticism,
American literature--20th century--History and criticism,
Naturalism in literature,
Norris, Frank, 1870-1902--Criticism and interpretation,
Wharton, Edith,1862-1937--Criticism and interpretation
DescriptionWorking-class culture in late-nineteenth century America cohered around a budding tradition that influenced radical politics for generations to come. Yet American literary naturalism, the period's primary literary movement, largely ignores the advancements gained by the working-class during this era. While it would be fairly justifiable to take to task other literary movements of the nineteenth century for participating in the wholesale denial of working-class culture, American literary naturalism stands as the century's most egregious offender because the working class ostensibly provided naturalistic novelists with realistic content. Exemplary of this neglect, Frank Norris's McTeague divests its working-class characters of sympathetic qualities through animalized reductions of human behavior. Thus Norris forecloses the possibility of audience self-identification with the novel; he offers the events in McTeague as an aberration arising from genetic defects, not sociological causes. The novel correlates poverty with biological inadaptability, an idea derived from social Darwinism, which implies that social change cannot solve the working-class's immanent decline into poverty. Moreover, the distance from poverty afforded by Norris’s insistence on a biologically caused economic decline strategically absolves the reader from considering her relationship to the working class and, consequently, her complicity in allowing poverty to exist.
The motivation for such reductionism stems not from Norris's ignorance of working-class culture; rather, the explanation for this denial resides in the question of audience--for whom did Norris write, exactly? The history of periodical literature in nineteenth-century America points to a bourgeois readership, one whose expectations of verisimilitude, originating with the realists and maintained by the naturalists, shaped the representation of fictional content that they consumed. Knowing his audience, Norris to sought meet bourgeois expectations of popular working-class stereotypes. To legitimate the bourgeoisie, McTeague depicts working class characters in reduced or diminished states of little social consequence. These misrepresentations passed for truth because of the widespread belief that realism and naturalism adhered to a doctrine of truth in representation.
As the twentieth century commenced, the conventions of American literary naturalism changed. In particular, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth signals a pivotal event in naturalistic fiction--the introduction of sympathetic working-class characters. Wharton refocuses the naturalistic critical narrative voice on elite New York society. Gerty Farrish and Nettie Struthers offer Lily Bart an alternative to the worldview promulgated by the Trenors, Dorsets, and other wealthy characters: charity becomes the opposite of debt in The House of Mirth, although Lily does not understand this until the end of the novel. Wharton uses Lily's decline to ford the class gap opened by her naturalistic predecessors; thus The House of Mirth reintegrates the reader into class relations by compelling her to question the social causes of poverty.
I propose that McTeague strategically ruptures the link between human behavior and its sociological causes, thus negating the social reality of working-class Americans. Several years later, The House of Mirth repairs this rupture by re-humanizing poverty through sympathetic characters. This transition represents the development from McTeague's fashionable brand of 1890s social Darwinism to Wharton's socially conscious moral indignation over class inequality that manifests in charity. Both novels indicate a shift in American culture from apologetic bourgeois self-legitimization to a heightened understanding of class relations in America. The House of Mirth thus disrupts McTeague's conceptualization of poverty, showing it to be a threat common to all members of society, not just those who are genetically ill-equipped. In so doing, Wharton illuminates the problems inherent in traditional naturalism’s consolidation of middle-class values; by disengaging social Darwinism, she underscores the mutable nature of class relations. While not directly related to the nineteenth-century working-class radical tradition, The House of Mirth recalls this movement’s concern for working-class political empowerment through the class inclusivity that Lily's descent signifies.
NoteIncludes bibliographical references (p.40-41)
Noteby Joseph P. Schaffner
CollectionCamden Graduate School Electronic Theses and Dissertations
Organization NameRutgers, The State University of New Jersey
RightsThe author owns the copyright to this work.