Norris’s Naturalism (303)

This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote a long time ago. You may find it useful in thinking about VATB, but it’s not required reading.

Frank Norris and the Naturalist Romance

Norris advertised his work as a hybrid of two overlapping and loosely construed modes of American fiction. The American novel would become true to its national-cultural context when realism’s concern with mimetic accuracy fused with romance’s search for the deeper human truths residing beneath social surfaces. As he indicated in several oft-cited short essays, Emile Zola modeled this synthesis– though significantly Norris drew inspiration from Zola’s novels rather than criticism such as “The Experimental Novel.” In his seldom neglected aesthetic statement, “A Plea for Romantic Fiction,” Norris nominates Zola as “the very head of the Romanticists” (216), an office he elevates well above the station of writers of “borrowed, faked, pilfered romanticisms” (“An American School of Fiction?” 196).  The “mere sentimentalism” of the former, he asserts, their implicitly dishonest (and effeminate) literary domesticity, has been misidentified with romance proper (213). A genre with profound cultural– even racio-civilizational– significance, Norris argues, romance has been travestied, transformed into “a conjurer’s trick-box” stuffed with “flimsy quackeries, tins and claptraps” intended merely “to amuse, and relying on deception” (214). In a gesture of repudiation comprehending both popular-historical romances and fictions propagating “false views of life,” Norris clears the ground for American literature not in order to claim its autochthonous origins but on the contrary to execute an inheritance (“Responsibilities of the Novelist” 11). 

Like Moran Sternerson of Moran and the Lady Letty— or Flossie, Lloyd Searight, and Blix, for that matter– “the muse of American fiction,” Norris writes, is an imposing, statuesque figure, both “robust” and with “red-arm[s]… as strong as a man’s” (“Novelists of the Future” 209-210). In a conceit dating back to his namesake Benjamin Franklin, whose coonskin cap was intended to suggest to Parisian salonnieres that they fraternized with a true rustic, Norris delights in appearing unfinished, in seeming the natural, in batting aside the idea that American letters could ever be less than crudely and heroically plebeian. Accordingly his muse “rough-shoulders her way among men and… affairs… find[ing] a healthy pleasure in the jostlings of the mob and a hearty delight in the honest, rough-and-tumble, Anglo-Saxon give-and-take knockabout that we call life.” In this prideful metaphor the personification of American literature dominates the coarse atmosphere of democracy’s birthplace, the street, where commerce is a form of confrontation. Indeed, the national muse 

is a Child of the People… and the wind of a new country…has blown her hair from out the fillets that the Old World muse has bound across her brow, so that it is all in disarray. The tan of the sun is on her cheeks, and the dust of the highway is thick upon her buskin, and the elbowing of many men has torn the robe of her, and her hands are hard with the grip of many things. (209).

Norris, who possessed an eye for contemporary fashion, chooses clothing that identifies the muse with ancient Greece and medieval Europe. Buskins were often worn by Greek actors while the fillet, a garland once associated with Hellenic athletes, became in the Middle Ages a headband indicating the woman wearing it was unmarried. If not precisely a vision of “the mighty American republic… as a helmeted queen among nations” in Norris’s portrayal the national muse is certainly the product of a retrospective Western tradition (Roosevelt 5). The embodiment of literary genius, the muse channels a strength drawn from antiquity and the age of chansons de geste. Pushing athletically through urban throngs and wandering country roads in a provocative state of dishabille, she personifies Jacksonian brashness and Whitmanian expansiveness. 

Yet the value of true romance accrues by virtue of its discernment and didacticism. Its capacity to sound “the unplumbed depths of the human heart, and the mystery of sex, and the problems of life, and the black, unsearched penetralia of the soul of man” simultaneously biologizes and stylizes the human element (220). These remarks echo an 1896 review of Zola’s Rome where Norris notes not only the novel’s descriptive detail but the “red thread of passion run[ning] through the story” in the form of disappointed love, betrayal, knife-play, poisoning, and a dramatic death scene (“Zola’s Rome” 62). Counterposed to these dramatic events is Zola’s naturalistic emphasis on “hereditary instincts… the fierce passion of the race blazing out at the supreme moment” (63). 

Later that year Norris defended Zola’s work in general, and thus the genre of naturalism as a whole, in his first sustained critical piece for the Wave, arguing that “Naturalism, as understood by Zola, is but a form of romanticism” (“Zola as a Romantic Writer” 85). Again, Norris asserts a radical distinction between naturalism’s exceptional subject matter and a Howells-ean realism privileging “things… likely to happen between lunch and supper.” Though he derided realism’s gentility, Norris championed the aesthetic value of verisimilitude, and he praises Howells’s A Parting and A Meeting, with its “flesh and blood characters” (“Reality and Theory”). In comparison to Mrs. Jarboe’s Robert Atterbury, he writes, Howells “knew his real life better.” Norris was even more impressed by A Modern Instance, a text strikingly similar to Vandover and the Brute in terms of its plot of the protagonist’s gradual dissolution, judging it “great because it is true, relentlessly and remorselessly true to American life” (“What is Our Greatest Piece of Fiction?” 231). The strengths of A Modern Instance, he argues, are those traditionally associated with the realist novel: “a consistency and a plausibleness… convincing beyond any possibility of doubt, and… a thorough knowledge of the novelist’s trade.” Yet in the same article Norris elevates Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur “to the class of great novels [for] its vivid descriptions of dramatic action” (230) including a “sea fight with pirates [and] the chariot race” (231). The melding of what to him seemed to be the opposing literary modes of realism and romance, Norris repeatedly contended– exemplified in the contrast between Howells and Wallace– was the source of naturalism’s power. He saw evidence of this generic fusion in a now largely forgotten work by James Lane Allen titled Summer in Arcady, a courtship novel Norris also reviewed for the Wave. Allen’s novel struck him, again, as “relentlessly true” (108) because of its “naturalistic point of view,” (109) a perspective established by the careful rendition of the protagonists, Daphne and Hilary, as “little better than natural, wholesome human brutes, drawn to each other by the force of Nature… moved only by an unreasoned animal instinct” (110). Summer in Arcady’s appeal for Norris, the cogency of its claims to truth, centered on its juxtaposition of a marriage plot so minimal it could be recapitulated in a single sentence– (“Daphne and Hilary meet, fall in love… go through a short courtship and are finally married.”)– and the theme of inexorable sexual forces surging beneath the calm of upper-class life (109). For Norris Allen’s novel had the impact of a minor epiphany. The diction he used to characterize those bourgeois brutes was, as Joseph McElrath observes, virtually the same language employed to describe the attraction between Trina and Mac in the “Dentist Parlor” scene in McTeague. Here was a domestic– if perhaps still too cautious and courteous– version of Zola’s “vast and terrible drama that works itself out in unleashed passions” (“Zola as a Romantic Writer” 86). 

Naturalism, specifically the work of Frank Norris, owes a profound debt to romance conventions and realist strategies. Such a claim– that naturalism is characterized by the persistence of “the traces of other genres” (Howard x); that it is “internally discontinuous” (9)–  is already a commonplace. For example, in “The Country of the Blue,” Sundquist asserts that “romance, as Norris quite correctly saw, remained the visceral, spiritual essence of the real” (American Realism 14). Taking Norris at his word, Charles Walcutt, in A Divided Stream, avers the salience of “the romantic” in literary naturalism by arguing that the impossibility of realizing a naturalist conceit most often associated with Zola– the project of elaborating a literature of absolute scientificity– led writers in “a continual search for form” (22). In the absence of a clear-cut literary taxonomy– a naive rendering of genre that posits it as a category-box into which appropriate texts may be dropped– writers picked up epistemological and stylistic elements, combining them in various ways. For Walcutt, a primary tension characterizing literary naturalism lay between naturalism as a “philosophical orientation” and the “romantic [as] an attitude or quality– an exuberance or intensity of approach, a sense of vitality or richness” (22). Congruent with this contention, Den Tandt’s The Urban Sublime in American Literary Naturalism identifies “naturalist romances” as “novels that articulate an explicit sociological message through romantic narrative strategies” (18). “The specificity of naturalism as a genre,” he concludes in his study, “resides in its handling of romance,” (246) by incorporating “non-positivistic forms of intuition expressed through romance motifs and imagery” (17) a process he defines elsewhere as “romance knowledge,” an auxiliary literary technology which operates via “a medium of social mapping” (A Companion to American Fiction, 1865-1914 110). To an extent Lehan supplements these claims, acknowledging that vestiges of romance persist in the “realist/naturalist novel” (30) though he does so by establishing a kind of literary teleology which extends from “the pure fantasies of Bram Stoker and Rider Haggard to the more realistic fantasies of Kipling and Stevenson, to the naturalism of London and Norris” (31). Lehan argues that while “naturalism empties the romance and melodrama of its moral dimension” nonetheless the naturalist novel features “plots [which] share a narrative formula” with romance, including  “the use of sensational incidents, virtuous protagonists versus villainous antagonists, forces at work beyond a character’s control, an inability to escape the past” (212). Though, like Lehan, he doubts the success of Frank Norris’s attempt to realize a romantic-realist synthesis, George W. Johnson documents a tendency within literary production during the fin-de-siecle period which sought to graft realism’s “attention to the norm rather than the variant, and its relatively comprehensive rendering of the details of a society… [onto] the romantic subordination of character to action” (“Frank Norris and Romance” 54).

In The Vast and Terrible Drama Link rejects the taxonomic standard of naturalism as, in Becker’s phrasing, “‘pessimistic, materialist determinism’” (qtd. in Link 11). This thumbnail sketch of the genre has had many adherents, such as Lars Ahnebrink, who defined naturalism as  “‘a manner and method of composition by which the author portrays life as it is in accordance with the philosophic theory of determinism’”– further entrenching the notion that naturalism is simply the cruder, darker offspring of realism (qtd. in Link 12). The definition Link prefers focuses instead on the thematic treatment of scientific and philosophical naturalism, a looser construal that broadens the field of naturalist texts even as it renders irrelevant charges of authorial failure. In other words, the criteria suggested by Link depends on whether naturalist theory– “the amorphous set of concepts emanating from philosophical and scientific naturalism”– incorporated into a given novel, rises to the level of a theme or structure (19). Rather than weighing whether that novel succeeds at replicating Zola-esque techniques or evinces sufficient pessimism, Link argues that “it is theme, rather than genre, methodology, convention, tone, or philosophy, that qualifies a text for inclusion in the ‘school’ of American literary naturalism” (18).   

The naturalist novel appropriates romance conventions in order to pursue a mimetic project of reconstructing the world in relation to naturalist theory. For Norris and London, Link argues, “the romance-novel is the donnée of American literary naturalism and one of the principle features of the naturalist aesthetic” (40). This condition of representational possibility, which is also an adaptive re-routing of literary energies, is neither confirmation of the centrality of romance nor a lapse of realist integrity. Instead, “the freedom of conception and construction in the romance” practically facilitated “the narratization and exploration of naturalist theory” more effectively than realism’s indexical aesthetic permitted. As a means of contending with all-comprehending abstractions of nature, society and economy, romance tropes– including, in Norris’s language, “‘enormous scenic effects’… ‘the monstrous’ [and] the ‘tragic’”– enabled the literary naturalist to conceive and communicate some version of a cosmos ruled by forces so massive they were, in effect, metaphysical (qtd. in Link 66). The naturalist romance in this sense is a representational strategy, a method of re-translation between the occult realm of X-rays. for example, which so perplexed Henry Adams, and a sense of imaginative and cognitive proportionality, an effort to establish “a common scale of measurement” between the “new universe” and the old (346). Even further, literary naturalism– animated by its own romantic quest for an epistemological frame of reference sweeping enough to encompass the cosmic grid of “force”– assembles its narrative components from various plots. Narratives of incline, decline, and recapitulation –structured by strands of philosophical and scientific naturalism such as Morel’s theory of degeneration, Spencer’s progressivist evolutionism, and Haeckel’s biogenetic law– furnish the genre’s foundations.