American Literary Naturalism and Sexuality
Abstract and Keywords
This article examines the relationship between American literary naturalism and sexuality. By the close of the 1890s, American literary naturalism had established itself decisively as the first American genre committed to the direct representation of heterosexuality and its discontent. Defying conventions governing the depiction of sexuality in public discourse, naturalist writers emphasized the power of sexual desire to shape human experience. The complexity of naturalism's engagement with sexual issues during the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century period derives from the heated debate over the social meanings of sexuality between feminist and masculinist factions taking place then in the American progressive movement. Entering this polemical fray, naturalist writers produced works of fiction emphatically inflected toward either masculinist or feminist sexual politics and thereby created a genre divided along its authors' gender lines.
By the close of the 1890s, American literary naturalism had established itself decisively as the first American genre committed to the direct representation of heterosexuality and its discontents, or, in Kate Chopin’s phrasing, “the disturbing fruit of the tree of knowledge” (“Western” 691). Defying conventions governing the depiction of sexuality in public discourse, naturalist writers emphasized the power of sexual desire to shape human experience. In their fiction, sexuality becomes, as Donald Pizer posits, “the great theme of modern art—the dynamic center of man’s tragic nature as well as the subterranean living stream of his daily life” (Introduction 6). The initial group of 1890s naturalist writers—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephen Crane, Harold Frederic, Ellen Glasgow, Frank Norris, Edith Wharton, and Kate Chopin—were joined in the first third of the twentieth century by Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Evelyn Scott, Nella Larsen, Edith Summers Kelley, Dorothy Scarborough, James T. Farrell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Richard Wright, and Ann Petry, all of whom would contribute one or more sexually oriented novels to a growing American naturalist tradition. Collectively rejecting the religiously oriented sexual guilt and repression employed by dominant social conservatives of the era as well as the gratuitous sexual titillation employed by 1890s decadent fiction writers, the naturalists committed themselves to the shared project of depicting the vagaries of heterosexual behavior and psychology, both reproductive and non-reproductive.
The complexity of naturalism’s engagement with sexual issues during the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century period derives from the heated debate over (p. 242) the social meanings of sexuality between feminist and masculinist factions taking place then in the American progressive movement. Entering this polemical fray, naturalist writers produced works of fiction emphatically inflected toward either masculinist or feminist sexual politics and thereby created a genre divided along its authors’ gender lines.
In late nineteenth-century America, public debate about heterosexuality hinged on claims to authority by two conflicting arbiters—Judeo-Christian religious doctrine and empirical science. Along with a substantial faction of like-minded intellectuals in the social and biological sciences, naturalist writers collectively advocated for science rather than religion as the primary authority in this debate and objected to the repressive attitude toward sexuality of conventional Judeo-Christianity. For instance, Chopin argues in an 1894 review essay of Hamlin Garland’s Crumbling Idols that literature should focus on organic, specifically heterosexual, “human impulses” that “do not change and can not so long as men and women continue to stand in the relation to one another which they have occupied since our knowledge of their existence began” (“Crumbling” 693), countering Garland’s de-emphasis of sexuality as a subject for fiction. She claims authority over sexuality for science, positing a secularized revision of Edenic origin to refute religion’s authority to assign sexual guilt via the punitive myth of the Fall and humankind’s expulsion from a paradisiacal nature.
Dreiser makes much the same point in his 1903 essay, “True Art Speaks Plainly,” in which he claims ethical authority for fiction that empirically seeks “to express … what we see honestly and without subterfuge” and to reveal “the wretched results of modern social conditions” (155). According to Dreiser, ignorance about sexuality—an ignorance promoted by people who either are indifferent to or benefit from sexual forms of “social injustice,” notwithstanding their professed solicitude for “the mental virtue of the reader” (156)—causes avoidable human suffering.1 In these critical essays and in their fiction, Chopin and Dreiser thus critique the sexually repressive rhetoric popular in late nineteenth-century journalism written by right-wing Christian conservatives, suggesting, along with other naturalists, that seemingly prohibitive or puritanical conservative sexual discourse had produced, as Michel Foucault has characterized the nineteenth-century middle class, “a society of blatant and fragmented sexual perversion” (47).2
Much of this conservative rhetoric was associated with the anti-science spiritualism of the New Thought Movement and some followed the pseudo-scientism of popular “social Darwinism,” embracing its expedient use of evolutionary thought to justify traditional Judeo-Christian class, race, and gender hierarchies.3 Aligned with right-wing conservatives were moderate conservatives, who advocated a more tolerant approach to indirect depictions of sexual subject matter but drew the line at frank depictions of heterosexuality and entirely excluded both homosexuality and bisexuality from fictional representation. Both moderate and right-wing sexual conservatives linked social evolution—embodied for them primarily in white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture—to a future reduction of humankind’s allegedly excessive sexual activity and other sexual pathologies. Alongside a large group of (p. 243) newspaper journalists, the moderates included many of the popular fiction and nonfiction writers in the Social Purity Movement, such as renowned feminist health reformer, novelist, and Social Purity advocate Alice Stockham, M.D., and literary realists William Dean Howells and Garland. The sunny-minded literary moderates in this faction conjectured that the objectivity of realism necessitates a diminishment of sexual subject matter to match the allegedly de-emphasized place in Anglo-American high- and middle-brow culture that sexuality occupied.
Opposing the conservatives were the progressive proponents of what one might call sex-centrism, a pervasive, radically reformist movement that spanned across late nineteenth-century American culture. Sex-centric intellectuals and artists, including naturalist writers, believed, as Dreiser articulates, that sexual desire constitutes “an all but dominant force in life,” propelling “the seeker in every field of endeavor” (“Neurotic America” 132, 134), but when unwisely repressed becoming a source of harm. At first glance, it seems logical to categorize this literary sex-centric camp as liberal feminist, as opposed to the patriarchal conservatism of the opposing camp, but though the feminist designation would fit the above-mentioned women naturalists, it would be problematic in reference to Norris, Crane, Dreiser, and London, all of whom tended to maintain a liberal, yet masculinist, line of thinking about heterosexuality.4
This gendered, political division in late nineteenth-century American sex-centric thought is pervasive, originating and proliferating outside of the literary world but becoming particularly marked in 1890s and later naturalist fiction.5 While these gendered approaches share a liberal, reformist commitment to de-stigmatizing a range of sexual attitudes and behaviors and to approaching sexuality empirically rather than religiously, they differ markedly on the question of whether heterosexual women are, by nature, passive in the process of sexual selection or are, by nature, mutually proactive with men in this process. Feminist sex-centrists argue for the naturalness of female and male mutual proactivity in sexual selection, its social benefits, and the need for social reforms to be implemented that would allow women to follow sexual inclinations freely. In contrast, masculinist sex-centrists argue for the naturalness of exclusively male sexual proactivity in sexual selection and thus accept conventional sexual double standards within traditional social conventions, though they, like feminist sex-centrists, disagree whether a virtuous and healthy woman is—and should be—sexually passionless. Masculinist sex-centrists instead hold that a woman is—and should be—sexually responsive when a suitable male partner selects her as a lover and initiates feminine sexual desire, that is, the desire to be seduced. Memorable examples of female characters who demonstrate this conception of sexual desire in masculinist naturalist novels are Norris’s Turner Ravis in Vandover and the Brute (1914), Frederic’s Alice Ware in The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), and Dreiser’s Aileen Cowperwood in The Financier (1912).
The most vocal of the feminist sex-centrists was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who authored optimistic sociological nonfiction texts, including Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social (p. 244) Evolution (1898), The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), and The Man-Made World or, Our Androcentric Culture (1909), that predict a social utopia arising out of evolutionary forces that will strongly favor women’s sexual autonomy and proactivity. She fictionalizes this vision in her evolutionarily utopian novel Herland (1915). However, today Gilman is better known for her pessimistic naturalist story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892), which implicitly challenges the optimistic perspective of her social reform writings. This autobiographical story of an intellectual young mother’s descent into insanity (via postpartum depression) raises troubling questions about the inevitability of evolutionary advantage going to sexually autonomous, independent-minded women, considering how men, represented by the narrator’s husband, manipulate women by drawing upon the behavioral adaptability of human beings. Gilman’s dark story suggests that a social environment that punishes the very traits that evolution would favor if they were free to develop will ironically cause some of the most competent and promising women to destroy themselves, rather than, as Gilman conversely contends in her optimist writings, bringing about an inevitable, progressive revolution in gender roles for succeeding generations of increasingly more intelligent and physically vigorous women.
Gilman has ample company in both her optimistic efforts to reconceive female sexual identity as proactive and autonomous in sexual selection, and her darker thinking about the ways that female instincts toward sexual autonomy are destructively subverted by conservative sexual ideology. Paving the way in the feminist faction of sex-centrism’s proponents for Gilman are many less well-known writers and social scientists who advocate reforms of the conventionally non-agentic roles of daughter, wife, and mother during the second half of the nineteenth century. They include free-love proponent Mary Gove Nichols, anti-marriage activist and first woman presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull, novelist and pacifist Lois Waisbrooker, and reformer and sociologist Lester F. Ward (the dedicatee of Gilman’s The Man-Made World or, Our Androcentric Culture), as well as many others.6
The most vocal of the masculinist sex-centrists in the social scientific community was Havelock Ellis, a British physician and self-styled “sexologist,” whose copious volumes, including the six-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex, were widely read in America and elsewhere. Ellis posits that women’s sexual drive is “less energetic in its manifestations” than men’s: “In men the sexual instinct is a restless source of energy which overflows into all sorts of channels” (Man and Woman 441). While in men this sexual drive arises spontaneously, Ellis argues, “[i]n a very large number of women the sexual impulse remains latent until aroused by a lover’s caresses. The youth spontaneously becomes a man; but the maiden—as it has been said—‘must be kissed into a woman’” (Studies 187). For Ellis, the female passive sexual role (an allegedly instinctive performance of passivity which, he insists, is indispensable yet superficial) does not, however, indicate that sexual experience is not as psychobiologically necessary or physically pleasurable to a woman as it is to a man. He maintains, nevertheless, the conventional idea that a woman’s sexual fulfillment depends entirely on her male partner’s sexual proactivity and skills, as well as on her passive receptiveness to his sexual advances.
(p. 245) Like his counterpart Gilman, Ellis is not alone in promoting his faction’s position. Speaking for the masculinist sex-centric position with Ellis are geologist and natural historian Joseph LeConte (whose writings on evolution in general as well as on sexual selection influenced his student Frank Norris); psychologist G. Stanley Hall; lawyer and public intellectual Clarence Darrow; prose writer, poet, and critic James Lane Allen; economist and sociologist William Graham Sumner; and the canonical, male naturalist fiction writers of the genre’s early phase.7 All of these thinkers build their ideas about sexual selection, of course, on Darwin’s conclusion about male sexual agency in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex:
Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman, and in the savage state he keeps her in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal; therefore it is not surprising that he should have gained the power of selection…. As women have long been selected for beauty, it is not surprising that some of their successive variations should have been transmitted exclusively to the same sex. (584)
Following Darwin, masculinist naturalist fiction thus depicts an active male/passive female opposition, as Mark Seltzer and John Dudley have argued. Male naturalists employ this sexual metaphor in non-sexual contexts, displaying a generally dominant and aggressive stance toward a conventionally “feminized Nature” (Dudley 71) and advocating its supposedly civilizing control by (upper-class Anglo-Saxon) masculinity. Feminist naturalism, in contrast, as Jennifer Fleissner argues, challenges this opposition, emphasizing actual reproduction, depicted as a natural process that shapes human understanding of nature in the abstract, rather than converting reproduction into political figurative language. A long-standing touchstone for feminist activism and philosophy, reproduction constitutes, as Fleissner argues, one of the central “living concerns” for women that, feminism contends, are “adduced but not exhausted when they are examined within this particular [late-nineteenth-century] historical frame” (100).
Naturalist women writers therefore focus their narratives on the conception, bearing, and rearing of children and the institutions of marriage and the family that motivate and shape this behavior. These feminist naturalists contrast markedly with their masculinist peers, who are more focused on heterosexually coupled characters who are childless by chance, or because of implied physical defects, or become childless via infant mortality caused by environmental conditions or congenital disease. Most of the women writers of naturalism instead explore conflicts that arise in the reproductive mating system that biologists call social monogamy, the operative human mating system. Social monogamy involves long-term pair bonding that provides beneficial stability in the conception and the care of young offspring but also often includes “extra-pair” reproductive mating behavior, which is evolutionarily advantageous for both men and women in creating genetic diversity that increases the survival chances of offspring. Late nineteenth-century social and religious conventions stigmatize this sexual instinct, inflicting such severe punishments on female transgressors that they may be physically or psychologically destroyed as a result.
(p. 246) The plots of novels by feminist naturalists often constitute revisionist variations on the marital infidelity plot of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. These include, of course, Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), as well as Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) and The Custom of the Country (1913), Kelley’s Weeds (1923), Scarborough’s The Wind (1925), Glasgow’s The Sheltered Life (1932; in the subplot of the elderly General Archibald’s remembered young manhood), and Rawlings’s South Moon Under (1933). These novels’ sexually unfaithful female protagonists are ultimately punished with literal and/or emotional death(s), including even Wharton’s superficially triumphant social-climber Undine Spragg, who in the end shifts from keeping an emotional distance from the expedient of her own sexual exploitation in her climb up the social ladder to perversely enjoying the spectacle of her own sexual objectification. The case of Kezzie, the female protagonist of South Moon Under, differs from the other protagonists as well, since her would-be lover, Lant, kills her husband, Cleve, partially in self-defense, thus making their sexual relationship viable. But after the killing, Kezzie, with her two young sons, must live with Lant as fugitives in the dangerous panther- and rattlesnake-infested Big Scrub wilderness of central Florida because the sexual factor in their case would prevent Lant from receiving a fair trial for the killing of Cleve. The other female protagonists—Edna in The Awakening, Lettie in The Wind, Judy in Weeds, and the unnamed married lover (like Chopin’s Edna and Rawlings’s Kezzie, a mother with two young sons) of General Archibald in The Sheltered Life—all turn to suicide as a way out of the untenable conditions caused by sexual infidelities.
Further, in each of the above protagonists’ cases, children and reproduction poignantly complicate the issue of women’s entrapment within marital sexual relationships. In The Awakening, for instance, the children Etienne and Raoul alternately represent to Edna “antagonists” (999) and the only people in her life with a legitimate claim to limit her personal and sexual autonomy. Because such a separation from her husband Léonce would mean, according to latenineteenth-century divorce law, severing her maternal relationship with her sons, Edna becomes conflicted over her desire for a long-term sexual relationship with Robert Lebrun. She sublimates the psychological intensity of her dilemma by sending her sons to visit indefinitely with their grandmother in the country, but in doing so, her sanity disintegrates to the point that she believes suicide constitutes a third choice free of the painful sacrifice of self-determination inherent to the first choice—staying in her marriage—or the guilt following on the second choice—beginning a relationship with Robert without her sons. The irony is that suicide offers only a delusion of self-determination, because she destroys the physical body and mind fundamental to human identity, and a delusion of sparing her children from emotional pain, because her death will not only cruelly deprive them of her presence but will also present to them an image of their mother as impulsive and foolish, a false image confirming their father’s unjust estimation of her. Her distress over the welfare of her children should she abandon them to begin a sexual relationship with Robert or another future lover on conventional terms is illustrated by her confused wavering between bitterness and solicitude toward her young sons in the novel’s final pages.
(p. 247) Edna’s emotions about her brief affair with Alcée Arobin figure less in her psychological breakdown, for these emotions are too muted and lacking in conventional guilt to become the deciding factor in bringing on her depression; Chopin thus rejects gendered sexual ethics that hold women to a different standard of sexual restraint. By paralleling Edna’s merely sexual relationship with Alcée with Robert’s merely sexual relationship with an unnamed woman in Mexico, Chopin suggests that both relationships are understandable, albeit misdirected, physical responses to Edna’s and Robert’s unsatisfied mutual sexual attraction.
Chopin does, however, imply that Robert’s hypocritical intolerance of Edna’s affair with Alcée, which he correctly intuits, would remain insurmountable and would prevent him from standing by Edna in what Adele unknowingly hints will be a struggle that hinges on Edna’s children. He is not capable of imagining divorce and child-custody terms that would be based, not on the notion that Edna would be transferred from Léonce to himself as property, but on the notion that Edna is an autonomous person with a right to sexual agency and partial custody of her children. At the end of the novel, Edna realizes that Robert, the man of her choice and the only “human being whom she wanted near her” (999), is not able to flout conservative sexual conventions—he is not the possessor of the “grand espirit” (964) in regard to sexual politics that Mademoiselle Reisz cryptically recommends as worthy of a free woman’s sexual commitment. Though he had seemed to be fond of the two boys during the past summer—indeed, he used his easy rapport with them to contrast himself favorably in Edna’s eyes with their emotionally detached father—Robert does not, as Adele later states in her warning to Edna, “think of the children” in his naïve plan to take her as his wife, failing to mention them when he speaks of a future life with Edna.
In Weeds, Kelley addresses similar conflicts for another young mother who also becomes suicidal over the conflict between extramarital sexual desire and reproductive responsibilities. However, Kelley envisions an unwanted pregnancy resulting from a short-lived sexual relationship between Judy, the novel’s protagonist who is a graphic artist like Edna, and a travelling evangelist, whose profession is just a front to facilitate serial seductions of unhappily married women and a pretext for ending sexual relationships, which suddenly become repulsive to his newly sensitive conscience when he tires of them. Judy attempts unsuccessfully to abort this pregnancy using dangerous folk methods and afterward terminates it inadvertently through a failed attempt at suicide by drowning. She lives only to face a death in life, initially vowing coldly to eschew all sexual activity with her husband or anyone else to avoid future pregnancies and then relenting to traditional marital sexuality and its reproductive consequences. She resigns herself to the sacrifice of art and bodily health to reproduce an indeterminate number of future children. In the end, the aesthetic deprivation, drudgery, confinement, and physical discomfort of her rural domestic life constitute a final figurative burial, particularly after the unexpected death by influenza of her only intellectual, artistic companion—an older bluegrass musician who, despite mutual erotic feelings, never became her lover because of their unfortunately wide difference in age.
(p. 248) Paralleling the death-in-life ending of Weeds is that of Nella Larsen’s chilling, semi-autobiographical first novel Quicksand (1928) although, unlike the other feminist naturalist novels discussed above, it does not feature a marital-infidelity plot. Instead, it demonstrates the marriage of a similarly artistic young female protagonist, named Helga Crane, who, being a beautiful, racially mixed woman, becomes disillusioned with her sexual objectification by both white and black economically privileged, urban men. She impulsively marries a black Alabama evangelical preacher to live with him in rural poverty, mistakenly reasoning that the traditional Christian female gender role will offer a way out of sexual objectification and give her a permanently satisfying occupation: motherhood. Successive pregnancies undermine her weak health within a few years, and in the end, pregnant again, she seems likely to die soon in childbirth or from related complications shortly afterward.
Ann Petry, in The Street (1946), envisions a similar sexual/reproductive figurative suffocation of her protagonist, would-be nightclub singer Lutie Johnson, an attractive and intelligent young single mother of an eight-year-old son, but in Lutie’s case, the existence of her one child, Bub, is the motivation for rejecting heterosexual relationships after her sexually unfaithful husband, Jim, abandons them. Jim’s infidelity and departure occur after Lutie has taken live-in domestic work in another state, compelled by his inability to find any work that would provide enough money to feed and clothe the two-year-old Bub. Ironically, Lutie’s employment includes caring for the emotionally neglected son of a rich white family, allowing his sexually dissatisfied mother time to pursue a series of extramarital sexual relationships, while Lutie’s absence undermines her previously sexually satisfying marriage with Jim. When Jim leaves, Lutie gets a low-paying civil service position and moves to a cramped, filthy, and dangerous apartment in Harlem. To protect Bub, Lutie eschews all sexual desire, but several men who find her attractive nonetheless attempt to use her sense of responsibility to provide financially for her child as a means of exploiting her sexually. In the climatic final scene, she kills one of these exploiters when he tries to rape her, and she flees by train to Chicago, abandoning Bub.
In contrast, the sexual concerns in novels by male naturalist writers rarely focus on a struggle involving transgressive sexual desire and reproductive duty. Masculinist naturalism more often represents moments in courtship when male sexual importunity overcomes female reluctance. Yet masculinist naturalists simultaneously scrutinize those aspects of sexual selection embodying the ironic, deterministic paradox that sexually selective behavior—always undertaken by male characters in their works—may appear to an individual’s mind to be motivated by his or her rational human will when it is actually most compelled by previously repressed sexual instinct.
Norris’s McTeague (1899) and Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), two model examples, represent clearly the near avoidance of reproductive issues in masculinist naturalism and its greater concern with the active male/passive female opposition of masculinist sexual ideology. Norris’s narrator in McTeague articulates this ideology explicitly, defining it as “the changeless order of things—the man (p. 249) desiring the woman only for what she withholds; the woman worshipping the man for that which she yields up to him” (50). The sexual relationships of the two central couples in these novels, newlyweds Trina and McTeague and unmarried lovers Maggie and Pete, respectively, proceed similarly: pretty, very young, sexually inexperienced women meet by chance and become sexually involved with unworthy men—one being stupid, ugly, and brawny; the other sly, handsome, and pugnaciously dominant—who eventually abandon them. Neither woman conceives children. Eventually, both women are murdered as a result of the bad luck that brought these men into their lives during their early adulthood.
Trina’s avoidance of pregnancy is never explained by Norris’s narrator to be the result of contraception, and that prospect does not appear plausible in any case given Trina’s family background and sexual innocence at the time of her marriage as well as McTeague’s dim-wittedness and sexual inexperience. Yet Norris imagines many months pass in the affectionate early stage of their marriage without a resulting pregnancy. Further, when Trina’s interconnected pathological miserliness and masochism sets in, she substitutes her four hundred gold coins, stolen by McTeague prior to his deserting her, for a baby, likening her now-empty chamois bag and match-box to reminders of a baby’s death and weeping “over them as other women weep over a dead baby’s shoe” (194). Prior to McTeague’s leaving, his loss of sexual interest in her, as well as the physical stress she suffers because of physical abuse (beatings and bitten fingers), her poor diet, and incessant work making (ironically) children’s toys with toxic paint might be assumed to have severely affected her fertility. Less likely to result in pregnancy, the sexual relationship of Maggie and Pete lasts for only a short time, and Crane’s emphasis on Pete’s considerable prior sexual experience covertly suggests that he uses contraception, which could not at the time of the novel’s publication be explicitly mentioned.
Other characters in these two novels have children, such as Zerkow and Maria Macapa in McTeague and, in Maggie, Maggie’s brother, Jimmie, and two unnamed lovers who “caused him considerable annoyance by breaking forth, simultaneously, at fateful intervals, into wailings about marriage and support and infants” (16). But these children and their care do not play crucial parts in these novels’ plots. The unnamed, “wretched, sickly” baby born to Maria and Zerkow dies within ten days (134), becoming “a mere incident in their lives, a thing that had come undesired and had gone unregretted” (135). Norris briefly links the mixed ethnic heritage of the “strange, hybrid” baby to his or her ill health (135), but the child’s main purpose is to be not merely a racist symbol but also an ironic catalyst for Maria’s amnesia in regard to the story of her family’s gold dishes, the precisely phrased repetition of which had become a sexual fetish for the pathologically miserly Zerkow. Maria’s inability to remember her story of the lost gold dishes, and her denial of ever having told it, maddens Zerkow so much that, becoming psychotic, he eventually murders Maria and commits suicide by drowning (or drowns through an accident caused by his mental disorder). Trina’s murder by the sadistic, alcoholic McTeague occurs soon after, with Maria and Trina serving as victims of a misdirected, allegedly essential female sexual instinct to submit that leads them, not to constructive (p. 250) reproduction, but to self-destructive masochism. This alleged female sexual passivity becomes dangerously pathological, in large part, because Maria and Trina become sexual confidants, perversely inciting masochistic sexual pleasure by recounting and comparing their husbands’ violent physical abuse, finding in middle-class marriage’s institutional convention of confidential sexually explicit discourse between two wives one of the “delineated areas of [perverse] sexual saturation” that Foucault has shown to have proliferated in late nineteenth-century middle-class society (46).
As McTeague illustrates, masculinist naturalist novels tend to be concerned with uncommon, troubling cases in which the course of sexual selection is redirected from eroticized nurturance to sexualized violence. They delve into the reasons, biological and socially constructed, for such sexual perversion, particularly focusing on the complications of alleged female sexual passivity, envisioned as biologically determined, and of instinctive male competition for sexual partners. Thus, their plots often feature triangular situations in which two men compete callously for the possession of one passive woman, such as McTeague, Marcus, and Trina in McTeague; Drouet, Hurstwood, and Carrie in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie; and Van Weyden, Larsen, and Maude in London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904). (Though not as pervasive, triangles of two women competing for one man are more typical in feminist naturalist novels, such as Wharton’s Ethan Frome  and Glasgow’s Virginia .)
Crane’s Maggie seems to present a twist on this masculinist plot element because Maggie’s desertion by Pete is caused by what seems on one level to be her failure to compete actively for Pete with Nellie, “the woman of brilliance and audacity” (43), who convinces him to disavow his relationship with Maggie. But Nellie brings about this result by dishonestly making Pete believe that he has entered into competition for her sexual affection with a young man who uses the pseudonym Freddie and is designated as “a mere boy” (43). However, Nellie does not actually desire Pete or Freddie, or any other man, as a lover, exploiting him and other men for money alone. And Maggie, in the scene of her displacement, remains passive, shocked at the adored Pete’s manipulation by Nellie, but lacking any initiative to compete with her for Pete. Crane hereby imagines an ironic advantage for manipulative women of unusual attractiveness, an advantage inherent to their so-called biologically inferior position in sexual selection as passive objects of male choice and their chance development of physical beauty that men are compelled to pursue. Dreiser’s Carrie, though less unethical or consciously manipulative than Nellie, has the same paradoxical power over men who admire her winsome performances as a chorus dancer and a comic actor, yet neither character is portrayed as wielding active sexual agency.
Crane’s uncertain, disturbingly violent conclusion of Maggie, suggesting a sexual encounter by Maggie, now a prostitute, with a malevolent, drunken man and leading either to her murder by him or her suicide by drowning, exemplifies the concern with sexualized violence that characterizes masculinist 1920s–1940s naturalist fiction as well as much contemporary naturalist fiction. Further, these novels’ focus on sexualized violence offers pointed critiques of the familial, psychological, and cultural influences that spur the most extreme forms of this violence. Dreiser’s American Tragedy (1925) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), for example, (p. 251) illustrate the low value placed on individual women’s bodies and lives as they are objectified to become expendable extensions of male identity. Moreover, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932, 1934, and 1935) reveals, as does Native Son, how homophobia works in a variety of individual psychological and institutional forms to generate sexualized violence against women and gay men.
Contemporary naturalism retains this concern with sexualized violence, and, equally significantly, much of it until recently has continued to exhibit gendered polemical opposition in depicting female heterosexual agency. Male authors of naturalist fiction published in the past thirty to forty years, such as Cormac McCarthy (Child of God , Blood Meridian , and The Road ), and William Kennedy (An Albany Trio: Legs , Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game , and Ironweed ), primarily follow masculinist ideology in the portrayal of female victims of sexual violence, emphasizing male characters’ sexual control of women, while female writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates (in her trilogy, A Garden of Earthly Delights , Expensive People , and them , as well as You Must Remember This ) take up the feminist naturalist perspective, demonstrating destructive consequences to women characters when they attempt to exercise sexual agency and taking up reproductive issues in more direct terms.
For instance, comparing Oates’s them and Kennedy’s Legs, published just six years apart and both based on the lives of actual people, reveals the persistent gendered distinction among recent naturalist writers. Oates’s them, winner of the National Book Award, devotes most of its narrative space to chronicling the sexually traumatic lives of a mother (Loretta) and daughter (Maureen). The novel begins with Loretta’s first, consensual sexual experience. The incident prompts her controlling brother to shoot the young man lying with her, killing him and compelling her to allow the corrupt police officer who investigates the shooting to have sexual intercourse with her and to marry him. The middle of the novel recounts Maureen’s decision to raise money from prostitution so that, ironically, she can escape from the threat of rape by her stepfather, as well as her slow recovery from her nearly fatal beating by him and its resulting coma. At the close of the novel, Maureen carries out a plan to seduce, marry, and have children with a junior college instructor, forcing him to abandon his wife and three children, not because she loves him or sexually desires him, but because she mistakenly believes he can supply permanent security and because she is instinctively motivated to compete for him against his wife. In the last chapter, seven months pregnant, she argues with her brother Jules’s false masculinist prediction that, when she accepts that she is one of “them”—that is, like her sexually exploited and passive mother—men “will come back in your life … beat you up and force your knees apart” and that she will “really want it to happen” (507). But to protect her own instinct for sexual agency, she ironically renounces sexual desire altogether and imprisons herself sexually, metaphorically remaining in her earlier comatose state, “press[ing] her hands against her ears” in response to her brother’s statement and picturing herself mentally only as an asexual expectant mother (508). Moreover, despite his masculinist rhetoric in this closing chapter, the sexually charismatic Jules, the novel’s sole male protagonist, informs Maureen that (p. 252) he plans to marry a woman who, rather than passively accepting his sexual infidelities, attempted to kill him and nearly succeeded.
Kennedy’s Legs, in contrast, evades reproductive sexual issues and represents female sexuality in conventionally masculinist terms. The story centers on the infamous 1920s–1930s New York gangster, Jack “Legs” Diamond and two women—his wife, Alice, and his showgirl mistress, Marion “Kiki” Roberts—whom he arranges to live with simultaneously, the two women accepting one another as friends. A consummate male gangster, Jack embodies sexual dynamism and brutal violence. As a librarian with whom Jack has a brief affair states, he “turns women into swine” (85). Yet they are drawn by apparent instinct to welcome his sexual advances, for as Kiki explains, “fucking is one thing, but fucking with Jack was another thing altogether” (150). The sexiest-man-alive and the most-fearsome-man-alive types merge in Jack’s characterization.
This slippage between male sexual desire and violent aggression occurs as well in the less common, yet increasingly present, treatment of homosexuality by contemporary male naturalist writers. Both Don DeLillo (in End Zone ) and Cormac McCarthy (particularly in Blood Meridian  and The Road ) deal with homoerotic violence ironically prompted by the homophobia inherent to militaristic patriarchy. DeLillo punctuates violent college football practices and games with repeated, anxious rumors that one of the players has been hiding his homosexual orientation and with sexually objectifying comments about women’s genitalia. This caustic ideology is contextualized by the obsession with the consequences of prospective nuclear warfare of the narrator, Gary Harkness, a talented yet underachieving running back. More directly depicted is the exploitative, violent homosexual activity in Blood Meridian of McCarthy’s legendarily menacing character, Judge Holden, who sodomizes and breaks the neck of a twelve-year-old boy and later sexually abuses a cognitively disabled man. Similarly graphically depicted is the sexual sadism in The Road of the blood cults who terrorize migrant refugees, keeping women, girls, and boys as sex slaves, during a future period of nuclear world devastation (much like that imagined by DeLillo in Gary’s speculations).
Though less common, naturalist depictions of initially affirmative homoerotic emotions and/or homosexual orientation that gradually become destructively distorted by heterosexism stand out throughout naturalism’s history. Chopin’s The Awakening and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) are apt examples of this treatment of homoeroticism/homosexuality from, respectively, early and later naturalism. In Chopin’s opening chapters, Edna and her beautiful pregnant friend Adele become homoerotically attracted to each other, and this incipient sexual emotion fires Edna’s artistic creativity as she turns to her painting with more seriousness than in the past. But her inability to comprehend the depth and sensuality of her feelings for Adele also clouds her understanding of her sexual response to Robert. Capote’s nonfiction naturalist novel, In Cold Blood, a narrative product of Capote’s extensive interviews with Perry Smith, a co-perpetrator (with Richard Hickock) of a heinous quadruple murder of a Kansas family at their farm, similarly hints at homoerotic attraction between both Hickock and Smith and Capote (as narrator) (p. 253) and Smith. Following the lead of Chopin and Capote in employing homoeroticism and homosexual desire as aspects of naturalistic plots, future naturalist writers will have much new material to explore.
Moreover, in addition to the inclusion of previously excluded sexualities, the next stage of the history of naturalism will likely witness a more complete break from the genre’s past polarized approaches in regard to its long-term principal focus on the vicissitudes of heterosexuality. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the genre has begun to break with this polarizing tendency since masculinist sexual ideology has lost much of its popularity and credibility in the wake of Second Wave feminism and in light of research from the social and biological sciences that disprove masculinist claims about male dominance in heterosexuality.8 For instance, while McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has a more masculinist approach to male sexual aggression, The Road represents a departure from this ideology in McCarthy’s emphasis on childbirth and childrearing and of the mother/wife’s catastrophic dilemma. She, like Chopin’s Edna and Wharton’s Lily Bart in The House of Mirth among others in feminist naturalism, commits suicide because of an instinctive recoil, incontrovertibly valid in her horrific situation, from the consequences of masculinist sexual exploitation of vulnerable bodies, leaving “the man” (the child’s father, who is also the novel’s narrator) to become the traditionally maternal figure to his child. Seemingly, today’s well-known evolutionary research advances in human sexuality have helped to draw the two distinct masculinist and feminist branches of the genre together in, at least, this 2006 novel.
However, while looking ahead, one should be fair to the past. Even in acknowledging the now-clear limitations of the masculinist naturalist conceptualization of sexuality, one should not forget the artistic and cultural achievement of naturalism—masculinist and feminist—in depicting heterosexuality overtly in fiction. The genre’s defiance of the puritanical rebukes of social conservatives and, most significantly, their analyses of the sexually perverse results of prevailing conservative heterosexual ideology contributed to reforming sexual attitudes in America. Indeed, over the more than one-hundred-year period of naturalism’s continuing presence in American fiction, naturalist writers have used their fiction to move intuitively toward new insights in their engagement with evolutionary theories of sexual selection, notwithstanding some missteps. Many decades before the recent breakthroughs of interdisciplinary theorists studying heterosexuality, naturalist writers explored this problematic topic to reach similarly complex conclusions.
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(1) . For a thorough discussion of this debate over the direct depiction of sexuality in American realist and naturalist fiction and the role played by the conflict between religious faith versus science in this fiction, see Pizer, “True Art Speaks Plainly.”
(2) . A more conventional approach to sexuality in American naturalism would argue that its sexual subject matter itself constitutes an ostensibly “moralizing” type of discourse, albeit politically liberal, that in fact, as Foucault elaborates, creates the conditions that produce sexual perversion as “the real product[s] of the encroachment of a type of [social] power on bodies and their pleasures” (48). Conversely, I would argue that American naturalism is more directed at delineating and interrogating this “encroachment” than reproducing it, unlike, for example, popular late nineteenth-century decadent fiction.
(3) . Although Dreiser does not refer in “True Art Speaks Plainly” to “New Thought” directly, he describes social conservatives’ “own little theories concerning life” as based on their complacent view that human life and sexuality consist of “a variety of interesting but immutable forms” (156), evoking popular totalizing religious and/or philosophical ideas about sexuality and spirituality emphasized by New Thought proponents. To them, as historian Beryl Satter has demonstrated, female sexuality was unselfish, temperately minimalist, and holy, while male sexuality was lustful, intemperate, and morally and racially degenerate (41–45).
(4) . Jennifer Fleissner has made this very argument, positing insightfully that there is an “association between feminism and a rationalized modernity” that the literary and historical period of naturalism initiates (8). As Fleissner demonstrates, mapping out feminist underpinnings of naturalism reveals the extent to which the genre has been boxed in conceptually as a one-dimensional masculinist genre by the most vocal of the early male practitioners (particularly Norris) and by its later critics. However, not surprisingly, Fleissner’s analysis of male naturalists’ anxious engagement with feminism and the New Woman’s sexual prerogatives relies heavily on a limited selection of male-authored texts—McTeague and Sister Carrie principally.
(5) . American literary critics have been slow to take seriously the importance of Darwin’s 1871 study of sexual selection on late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century fiction, as Bert Bender has demonstrated in The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871–1926 (1996). Bender has worked to remedy this critical gap, particularly in his 2004 study, Evolution and the Sex Problem: American Narratives during the Eclipse of Darwinism.
(6) . See Leach 19–37 for discussion of the ways this large and diverse group of thinkers and activists, many of them men, employed science rather than religion to redefine ideal human sexuality.
(8) . Since the 1970s, when the contemporary interdisciplinary field of sociobiology was established, both masculinist and feminist models of sexual selection have been forwarded, and new data have supported the feminist sex-centric position on mutual sexual selection rather than the masculinist position. For an overview of masculinist and feminist theories of sexual selection, see Zuk. And for an elegant pro-mutual-selection argument, see Miller.