Naturalism and Commodity Culture
Abstract and Keywords
This article discusses the relationship between commodity culture and American literary naturalism. It introduces the terms of classical Marxism to indicate the importance of determinist philosophies such as those found in Capital and Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class to numerous early and even more recent readings of naturalism and commodity culture. Excavation of the relationship between naturalism and commodity culture paradoxically frees the naturalist label from the moment of its determination and brings naturalism out of the historical record of the late nineteenth century and into our own time. Marx argued that as long as commodity fetishism obtained, then the mass of men—and women—would lead overdetermined lives of alienation and suffering. Our susceptibility to the allure of commodity culture deepens our vulnerability to the matrix of social forces that we neither understand nor control, the matrix of forces thoroughly documented in naturalism.
Three orphaned siblings, still clad in mourning, wander lost and fearful through the maze of Parisian streets in search of their last living relative. Their situation is dire, their future bleak. Yet, in the very first moments of their adventure, they find unexpected comfort and distraction from their plight—The Ladies’ Paradise, a department store in which they see the surreal, seductive, excessive display of goods, a spectacle that renders the novel’s protagonist, Denise Baudu, “excited, fascinated, oblivious to everything else” (Zola, Au Bonheur 4). While Denise Baudu’s subsequent relationships with and in this department store provide the bare bones for a plot, it is the overripe, sumptuous flesh of things, the almost hysterically detailed descriptions of saleable goods and the process by which they are marketed, that demands most attention from the reader. Zola’s Au Bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Paradise ), part of his magisterial Rougon-Macquart series, reminds us throughout of his first principles of naturalism—the deterministic import of heredity and environment, the necessity for scientific documentation of particular cases of evolution and devolution; more important, for this essay, it also reveals Zola’s equal fascination with how the modern French commodity culture of manufactured needs and desires necessarily destroyed the old mercantile culture and created a new breed of buyers and sellers, workers and overseers. Even Zola’s pure and compassionate heroine comes to recognize this consumer culture as the new religion for the masses that is good both for buyers and sellers, though its making requires her “to witness to the bitter end the inexorable workings of life, which requires the seed of death for its continual renewal” (385). Eschewing the hard determinism of Germinal or L’Assommoir, this transitional work offers us virtue wedded to profit-making both in terms of the love plot and the betterment of some (p. 292) workers’ lives as a precondition for another person’s economic success; yet despite the happy ending for Denise, the economic evolution toward commodity culture that is the central story is signified repeatedly as a mise en abîme of vampiric feeding over which the pure Denise bemoans “the sight of warblers eating spiders who, in their turn, were eating flies” (375) while the venal Mouret, Denise’s would-be seducer and eventual faithful lover, celebrates to the end his ability “to let the strong devour the weak,” “this new way of applying the struggle for survival” (35, 36).
Naturalism as Critique of Commodity Culture
Commodity culture, not surprisingly, is also central to much of American literary naturalism. Emerson famously lamented in his “Ode, Inscribed to William H. Channing” that “Things are in the saddle, /And ride mankind.” Realist writers typically incorporated the drive for acquisition of things to motivate their plots. Naturalism, however, would take the focus on things to an entirely new level, that of the Zolaesque scientific documentation of commodities as markers of personal and social valuation and of fetishistic obsession with things reified to extraordinary degrees. Naturalism would catalog in sometimes excruciating detail how things ride the characters to their overdetermined fates. Zola’s Au Bonheur des dames boldly emphasized the centrality of commodity culture to individuation and self-satisfaction; the American naturalists, from Rebecca Harding Davis to Theodore Dreiser and beyond, followed suit by illustrating in intricate detail the hold of commodity culture on American life. They document through meticulous attention to the phantasmagoric value of things the ways we continue to pay for America’s emergence in the nineteenth century as the leading capitalist, industrial power in the world.
Certainly among the forces that gave rise to literary naturalism in America, commodity culture provided perhaps the richest material to fashion into fiction. One might go so far as to claim, indeed, that American naturalism is itself an inevitable by-product of commodity culture because it is simultaneously a diagnosis of it. As virtually all overviews of American realism and naturalism recite, from 1860 to 1900, the population of the United States doubled, primarily due to the influx of immigrants, many of whom were recruited as workers for the new industries in fast-growing metropolitan centers such as Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, and who were promised the American Dream with all the things that the Dream entailed as their just deserts. At the same time, emigration from rural to urban sectors further swelled city populations and centralized the marketing of goods. Scientific developments created new systems of categorization and presentation of matter that trickled down from academies of science and the medical schools (p. 293) to the quotidian display of goods in venues ranging from Carrie Meeber’s first department store to the Metropolitan Museum, curiously similar institutions that both began to accrue considerable profit once they registered as part of what some critics have called the new exhibitionary landscape of the late nineteenth century. With the intense industrialization of the 1870s following the closing of the frontier and completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the national identity was effectively transfigured from that of a country peopled by self-reliant farmers and shopkeepers to that of a monopolistic or oligopolistic capitalist state in which robber barons would boast of hiring one half of the working class to kill the other half. The accumulation of heretofore-unimaginable wealth in the hands of the few created a sharp divide between the haves and have-nots that inescapably restructured social relations even as the economics of simple supply and demand was supplanted by an economics of multiple and ever-unsatisfiable desires that suggested the leveling of social distinctions through a democratization of the availability of luxury products or their reproductions to all classes. As both economic desire and social Darwinism exponentially raised the value of having things as a marker of self-worth, the new scientific determinism of Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin, as its upper-class interpreters would argue, boldly proclaimed ruthlessness and voraciousness, gross appetite and the desire for self-satisfaction as simply natural law. For many, it was the best of times; for at least as many, if not more, it was the worst.
As Anne Mayhew explains, the dominant economic narratives generated in the late nineteenth century comprise a matrix of sharply competing versions. Economic historians, for example, view the period as one of steadily increasing incomes and prosperity for the majority, while other economists and historians note the several economic downturns that affected all but the most wealthy, though these economic reversals are rarely described as catastrophic. Fiction writers, and the naturalists in particular, focused on a distinctly different set of scenarios, most often describing the period “as a time of hardship, economic unhappiness, and not infrequent destitution” (1). It was, Mayhew goes on to argue, a period of abundance in which for some the foremost question became how that abundance, the ever-increasing output of goods and services, would be distributed. In short, who would profit, how would they profit, and at what cost to others would they profit?
Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron-Mills” (1861), a transitional naturalist work like Zola’s novel, captures well this new industrialscape in which ownership of commodities, including one’s labor, rather than character or will, determines fate. The novella illustrates the accumulation of capital trumping both the idealist sensibilities evident in the last gasps of transcendentalist rhetoric and the sense of moral responsibility for the less fortunate promoted by utopian socialist philosophies. The story, interrupted repeatedly by the narrator with apologies for the subject matter and the demands placed on the reader to interpret it correctly, centers on Hugh Wolfe, a mill worker trapped in an animal-like existence with seemingly no hope of reprieve, his one protest against his overly determined fate literally embodied in the sculptures he cuts out of the waste product of the mill. One night a group of moneyed men on a touristic jaunt through the mills stumble upon his latest creation cut (p. 294) out of korl, what Hugh calls a starving woman, and its display becomes the occasion for the men to speculate on art as they define it as well as the worker’s lot and their relationship to it (this group is comprised of symbolic authority figures—the mill owner’s son, a doctor, the press—those, in short, who profit from another’s labor). In a striking reversal of the process of interpellation central to the theories of Louis Althusser, Hugh’s stature as a man to whom attention should be paid is repeatedly denied, a process already begun by Hugh’s fellow workers who have emasculated him by renaming him “Molly” because of his finer artistic sensibilities. On this night of specularization, speculation, and irruption of the uncanny into the ordinary, Hugh is cast out by the alpha wolves clad in fur and bejeweled with blood-red rings who seem to sympathize with Hugh’s case but reject any possibility of their having responsibility for alleviating his suffering. Hugh’s naturalistic art is deemed incompetent by the medical man, ugly by those who, admittedly like Hugh himself, buy into narrow romanticized definitions of womanly beauty, and, more importantly, as without either use- or exchange-value, for as a commodity without capital to back it, it is, as its literal materiality announces, pure waste. Indeed, from the vantage point of the mill owner’s son and his entourage, the statue could signify a type of theft through the misuse of labor capacity that is embodied in the worker and on which the mill owner depends for his profit-making. Not only does Hugh lack the fiduciary capital necessary for broadcasting his self-expression, but the impossibility of establishing productive social relations between workers and capitalists suggests the lack of cultural capital Hugh and his interlocutor possess at this historical moment: they can neither represent the reality of certain lives fully nor, the narrator fears, manipulate signs correctly so as to force recognition of the virtually unspeakable truth. Or, to put it another way, if Hugh’s story, his pathetic attempt at self-construction, is denied legitimacy, authority, and authenticity, then there is little possibility of any other outcome than Hugh’s subsequent complete erasure. While Davis’s story ends on a salvific note, critic Sharon M. Harris makes clear in her Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism, as do other readers of the story, the centrality of commodification both to Davis’s plot and her aesthetic agenda to represent truthfully what had not heretofore been admitted as material for fiction. Davis attempted to reimagine fiction’s ability to interpellate a new type of reader who would welcome realism depicted across class lines. That attempt failed, however, in that the novella was quickly forgotten, an erasure also forestalling any thick description of the rise of naturalism until the late twentieth-century feminist recuperation of women writers.
Simultaneous with the transmogrification of national identity was the reorganization and reconceptualization of literary culture as a commodity accessible to the masses, foreshadowed as necessary for the common good by Davis’s apologetic narrator, effected in the commercial realm of literary production primarily by William Dean Howells and his entourage. As his own career proved, once the Brahmin Boston culture chiefs were dethroned by age, mental incapacity, and rejection by the then-limited readership, and once-ordinary men of no particular social privilege could work their way into positions of leadership in the field of cultural production, then a (p. 295) more capacious, democratic type of literature—by, for, and about the American people—might emerge and be promoted as high art. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the Brahmins, had called for a new poet who would represent all of America—from the commercial to the spiritual—to itself and the world, but it required a man of the middle class, of the middle states, of middling education but of liberal generosity to aspiring writers like himself to bring that new art into being. Indeed, as his A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) illustrates, a demand for a new type of fiction could be created by and for, and marketed to, a growing readership across class, gender, and race lines. While Howells could not himself capture more than a traveler’s view of subaltern cultures—the slums, the working class—his literary call for truth in representation required his support of a new realism considerably harsher in its import than his own genteel novels and theories of art. Yet however much his democratization of realism through his own writing and his editorial work enabled representations of subaltern experiences to emerge, he himself never overcame a certain ambivalence or reticence toward this savage new art form. Neither could he escape the contemporary urge to categorize, compartmentalize, classify, and then to present, or sell, products for certain audiences and needs. Our conceptualization of the early canon of naturalist literature is therefore forever colored by his desire to promote but simultaneously to set apart fiction by women, blacks, and ethnic writers from that of white male writers. While he did include women writers in his anthology of “modern” stories, in much of his critical writing he favored white male writers. Later, there would be a qualitative shift in the work of proletarian critics such as Vernon L. Parrington and Granville Hicks who would focus in the main on male writers to the virtual exclusion of minority and women authors, especially, in the case of the latter, if they were of the upper class. And, thus, in their rudimentary analyses of naturalism, Parrington and Hicks set a precedent that precluded the inclusion of women and minority writers as practitioners of naturalism or even of having been influenced by the naturalist agenda created by white men. Students of naturalism, then, are necessarily recuperating the body of works even as they study naturalism as a discrete cultural product.
One key element of naturalism is the depiction of the social relations that organize a capitalist consumer society precisely through documentation of that by which a capitalist system is most readily defined—commodity exchange and fetishism. Materialist philosophers predating Zola’s call for a scientific literature had already observed in detail the inescapable determinism of modern life. Marx, for instance, in his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon noted that “[m]en make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves” (10). In addition to “the tradition of all the dead generations” that Marx posits as central to our understanding of our own self-construction in Capital, his conception of commodity as it developed in industrial capitalism emphasizes that the importance of capitalism’s reconceptualization of use value cannot be understated if we wish to understand the realm of social relations in which we believe we create ourselves. Marx is, of course, himself drawing upon the tradition of all the dead generations as far back as Plato’s originary account of the consequences of mistaking the material for the ideal, the illusion of reality for (p. 296) the truth, the birthing of false consciousness out of the womb of our desires and fantasies. Several of the naturalists certainly point us in this direction as well through staged scenarios in which their protagonists take up or aspire to the position of the men in Plato’s cave of illusions. It is not difficult to overlay Plato’s primal scene on the Dantesque rendering of the mill in Davis’s work, and there are clearly references to Plato’s cave in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), Edith Wharton’s 1905 The House of Mirth (and, in what seems to me her wholesale and satiric rewriting of the myth for a modern audience, her “The Valley of Childish Things, and Other Emblems” ), Elizabeth Maddox Robert’s “Death at Bearwallow” (1926), and Ann Petry’s “The Witness” (1971), to name just a few examples. The exposition of false consciousness cannot alone determine whether a work is naturalist, as the term is used to describe a movement and body of work definable through shared principles. It nevertheless provides the subject matter upon which the naturalist work rests and most often depends upon for its interrogation of the new realm of social relations experienced with the rise of industrial capitalism.
June Howard’s Form and History in American Literary Naturalism offers us a helpful reading of the aesthetic features by which we might recognize a text as naturalistic as well as gesturing toward the moral agenda that distinguishes naturalism from contemporary movements. Howard argues that “[n]aturalism is not just deterministic fiction or realism in a pessimistic mood. These characterizations point toward some of the qualities of naturalist novels, but they do not enable us to penetrate analytically the way in which the novels reinvent the possibilities of narrative at their historical moment” (182). Naturalist works, she insists, are built upon the concentrated and freestanding presentation of facts and things, of one thick slice of life, Zola’s tranche de vie, offered for the reader’s delectation, followed by another slice and then yet another, a continual accretion of facts the documentary logic of which obviates neat closure and promotes instead a contiguous relation of the work in hand to that which it preserves for our observation. It is, further, a form of literary production that, while it reassembles elements from previous genres that remain useful as recognizable and effective literary hooks, is nevertheless profoundly different from the literary products that have come before it precisely in terms of its intense engagement with lived experiences of the real, and it thus provides readers with endless “facts” in which “the detail signifies not only reality but the rigorous investigation of reality” (147). It is “knowledge work” the consequence of which—whether to imagine reformist measures out of literary depictions of despair or simply to acknowledge the limitations that we daily confront—depends on the reader and what knowledge work she or he chooses to accomplish with the text. It is knowledge work for and by its audience that because of the polyvalent perversity of the genre is remarkably open to misprision. Recall here Sinclair’s dismay at the public’s misreading of his moral agenda in The Jungle or Georg Lukács’s wholesale dismissal of naturalism as anemic documentary and passive voyeurism. More recent critics have persuasively argued that even the most seemingly nihilist of works have the potential to promote a new structure of feeling, to use Raymond Willams’s rich phrase, the nascence of a political consciousness that would demand (p. 297) the making of a less alienating system of social relations than that depicted in the text in question. As Howard so astutely observes, “Naturalism is not a fashionable genre”; nevertheless, she insists, it does demonstrate “a dynamic solution to the problem of generating narrative out of the particular historical and cultural materials that offered themselves to these writers” (xi). Perhaps it might be more profitable simply to think of a spectrum of naturalism—thus my use of qualifiers such as “transitional” or “hard”—and to get on with the great amount of knowledge work we have yet to do to understand the attraction to and repulsion from naturalism that so many readers experience.
Naturalist texts are inventions, sometimes interventions, occasioned by particular sociohistorical developments and a reflection upon and interrogation of those developments, and most share a careful attention to the commodity culture of the time and the costs of that culture to the characters in the works, a culture of reification, objectification, and self-alienation. Characters see themselves swallowed up in machines, as trapped insects tearing themselves to pieces, as objets d’art the only meaning of which is to be made worthy for use by the greatest collectors. There is an intense focus, in other words, on things, including the commodified self, not simply as archaeological artifacts but as vessels of ideological interpellation that simultaneously effect group identification and signal self-fragmentation. The things in these works speak deeply to the characters; indeed, they often speak the characters and the self-alienation and atomization experienced by those whose desires can be expressed only through the commodities in which they invest, commodities which in turn create a false sense of self that occludes the experience of self-commodification that they are forced to suffer because of historical and biological circumstance. Marx’s definition of “commodity” reminds us that this simple term is itself a matrix of competing narratives; he writes, “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital 81). Marx goes on to describe in detail the process whereby commodity emerges and, in turn, as exchange value becomes further estranged from use value, translates into commodity fetishism, in which the thing is no longer of value strictly in and of itself but for what it has come to represent in terms of social relations within capitalist society. Think here of Maggie’s pathetic cretonne lambrequin, McTeague’s canary, or even Lily Bart’s display of herself as collectable art. Each object expresses a desire for or reminder of social inclusion, acceptance, and agency. In the case of each such object, then, the material is meant to represent the ideal but just as often is simply mistaken for it. Hugh Wolfe’s statue has extraordinary value for himself as an expression of his alienated labor and the hell in which he exists; however, it speaks to and of him but not in the way it will be received by the class who in essence own him. And while it speaks to and of him, it also keeps him quiet and distanced from any social action that might conceivably improve his situation and that of his tribe.
While Dreiser’s Carrie is the American character most often recognized as spoken to, seduced by, and indistinguishable from commodities, other works illustrate (p. 298) just as well in more compact form the inherent nature of commodities to divorce one from apprehension of material reality through the momentary ecstasy of a delusory self-possession that commodities enable. Naturalist texts document, that is, the false consciousness on which the success of commodity culture depends and which, in turn, often serves as yet another element that determines the trajectory of character in naturalist fiction. Kate Chopin’s “A Pair of Silk Stockings” (1897) comes immediately to mind, reading almost like a scene lifted from Zola’s Au Bonheur des dames itself. A poor widow and sole provider for too many dependents somewhat miraculously comes into possession of what Hugh Wolfe lacked—money, not a great amount, but if spent carefully, it can provide much needed articles for all her family save herself. One simple gesture, however, proves her undoing: she leans against a counter of silk stockings and rests a weary hand on them. The silk stockings then “glide serpent-like through her fingers,” arousing her—“two hectic blotches came suddenly into her pale cheeks”—and seducing her into partaking of them (501). The phrase “it becomes her”—to describe the relationship between an accessory and its owner—does not begin to do justice to the desacralized transubstantiation that occurs as she unconsciously takes in the promise of the thing on which her hand rests. Like Zola’s Denise Baudu, she is immediately comforted as she is hailed into the realm of commodity fetishism in which, Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska contend, the desired things both “(over)compensate for the missing whole” and act as “a marking of the site of loss, of alienated lack…. Forever out of context, the object is a relic of a past wholeness it—or its purchaser—could never obtain” (138). The thing, the commodity itself—or, that is, what the commodity represents to her—almost immediately, without involving rational thought, transports her into a state of false consciousness, the thing calling her to identify with, partake in, and, inevitably pay for, inclusion into a particular class group for whom money is not an issue, sensuality is a right, not a privilege, and the desire for such privilege trumps one’s having to think of one’s moral responsibility even to one’s own children. It simultaneously reminds her of better times and allows her or causes her to forget her present social reality. Chopin’s prescient analysis of the instantiation that commodities promise the consumer, the commanding language with which they speak to us, thus both echoes Zola’s continual rehearsal of the power of commodities to move humans to destroy themselves in their quest for things that would identify them as replete, enviable, and invulnerable, and foreshadows Theodor Adorno’s attack on the cultural forgetting commodity culture effects. We are indeed transported deep into Plato’s cave—in this work perhaps overtly signified in the theatre scene—when we open a naturalist work, itself yet one more matrix of narratives competing for our attention but one in which the language of commodity culture continually redounds and in which we can begin to imagine, even as through a glass darkly, what its bound prisoners are forced to see and mistake for both their concrete reality and the ideals to which they might aspire.
Why, then, if commodity culture is such perfect material for naturalism’s documentary logic has it not already been exhaustively investigated? One reason is (p. 299) that naturalist texts are themselves matrices of competing narratives, and any one narrative thread—reading the scientific, the philosophical, the economic, the aesthetic—requires careful contextualization and study. Further, excavating nineteenth-century (and even twentieth-century) social practices as these are figured though commodification and consumerism in literature requires the sort of interdisciplinary work that has not until relatively recently been deemed acceptable in a field traditionally paralyzed by periodization, genre boundaries, and disciplinary expectations that precluded too much work outside the texts themselves and certainly not the type of work better left to sociologists, economic historians, or anthropologists. The advent of British cultural studies in the post–World War II period did not translate easily into American critical practices at that time; outlier critical modes such as materialist—and certainly Marxist—analyses similarly met with considerable resistance in American settings less politically charged toward radical reformism than the classrooms of Birmingham, the academies of Frankfurt, or one cell within an Italian prison. Formalist criticism refused to see the text as itself a cultural product and insisted that evaluation of the text in and of itself, in accordance with a set of abstract descriptors, the elaboration of which afforded enormous cultural capital to the critic, required no thick contextualization of the sort mandated in cultural studies. Further, as I have already noted, the study of naturalism in America had from early on its own dominant narrative—often contested but until fairly recently holding firm—that privileged the study of white male authors who shared a particular fascination with male characters whose acts were profoundly conditioned by environment, heredity, biological drives, and chance and seemed subject to an injurious fatalism that precluded individual moral agency. While this narrative sometimes acknowledged the pull of things on male protagonists, it did not, on the whole, concern itself with the centrality of commodities or self-commodification to the blighted social contracts naturalism documents so forcefully, perhaps because even early theories of consumer culture engendered it as feminine. This critical narrative of what constitutes naturalism, like other types of compartmentalization, categorization, and evaluation characteristic of modern commodity culture, is thus constrained by the limitations inherent in its historical provenance, the number of artifacts available for investigation, and readers’ desire for definitude and closure, moral agency and individual autonomy, elements that June Howard, Lee Clark Mitchell, and other critics have argued are profoundly antithetical to the naturalist project as conceived by the writers who created “the period’s most characteristic texts” (Mitchell 121). Cultural study such as the investigation of commodity culture as it is transfused throughout naturalist texts requires, then, a great deal of work for which literary scholars have had insufficient training, resources, and compensation. Nevertheless, important work in this subfield of naturalism studies during the last thirty years has enhanced in significant ways our understanding of a continually growing body of texts deemed naturalist and why they mattered at the moment of their creation and why they continue to matter in this our postmodern, late capitalist, hypermaterialist global village.
(p. 300) Criticism of Naturalism as Commodity Culture Critique
The task of the critic investigating naturalism’s contiguity with commodity culture has been made immeasurably easier by the appearance of several works that provide a bedrock foundation on which to base superstructural analysis. I purposely introduce here first the terms of classical Marxism to indicate the importance of determinist philosophies such as those found in Capital and Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class to numerous early and even more recent readings of naturalism and commodity culture even as I acknowledge the sometimes reductive instrumentality of their formulations. Indeed, my dependence throughout on Marxist terminology and definitions should by no means suggest a defense of the overall Marxist worldview but merely an acknowledgment of the continued utility of the Marxist assessment of the rise of commodity culture and the terms it generated that enable thick description of social relations as they emerged in the early period of industrial capitalism. Michael Spindler’s American Literature and Social Change: William Dean Howells to Arthur Miller (1983), while it does not focus solely on naturalism, presents a basic reading of the shift from production-oriented culture as it is made evident in the works of Howells, Norris, Dreiser, and Sinclair to the consumption-oriented culture depicted in Dreiser’s late novels as well as in works by Fitzgerald, Lewis, Dos Passos, and Miller. His focus necessarily includes an overview of American economic change and consequent shifts in the social construction of power relations as seen through a rudimentary Marxist lens. Basic information about socioeconomic and historical influences on the development of American naturalism is readily available in such standard compendiums of essays as those edited by Donald Pizer, Robert Paul Lamb and G. R. Thompson, and Emory Elliott. Sarah Way Shulman’s “Mapping the Culture of Abundance: Literary Narratives and Consumer Culture” (2005) in the Lamb and Thompson volume offers, for example, like Spindler’s study, an overview of cultural shifts that play out in texts ranging from Walden to Dreiser’s novels and a most helpful bibliography of secondary sources; whereas the section “Becoming Cultured and Culture as Commodity” in The American 1890s (2000), edited by Susan Smith and Melanie Dawson, provides contemporary documents that address commodity culture. David Shi’s Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture, 1850–1920 (1995) also provides helpful general background on the period in which naturalism first appeared, including the emergence and effects of consumer culture on literary practices.
David Hawkes’s Ideology (2003), in turn, offers an important overview of the development of idealist, liberal, and materialist philosophies that are reflected in the naturalist texts themselves and that can inform a certain type of ideology critique of those texts. While my own analysis throughout has leaned heavily toward the early period of naturalist emergence, there is a direct link between the theories of Marx and Veblen to the theoretical formulations of Benjamin, Gramsci, Adorno, Debord, (p. 301) Baudrillard, and others in any continuing investigation of consumer culture, and many of the texts I will now cite borrow liberally from a variety of theoretical standpoints to make their case. James C. Davis, in his Commerce in Color: Race, Consumer Culture, and American Literature, 1893–1933 (2007), for instance, opens with a condensed summary of critical formulations most conducive to the study of consumer culture; similarly, Rachel Bowlby in her Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola (1985) focuses our attention on materialist theories of consumer culture that she then employs in her close readings of these three naturalists. Indeed, virtually every extended analysis of consumer culture as it is reproduced in naturalist texts offers some sort of theoretical glossary that models the concentrated knowledge work demanded of commodity culture critique.
For a similarly basic grounding in the history of commodity culture in America, one should turn to T. J. Jackson Lears’s No Place for Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (1994), Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (1982), and the essay collection edited by Lears and Richard Fox entitled The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880–1980 (1983). While the following sources do not address naturalism in particular, John Frow’s Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmodernity (1997) and the essay collection The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1986), edited by Arjun Appadurai, are most often cited as primary texts in the cultural study of the commodity. Most commodity culture critiques also mention The World of Goods (1996), by Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, particularly their argument that consumption operates outside social logic and constructs its own, a logic we see at work in the Chopin story referred to above, as well as at least a gesture toward the work of Marcel Mauss on gift exchange with which to contrast the effects on social relations of a shift to commodity exchange. And for further discussion of the “high-culture-low-culture pas de deux” between department stores and museums, see The Value of Things (2000), by Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska, as well as Michael Kimmelman’s “Art in Aisle 3, by Lingerie, And Feel Free to Browse” (1995).
Just as Marx’s work is considered crucial to any understanding of the nature of commodity capitalism, Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) is typically cited as the originary critique of American consumerism. Rarely is Veblen’s entire theoretical construct invoked, though it could be argued that his overarching theory of modern society’s reenactment of barbaric tribal traditions is literally demonstrated in certain naturalist texts. I think, for example, of the opening fight scene in Crane’s Maggie (1983) and the unchanging primitivism of Jimmie’s relation of self to others. Wharton similarly depicts modern New York society, in her case the upper class, as a meeting of the tribes, some more savage than others and therefore more successful in the struggle to survive and dominate. Whatever the degree of one’s investment in Veblen’s worldview, his concepts of conspicuous consumption and waste, pecuniary emulation, and leisure have proven utile for literary critics, and the application of these terms to literary texts has been particularly resonant for feminist scholars. As I noted before, and as other critics such as Rachel Bowlby have (p. 302) discussed at length, modern consumerism was engendered early on as female work, and Veblen’s text supports—perhaps provides the basis for—such an assertion. Feminist critics have certainly capitalized on that social construction, as have critics more generally concerned with the subjugation of women and the supposed hypermasculinity of naturalism. Ruth Bernard Yeazell’s “The Conspicuous Wasting of Lily Bart” (1992) is a classic example of such a critique as is Anne-Marie Evans’s analysis of conspicuous consumption in works by Wharton and Glasgow. Other critics have more broadly applied Veblenian concepts to literary critique. Claire Eby, for instance, reads instances of pecuniary emulation and invidious comparison in Dreiser’s work; Andrew Lawson investigates emulation in Crane’s fiction; Mario Varricchio focuses on conspicuous consumption and waste in Sinclair’s work; and, quite inventively, Myles Weber employs Veblenian principles to argue that Norris’s Vandover fails precisely because he is not barbaric enough to achieve admission into the savage leisure class.
A great deal of critical work on commodity culture and naturalism has depended on various materialist theories that expand upon straightforward Marxist and Veblenian protocols while always gesturing back to those seminal theories. For instance, analysis employing Bourdieu’s concepts of distinction, field, and capital, such as Carol J. Singley’s essay on Wharton’s work, clearly extends and complicates earlier theorization of the same by Veblen. Wai-chee Dimock’s immensely influential essay on The House of Mirth depends on the Marxist conceptualization of exchange and investment even as it refuses to be constrained by Marx’s prognostications concerning social relations. My own focus on the social fiction of Chopin and Wharton in Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton (1990), to a much lesser degree of influence than Dimock’s work, seeks to trace the economic narrative thread in their texts that one picks up almost too easily by finding and citing references to commodity exchange and moral bankruptcy.
New historicist analyses, in turn, offer a thick description of the ways in which the economic discourse of commodity fetishism is made to appear, is replicated in, and is then transmitted in literary texts, fiction by no means privileged over complementary contemporary legal, anthropological, and scientific texts but which serves merely as the ground from which the traces of economic discourse can be excavated and reconstituted. The most famous of these analyses is, without doubt, Walter Benn Michaels’s The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987), a most provocative elaboration of commodity fetishism as it appears in works by Crane, Dreiser, and, most intensely, Norris. New historicist analysis is particularly adept at revealing why things in naturalist (or realist) texts should matter to us rather than simply determining the instrumentality of the objects within the confines of the texts themselves. Bill Brown’s A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (2003) models such an approach to literary texts and provides thick description of commodity forms bordering on the archaeological, at times at the expense of the literary aspect of the critique.
Other approaches resembling archival anthropology have been played out through investigation of particular commodity forms in literary texts. A perfect example is Cristina Giorcello’s study of hats in works by Wharton, Chopin, and (p. 303) Dreiser—who wears them, what kind do they wear, and why—or Bill Brown’s research into the popular entertainment form of staged disasters as it obtains to Crane’s “The Open Boat” (“Interlude”). Similarly, Lori Merish demonstrates the centrality of commodity spectacle to naturalist texts, while Robert Dowling drills down to determine the particular popular spectacle forms that influenced Crane’s depiction of commodity culture in slum life. Other critical investigations into the use of urban culture forms within naturalism include Nancy Von Rosk’s work on the emergence of black consumer culture in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods and Kecia Driver McBride’s reading of the compulsion toward consumption emphasized in Ann Petry’s The Street; these essays along with Dowling’s were collected in my Twisted from the Ordinary: Essays on American Literary Naturalism (2003).
More general takes on commodity culture and naturalism include Lois Tyson’s reading of The House of Mirth that focuses on woman figured as commodity fetish and attempts to determine the cost of such an alienatory process to women and men alike; Sara Quay’s study of the effect of materialism upon character in McTeague; Robert Shulman’s study of the effects of the market on social relations in The House of Mirth; Joseph A. Ward’s work on the moral barrenness of the hotel as a commodified setting in James, Dreiser, and Wharton; and Philip Fisher’s lengthy study of the objectification of self in urban capitalism as it is figured in the American novel. Stanley Corkin directs our attention back to the importance of objects in self-construction in his analysis of Sister Carrie. And Edith Wharton’s fiction continues to be eminently amenable to examination through the lens of commodification and consumption; see, in particular, the essays collected in Gary Totten’s Memorial Boxes and Guarded Interiors: Edith Wharton and Material Culture (2007). The perceived centrality of commodity culture to naturalism has even served to renegotiate who belongs in the naturalist canon. Donna Campbell and Jennifer Fleissner have used the engendering of consumer culture, albeit in very different ways, to argue that beneath the hypermasculinity of naturalist texts there is always necessarily the story of a woman. And because of the centralization of commodity culture in the urbanscape and the centrality of commodity culture to naturalism, Seokwon Yang confidently argues for Howells’s nomination for a seat, if not precisely in that canon, then closer to it than where his reputation now rests.
The critical work cited above makes a strong case for reimagining naturalism’s inventiveness in the representation of social relations and conflict and its necessary attention to issues of race, gender, class, and sex. The body of critical work on naturalism is not comprised of competing narratives except insofar as they vie for our attention; rather, they serve as complementary documentation of the continued relevance of the value of studying the naturalism of the past and into the present. Excavation of the relationship between naturalism and commodity culture paradoxically frees the naturalist label from the moment of its determination and brings naturalism out of the historical record of the late nineteenth century and into our own time. Marx argued that as long as commodity fetishism obtained, then the mass of men—and women—would lead overdetermined lives of alienation and (p. 304) suffering. Our susceptibility to the allure of commodity culture deepens our vulnerability to the matrix of social forces that we neither understand nor control, the matrix of forces that we find so thoroughly documented in naturalism. We can only hope that an understanding of commodity culture’s appeal will allow us to loosen its grip on our imaginations. It behooves us, then, to reconsider from every possible angle these perversely dark, sadly plaintive, fantastically cynical scenarios of the human capacity for moral agency, however limited that might be, in contest with the enforced and continual overdetermination of the socialized self, in part effected through commodity fetishism, for which there will be no end in the multinational capitalist worldscape constructed out of glut, guts, and dreams.
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