Naturalism and the Visual Arts
Abstract and Keywords
This article focuses on the two ways in which the visual arts and naturalistic expression are interrelated during the 1890s and 1930s. The first stems from the immersion of both visual artists and writers in a similar social and artistic milieu, one which encouraged expression to take roughly parallel form and shape in both areas of expression. The second concerns a more specific act of borrowing from a visual form by a writer. It begins by discussing the impact of an 1890s school of New York urban realism in photography and the graphic arts on Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and the relationship of Stephen Crane's writing to photography and impressionism. It then examines the influence of 1930s documentary photography on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
By “naturalism” in my title, I mean American fiction of the 1890s and 1930s that was committed to the depiction of hardship, poverty, and other forms of deprivation and of the inability both of the individual and of society to overcome these conditions. By “visual arts,” I mean both the graphic arts of painting and various kinds of drawing and the more recently developed art of photography. I will devote my attention to two ways in which the visual arts and naturalistic expression are interrelated during the 1890s and 1930s. The first stems from the immersion of both visual artists and writers in a similar social and artistic milieu, one which encouraged expression to take roughly parallel form and shape in both areas of expression. The second concerns a more specific act of borrowing from a visual form by a writer. I will initially discuss the impact of a 1890s school of New York urban realism in photography and the graphic arts on Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) and the relationship of Stephen Crane’s writing to photography and impressionism. I will then examine the influence of 1930s documentary photography on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Almost all of these instances of a naturalist writer’s indebtedness to a visual art form confirm the truism that naturalists usually viewed themselves as playing a mediating role between social reality and need on the one hand and the reader on the other. There is a social condition—for example, the slums or migrant exploitation—and the naturalist writer seeking to represent it is almost inevitably drawn to parallel efforts by visual artists. The specific instances of this attraction in the three writers I examine, however, should also demonstrate that the truism is useful only as far as it goes, which is not very far at all in comparison to the richness and variability of the specific instance. Indeed, a realization of the full dimensions of these (p. 464) instances should cast far more light on each individual writer’s distinctive qualities of mind and art than that provided by the commonplace about a naturalist’s preference for visual arts with a social realism bias.
Ellen Moers once noted that Dreiser’s lengthy article “Curious Shifts of the Poor,” published in November 1899, can scarcely be separated from his “first contribution to the literature of realism, Sister Carrie” (57). Moers in part means by this remark that Dreiser’s extensive early career as a newspaper reporter, editor, and magazine writer from 1892 to 1899 had revealed little inclination toward the kind of subject matter present initially in “Curious Shifts” and shortly thereafter in Carrie, which he began writing in the fall of 1899. True, he had expressed a conventional kind of dismay over the condition of the working poor of New York in several of his Ev’ry Month editorials, but these accounts lacked any element of the pictorial—of the physical actuality of poverty and hardship. “Curious Shifts,” however, aside from a shift into Dreiser’s philosophical voice at its close, is very different. The article consists of four sketches describing in concrete detail the desperate efforts of New York’s down-and-out homeless to stay alive during the depths of a hard winter. The sketches are laced with tropes of coldness—of snow and freezing temperatures—and of men standing in line as they seek out the meager charities available to them. In this effort, the poor are herded as groups but are in isolation from each other, and every haven from the weather and starvation is clearly a temporary one. Dreiser was to use large sections of the article verbatim in the closing chapters of Sister Carrie, but, as I will point out, his entire account of the final phase of Hurstwood’s life is permeated with both its material actuality and emotional ethos.
How did Dreiser, with little or no prior indication of an interest in or an ability for this kind of urban pictorial realism, “suddenly” (it would seem) blossom into “Curious Shifts”? For an answer to this question, it is necessary to turn to two significant developments in the New York art world during the 1890s, both stressing the art-worthiness of the New York scene, that impinged on Dreiser’s consciousness in the closing years of the decade.1 The first, chronologically speaking, was the photography of Alfred Stieglitz, the second the sketches and painting of the group of artists who came to be known as the Ash Can School.2
Stieglitz had from the early 1890s pioneered through his own work and that exhibited by the Camera Club, a photography cooperative led by him, a new kind of urban photography, one which ignored the conventional subjects of the grandiose and picturesque for commonplace scenes of New York life. There was nothing “candid” about his shots of either people or scenes; many were studies in composition (p. 465) and also frequently suggested the “poetic” in their manipulation of light and focus. But they were nevertheless striking efforts to render quotidian New York as worthy of artistic representation. Stieglitz’s work was increasingly known throughout the decade after he achieved a notable success in 1893 when he exhibited “Winter on Fifth Avenue,” no doubt the best-known photograph of this phase of his career (figure 27.1). Dreiser published three articles between June 1899 and May 1902 about either Stieglitz or the Camera Club.3 Although these are conventional pieces of popular journalism and offer little insight into Dreiser’s personal response to Stieglitz’s work, his article of October 1899 does contain a notable admiring brief comment on “Winter on Fifth Avenue.” “The driving sleet,” Dreiser wrote, “and the uncomfortable atmosphere issued out of the picture with uncomfortable persuasion” (“Camera Club” 85)
Although many commentators on this phase of Dreiser’s career claim that Stieglitz’s New York scenes played a major role in the emergence of the urban realism of Sister Carrie, the more likely scenario is that his work served as a precursor for the more significant and extended role of the later-to-appear Ash Can figures and especially of Everett Shinn. Most of the Eight (another term for the Ash Can School) were Philadelphia-bred and trained newspaper illustrators who (p. 466) migrated to New York toward the end of the decade, where they drifted first into magazine illustrating and then full-fledged independent art careers. The figures included Shinn, John Sloan, George Luks, George Bellows, and William Glackens. Dreiser came to know Shinn, Luks, and Glackens, but it was Shinn who played the major role in his thinking about urban realism. Even before Shinn’s appearance in New York in 1898, however, Dreiser had been exposed to the principal thrust of the Ash Can School by his acquaintance during the mid-1890s, when he was editing Ev’ry Month, with the artist W. L. Sonntag, Jr. Sonntag, who died of illness while reporting the Spanish-American War, was memorialized by Dreiser in an 1901 article called “The Color of To-Day.” He recalled Sonntag showing him Greeley Square at night, a scene alive with crowds and lights, and Sonntag exclaiming, “It’s a great spectacle! … It’s got more flesh and blood in it than people usually think” (“Color” 277). “Spectacle” and “flesh and blood” and Dreiser’s own “color of to-day”4 are the key terms connecting Sonntag’s beliefs and the ideas and practice of the Ash Can School. New York, from posh upper Fifth Avenue to the slums of the lower East Side, was a great spectacle, full of vibrant life of every kind. It is sometimes believed that the artists holding this belief concentrated on the poor and downtrodden, as is suggested by the term Ash Can School as a designation for the group. But in fact, their work ranged over the full face of New York life, from immigrants to the wealthy and from popular entertainments to street accidents, though they tended in all their efforts toward depicting groups of people in vibrant interaction. The point was to communicate the “color”—the variety and richness—of urban life whatever its social level or its lack of a traditional role in art representation.
Dreiser probably came to know Shinn in 1898, when both he and Shinn were contributing regularly to Ainslee’s—Dreiser poems and articles, Shinn covers. (The link between them may well have been Dreiser’s close friend Richard Duffy, who was then an editor at Ainslee’s). Shinn’s first one-man show occurred during February and March 1900 when he exhibited forty-four pastels of New York scenes at the Boussod-Valadon Galleries (Wong 37–38). A New York Times reviewer described the exhibition as consisting of “pastel colored drawings, for the most part scenes on Union and Madison Squares and Fifth Avenue on the afternoons and early evenings of Winter snowstorms …” (“Week”). Shinn’s “Fifth Avenue Coach, Winter” (1899) was among these pastels referred to by the reviewer (Deshazo 39), and there is considerable evidence from Dreiser’s The “Genius” that he saw the drawing at that time or perhaps even earlier when Shinn was preparing his work for the exhibition. Indeed, Shinn recalled much later in life that he immediately recognized, on reading The “Genius” (1915), that Dreiser’s description of Eugene Witla’s first New York show contained descriptions of many of the pastels he had exhibited in February 1900 (Kwiat, “Dreiser’s The ‘Genius’” 17).
Dreiser’s use of Shinn as a model for Witla’s career in The “Genius” is probably the best evidence of the significance of Shinn’s work in his own writing. (Witla, it should be clear, is based on Shinn only insofar as Witla’s work as an (p. 467) artist is concerned; the account of Witla’s personal experience in the novel stems from Dreiser’s own life.) Witla arrives in New York having worked as an illustrator but still unformed as an artist. He is soon drawn, however, to the vitality and richness of the New York world all around him and attempts to communicate these qualities in his work, concentrating during this early phase on industrial cityscapes and lower-class street life. Among his various paintings of this period, two stand out in their connection both to Shinn and Dreiser. The bread line at Fleischmann’s Vienna Style Café is one of Witla’s subjects (232). Shinn himself did a notable pastel of this well-known New York institution, also in 1899, and Dreiser devotes one of the sketches in “Curious Shifts” to its depiction.5 And Shinn’s pastel of “Fifth Avenue Coach, Winter” (figure 27.2) is described in detail by M. Charles, the director of the gallery where Witla is having his first show. He is “struck by the force” of the “team of lean, unkempt, bony horses.”
Most of M. Charles’s account is clearly related to Shinn’s pastel, which, as I have noted, was one of the New York winter scenes shown at his February 1900 (p. 468) exhibition. The large vehicle dominating the drawing is a coach (the opening letters of the coach-line’s name, METRO, can be made out on its side), and the matching lines of snow on the coach window and on the pedestrian’s bowler that Charles admired are also evident. But another element in the painting admired by Charles—the emptiness of the street compared to its usual bustle—is perhaps better communicated by the wider focus of the Stiegliz photograph. In brief, Dreiser may well have blended aspects of the scene as portrayed by Stieglitz and Shinn into his own conception of how a pictorial work devoted to the scene might best serve his needs. Thus, when writing his account of Witla’s painting more than a decade after viewing Stieglitz’s photograph and Shinn’s pastel, Dreiser was describing in 1912 his later realization that work of this kind constituted the best tendencies both in the turn-of-the-century New York art scene and his own emerging realistic aesthetic of the late 1890s.6
He liked the delineation of swirling, wind-driven snow. The emptiness of this thoroughfare, usually so crowded, the buttoned, huddled, hunched, withdrawn look of those who traveled it, the exceptional details of piles of snow sifted on to window sills and ledges and into doorways and on to the windows of the bus itself, attracted his attention.
“An effective detail,” he said to Eugene, as one critic might say to another, pointing to a line of white snow on the window of one side of the bus. Another dash of snow on a man’s hat rim took his eye also. “I can feel the wind,” he added. (227–28)
I am drawn to this interpretation both because it suggests how Dreiser, and how indeed most authors, are influenced—not by exact copying of a single source but by a variety of sources feeding into a depiction—and because it says something of value about the portrayal of Hurstwood’s New York decline in Sister Carrie. As several commentators have noted, whenever Dreiser shifts during the closing portion of the novel from accounts of Carrie’s rise to fame and fortune to Hurstwood’s drift toward complete physical and psychological collapse, the weather also shifts from spring or summer to winter. (An exception is our final glimpse of Carrie.) The Hurstwood depicted at this point in the novel is an approximation in prose narrative of the scenes portrayed by Stieglitz and Shinn, and especially by Shinn. Hurstwood is in a sense the man with the bowler in the Shinn pastel: alone, insufficiently dressed, struggling to make his way in the snow against a strong wind while the business of the city goes on around him. I of course do not mean a literal relationship between the two, but rather one of suggestive implications in the pictured scenes of how the writer might depict in his own fictional portrayal the often-losing struggle to stay alive in the inhospitable environment of a great metropolis in the midst of a winter storm. Stieglitz’s and Shinn’s winter scenes are therefore reflected in specific passages describing New York in a snowstorm during Hurstwood’s final days in the city, as in the paragraph in chapter 47, which begins:
The composite scene rendered by Stieglitz and Shinn also constitutes what can be considered the backdrop setting of the stage on which is played out the entire sequence of Hurstwood’s decline in the period after he and Carrie part.
It was truly a wintry evening…. Already, at four o’clock, the sombre hue of night was thickening the air. A heavy snow was falling—a fine picking, whipping snow, borne forward by a swift wind in long, thin lines. The streets were bedded with it—six inches of cold, soft carpet, churned to a dirty brown by the crush of teams and the feet of men. Along Broadway men picked their way in ulsters and umbrellas. Along the Bowery, men slouched through it with collars and hats pulled over their ears. (348)
(p. 469) Stephen Crane
Although both Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser responded to 1890s developments in photography and the graphic arts, the difference in the ways they did so illustrates the great variety in the kinds of impact that visual art can make upon written expression. Dreiser often seized upon specific aspects of specific art works for inspiration, and it is thus possible, as I have attempted to do, to trace suggestive connections between particular photographs and drawings and particular moments in his fiction. Crane’s relationship to the visual arts, however, remains—despite valiant efforts over the years by both art and literary historians—amorphous and fuzzy. There is little doubt that there are links between his fiction and contemporary visual art and that it is critically profitable to explore them, but it is also necessary to acknowledge that it is difficult if not impossible to tie down with any certainty their precise nature.
I will discuss two aspects of the relationship of Crane’s work to the visual arts of his time: the connection between Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and Jacob Riis’s photographs of the slums in his How the Other Half Lives (1890), and the relationship between The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and impressionism in painting. These are not the only ways of discussing Crane and the visual arts. There has been interest, for example, in the possible impact of Thomas Brady’s Civil War photographs on the Red Badge as well as in the relationship between Crane’s fiction and later schools of pictorial surrealism and expressionism. But the two aspects of Crane’s connection with visual expression that I will be taking up have the advantage of engaging us both in central aspects of his fictional themes and method and in major art movements of his own time.
Riis’s How the Other Half Lives was widely discussed on its appearance as a pioneering exposé of New York slum conditions.7 It continues today to receive much attention, especially as one of the first American works to exploit the possibilities of photojournalism and because of Riis’s problematical ethnic and racial beliefs. Riis’s distinction was that he not only engaged in a great deal of first-hand investigation of almost every aspect of slum life—from horrendous housing and sweatshop conditions to the neglect of the young, elderly, and sick—but that he also did so with camera in hand and thus recorded both verbally and visually what he had found. He was aided in this breakthrough by developments in the mechanics of taking and reproducing photographs. The Eastman Kodak Company had recently produced a small camera which, since it was hand (rather than tripod) held and functioned with dry rather than wet plates, could easily be transported to almost any site. (Indeed, it was often informally given the name “detective camera.”) Most important for Riis’s purpose, a magnesium flash device had also recently been developed as a means of taking photographs in semidarkness—that is, in the light available in most dwellings, workplaces, and similar enclosed settings. Along with these striking developments in facilitating the taking of photographs without the elaborate (p. 470) preparations and cumbersome equipment previously required, the half-tone process for reproducing photographs in print mediums had been sufficiently advanced to make possible the ready and cheap duplication of photographic images in newspapers, magazines, and books.
There is little doubt that Crane knew of Riis’s book before undertaking Maggie, given its notoriety and Crane’s realization that he and Riis was engaged in similar enterprises. In addition, he attended one of Riis’s lantern slide lectures on the slums during early July 1892. Crane was working that summer on the Jersey shore as a stringer for the New York Tribune and wrote a brief account of the occasion for the Tribune in which he commented on the nature of Riis’s lecture (Stallman 49; Crane, “Summer Dwellers” 514–15).8
Writing about New York slum life before How the Other Half Lives tended toward either the sentimental and picturesque (slum types and conditions as a form of local color) or the moralistic (the fallen creatures of the slums require salvation). Riis, however, a former newspaper police reporter, sought to render the authentic in slum conditions—what it was like to live and die in that world—and he marshaled as irrefutable evidence of the realities of the slum his own first-hand explorations, a large body of statistics, and visual reproduction of specific slum scenes. Roughly speaking, Crane was also attempting in Maggie to go beyond the usual conventions in the representation of the slum and to render truthfully its life, though his method—unlike Riis’s—also included an ironic inversion of those conventions within the plot and themes of Maggie. The extent of Crane’s slum “fieldwork” during his visits to New York in the early 1890s before undertaking the novel is not known. But it is known that somewhat later in his career, in 1894 when writing for New York newspapers, Crane appears to have modeled himself closely on Riis’s practice. In such sketches as his “An Experiment in Misery,” he consciously adopts, as did Riis, the role of an outsider who ventures into the often-ignored depths of slum life to record accurately its conditions.
Running through all of Riis’s close study of slum conditions is the thesis that those living in these conditions are its victims, that individual volition plays very little role in their fate. “To a certain extent,” Riis states flatly toward the close of How the Other Half Lives, “we are all creatures of the conditions that surround us, physically and morally” (265). Although Riis does not study slum prostitution at length—the subject of prostitution was still largely unacceptable in books intended for the general public—his occasional references to its widespread prevalence in the slums strongly echo Crane’s treatment of Maggie, a girl who “blossomed in a mud-pile” morally pure, works in a sweat shop, is seduced and then abandoned by a lover who initially appears to offer her a better life, becomes a prostitute, and dies a suicide in the East River. Thus, as one of the “unfathomable mysteries of life,” Riis offers the evidence that “it is not an uncommon thing to find [in the slums] sweet and innocent girls, singularly untouched by the evil around them …” (161). But for most young women bred in the slum, Riis writes at a later point, the daily grind of sweatshop labor followed by a tenement existence almost guarantees their acceptance of prostitution as an alternative life: (p. 471)
Indeed, Crane stated in several inscriptions to Maggie a conception of the novel’s subject matter and theme similar to Riis’s belief that it is the specifics of a slum environment that cause its initially “pure” young girls to turn to prostitution. The novel, he wrote,
To [the tenement after a day’s labor] come the young with their restless yearnings, perhaps to pass on the threshold one of the daughters of sin, driven to the tenement by police when they raided her den, sallying forth in silks and fine attire after her day of idleness. These in their coarse garments—girls with the love of youth for beautiful things, with this hard life before them—who shall save them from the tempter? (164)
tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless. If one proves that theory, one makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls (notably an occasional street girl) who are not confidently expected to be there by many excellent people. (Crane, Correspondence 1: 53)
However, despite these similarities in method and theme, anyone turning to the photographs of How the Other Half Lives expecting to find there scenes resembling those depicted in Maggie will be disappointed.9 First of all, there are not that many photographs. Of the book’s forty-three illustrations, just sixteen are half-tone photographs. The remainder are conventional drawings. And since the half-tone process was still in its infancy, the photographs themselves, in the 1890 edition, are not clear and sharp. Finally, few come close to rendering specific moments of the novel. Perhaps the ones that come nearest are shots of small street boys (“Didn’t Live Nowhere”) and of a group of youths consuming a large can of beer (“A Growler Gang in Session”). Both pertain to the street gangs that Jimmie belongs to, the first as a boy, the second as a youth. But neither photograph reflects anything specific in the portrayal of any character or scene in the novel.
What, then, is the connection between Riis’s photographs of New York slum conditions in How the Other Half Lives and Crane’s depiction of similar circumstances in Maggie? I suggest that the photographs played the same role in Crane’s thinking about the slums that Riis wished them to play in the minds of all his readers. The photographs, amateurish by most standards and crudely reproduced in the form that Crane saw them, nevertheless catch the eye and the imagination. Yes, we instinctively feel, these are flesh and blood people—not statistical enumerations or verbal accounts—and these are the miserable conditions they live in, the crowded and filthy tenements, dark alleyways, airless sweatshops, and noxious dives. Each face looking out at us is thus a story to be told of a body wasted and hope blighted, of a life going nowhere but downward. Crane had a number of sources other than How the Other Half Lives for the subject matter of Maggie, and the novel of course also contains his own distinctive mix of irony and striking metaphor. But he appears to have found in Riis’s ideas about the slum as social reality and in the photographs enforcing the validity of these ideas a vivifying catalyst in his effort to bring to life his own vision of how the other half lives.
(p. 472) There has been a great deal written about Crane and impressionism, including James Nagel’s excellent 1980 study Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism as well as several first-rate essays by other critics. The notion that Crane’s style owes something to the impressionistic movement in painting has been present in Crane criticism from its onset, since there is a great deal of evidence in his career to suggest the validity of the idea. By the 1890s, French impressionism was having a major impact upon American artists, and Crane spent much of his time in New York during the early 1890s living and associating with young artists. In addition, Hamlin Garland, his literary mentor during that time, was a staunch proponent of impressionism in painting, and indeed in 1894 was to publish—in the chapter “Impressionism” in his Crumbling Idols—one of the first extended explanations and defenses of the movement to appear in America. Finally, Crane’s extraordinary color sense—color both as metaphor and as literal rendering—appears to suggest a direct link between his work and an art movement which revolutionized painting by emphasizing color as the principal vehicle of pictorial representation.
Yet, as I suggested earlier, the impact of impressionism upon Crane is still unclear. The difficulty in coming to grips with the subject lies in the fact that the relationship is one posited on a transference of ideas relating to how paint is applied to canvas to ideas about how words shape a narrative. Dreiser and Crane (in Maggie) in their response to pictorial representations of New York snowstorms and slums were undoubtedly drawn to these visual representation by their subject matter; they were engaged in writing about snowstorms and the slums, and the pictorial depiction of these scenes appears to have stimulated a greater realization of the possibilities for depiction of similar scenes in their own work. This kind of postulation can not be offered for Crane and impressionism, since there is little reflection of conventional impressionistic themes in his writing. Rather, it is argued, it was the way the impressionists painted—not their subject matter—that stimulated him to seek an approximation of that painterly style in his own prose and narrative styles.
This critical attempt to describe Crane’s impressionism has produced a great deal of absorbing and often valuable commentary. Such aspects of Crane’s style as his seeking to render the flux of a scene—its basic instability rather than its static condition—and his complementary effort to suggest the immense difficulties inherent in attempting to know what is occurring in experience—these and several other important areas of Crane’s fictional center have been traced to similar concerns of impressionist painters.10 But in the end, these comparisons are just that. They may indeed usefully help explain Crane’s concerns as a writer by relating them to similar concerns by artists working with paint and canvas, but they do not explain the specific source of these ideas—what painter, what art works?—and thus leave the door open for the possibilities that Crane either derived these notions from other sources or that they were in large part sui generis.
Nevertheless, I believe that there is one aspect of Crane’s putative debt to impressionism that is both traceable to a specific source and powerfully exemplified in a major work—that is, the way Crane uses Henry Fleming as a center of (p. 473) consciousness in The Red Badge of Courage. Let me begin with the issue of how Crane himself conceived of impressionism, since an understanding of this matter will provide a way into his possible use of an impressionistic method.
Many writers about Crane and impressionism have quoted the passage in his late work “War Memories” in which he mentions “French impressionists,” since it is one of the few instances in which a specific awareness of impressionism appears in his writing. The passage requires quoting at length, because if one cites merely the phrase in which “French Impressionists” occurs (as is usually the case), its full meaning is obscured. Crane is recalling a scene during the Spanish-American War when he encountered a village church that had been transformed into a hospital for the Spanish wounded.
The passage richly suggests not only the special meaning that “impressionism” held for Crane but also the heart of his own fictional method. First, it is clear that Crane in this passage is not thinking of impressionism as a subject matter but as a technique. The technique itself consists of two components—an initial act of visual perception and a complementary act of mental realization of the implications of the perception. In this instance, these resolve themselves into the narrator’s perception of the wounded man on the altar-table and then his realization that this image can be related to the archetypal image of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The crucial aspect of this interaction between a perception of a visual image and the realization of its meaning is that the two are in ironic interplay. The church as a Christian sanctuary and place of worship is in ruins; what remains has been transformed into a hospital to save those injured in warfare; and thus the visual perception and its intellectual conception interplay to produce an ironic commentary on the present status of the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice.
The interior of the church was too cavelike in its gloom for the eyes of the operating surgeons, so they had the altar-table carried to the doorway, where there was a bright light. Framed then in the black archway was the altar-table with the figure of a man upon it. He was naked save for a breech-clout, and so close, so clear was the ecclesiastic suggestion, that one’s mind leaped to a fantasy that this thin pale figure had just been torn down from a cross. The flash of the impression was like light, and for this instant it illumined all the dark recesses of one’s remotest idea of sacrifice, ghastly and wanton. I bring this to you merely as an effect—an effect of mental light and shade, if you like; something done in thought similar to that which the French impressionists do in color; something meaningless and at the same time overwhelming, crushing, monstrous. (“War Memories” 254)
This particular example of Crane’s ironic use of Christ’s sacrifice is of course not unique. One recalls especially Jim Conklin’s death in the Red Badge as a parallel instance. But the point I am making here is not that this form of irony is a common theme in Crane’s work but that its method of interlacing a striking visual moment with its ironic implication is central to Crane’s literary imagination, and that he here attaches this method to that of the French impressionists. It should also be noted that there is nothing in French impressionist painting which resembles what Crane (p. 474) seeks to render in this account. Not only did the impressionists avoid this kind of sensationalist subject matter, since it harkens back to what they considered the excesses of a previous generation of painters—to Géricault, for example—but their work usually also lacks the ironic dimension central to Crane’s depiction.
So the first question to be tackled in dealing with Crane’s idiosyncratic notion of impressionism is: what is its source? A possible answer to this question lies in his relationship to Hamlin Garland, a writer to whom Crane noted an intellectual debt on several occasions.11 The best source of Garland’s ideas on impressionism in the visual arts is the chapter in Crumbling Idols that I previously noted, a chapter based on a lecture that Garland prepared in response to having seen a number of impressionistic paintings during the summer of 1893 at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.12 Crane and Garland, it will be recalled, saw a good deal of each other in New York during 1893 and 1894.
Garland in his account of impressionism identifies its major characteristic as the artist rendering a specific scene from life as it appears to him at a specific moment. But he is also at pains to place impressionism within his more inclusive category of “veritism,” his coined term for an art that commits all artists, whatever their medium, to the ideal of fidelity both to nature and to themselves. Thus, impressionists are not “delineating a scene; they are painting a personal impression of a scene, which is vastly different” (133). As he also argued elsewhere in Crumbling Idols, “Impressionism, in its deeper sense, means the statement of one’s own individual impression of life and nature, guided by devotion to truth” (50). This notion, I would argue, is very close to Crane’s explanation at the close of the passage from “War Memories” that I have quoted. Since literary expression functions in time rather than space, Crane first presents us with the “flash of the impression” of the scene (the wounded man on the altar-table), which is then followed by what it “illumined” (the Christ parallel), the two combining for “an effect of mental light and shade” (that is, the prose equivalent of paint on a canvas). Of course, Garland himself did not conceive of his veritistic or impressionistic formula as a means toward the kind of irony which Crane exploits within the seemingly neutral idea of “effect.” But given Crane’s inherent inclination to adopt an ironic stance in interpreting all experience, his introduction of an ironic dimension into Garland’s conception of impressionism was an almost inevitable step.
The second question to be faced is: how does this idiosyncratic idea of impressionism, one which in Garland’s version stresses personal vision and which in Crane’s version extends the personal in an ironic direction, find expression in the Red Badge? The answer lies in Crane’s deployment of Henry Fleming, the novel’s protagonist, as its center of consciousness. Within this role, Henry has an impressionistic eye for the scene before him and is especially brilliant in recording on his consciousness the vibrant variations in movement and color that characterize a battlefield. But also embedded in his visual record are his thoughts and feelings about the scene before him and above all about his role in each central event of the two days of combat as the battle unfolds. And often, especially at moments either of crisis or of self-evaluation, there is clearly an ironic disconnect between the actuality (p. 475) of the moment and Henry’s conception of it. The irony present in the scene from “War Memories” that I have quoted arises from the narrator’s perception of the disparity between ancient and contemporary versions of Christ’s sacrifice, while that in the Red Badge stems from Henry’s failure to realize the frequent disparity between what he sees and records and what he thinks or feels. But both devices are similar in that they render a distinction between the raw actuality of a scene and its interpretation. Crane, while relying on Garland’s basic formulation, has also realized the ironic possibilities inherent in a perverse subjectivism. To Garland, there was no apparent problem in rendering an “individual impression” of a scene while being “guided by a devotion to truth.” To Crane, on the other hand, and especially in the Red Badge, in the instance of a soldier beset by demons of self-doubt, the two goals are irreconcilable, and Crane’s dramatic rendering of this truth is one way to describe both the method and the theme of the novel. Henry seeks to be true both to his impressions of the scene before him and to his role in it, but he lacks both the maturity and the insight into his own motives to achieve this goal. Crane may have believed that he was using an impressionistic technique in his fiction, but he also appears to have had grave doubts about the efforts by most men to rely on their understanding of the world around them.
The relationship between John Steinbeck’s 1930s fiction and the documentary photography of the period—and, more particularly, between The Grapes of Wrath and the work of Dorothea Lange—is of great interest not only in its own right but because one of its most significant elements also characterizes a central aspect of 1930s American naturalistic fiction in general. To be an artist, it was widely accepted during this period of social upheaval, was to document the social conditions of one’s own time. The most blatant version of this belief was the Soviet Union’s doctrine of socialist realism, in which the state actively suppressed all art that did not aid in achieving its political goals. Few 1930s American writers of importance shared this view, but few also failed to respond positively to the premise that it was a function of the writer to document objectively the deplorable conditions prevalent in many areas of American life. The inherent paradox in this premise was the tension between the ideal of documentary objectivity and the very nature of art, especially art produced during a period when art sought above all to affect belief and thus action. And nowhere was this tension played out more clearly than in the relationship between the seeming objectivity of the photograph and the social and political leanings that both a photographer and a writer relying upon photographic images can express through these images.
Although both Lange and Steinbeck lived and worked in the San Francisco area during the late 1930s, and indeed though both were also deeply troubled by the (p. 476) condition of migrant farmers in California’s agricultural industry from the mid-1930s onwards, they did not in fact meet until after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath in early 1939. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that Steinbeck viewed significant examples of Lange’s extensive efforts to document in photographs the dire circumstances of California’s migrant farm population, and that his knowledge of her work enters into his portrayal of similar conditions in The Grapes of Wrath.13 Migrants from western prairie farms began to arrive in California in early 1935, driven out of their homes by drought, dust storms, and mechanized farming (“tractored over” was the common phase). Their presence in large numbers and their powerlessness made them vulnerable to exploitation, and their conditions in the shanty and tent camps that sprang up throughout the agricultural heartland of California quickly became deplorable. In the summer of 1936, Steinbeck was asked by the San Francisco News to write a series of articles about the migrants, and the seven articles he prepared appeared in October. He was sufficiently stimulated by his first-hand study of the migrant problem to plan and begin work on a novel dealing with the phenomenon, but the project stalled. In the late summer of 1937, however, he determined to return to it. After additional first-hand research that fall and winter, he began writing The Grapes of Wrath in May 1938 and completed it in October of that year (Parini 192, 200–2).
Lange, who had begun her career in photography as a portraitist, became absorbed in the documentation of the consequences of the Depression, and by the early 1930s had already done major work in this area, including her well-known “White Angel Bread Line” of 1933 (Meltzer). She began photographing migrant conditions in early 1935, working with Paul Taylor, a Berkeley economics professor. For several years, beginning in mid-1935, their efforts were sponsored by the Resettlement Administration, headed by Paul Stryker, which in 1937 became the Farm Security Agency. Stryker’s announced goal was to influence social policy by the documentation of social misery, and to this end he enlisted a notable group of photographers, which included not only Lange but also such figures as Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, and Arthur Rothstein (Hurley; Wilkinson). During this period, Lange’s photographs appeared in two significant publications. In early 1938, Archibald MacLeish published his book-length poem about the effects of the Depression on American farm life, Land of the Free, which contained eighty-eight photographs, thirty-three of which are by Lange. And in 1939, Lange and Taylor published An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, a volume consisting of Lange’s photographs and Taylor’s captions and introductory passages.
Although An American Exodus appeared too late for Steinbeck to examine it before he began writing The Grapes of Wrath, he had several other opportunities to study Lange’s migrant photographs while preparing and writing the novel. It is known that he consulted the Farm Security Administration’s extensive collection of photographs in mid-1937 not long after he and his wife returned to the United States from a European holiday. Since he had decided to turn once again to a novel about California migrants, he stopped off in Washington on his way west after his European trip to get advice and aid from the Farm Security Administration on his plan (p. 477) to visit the government-run camps that were now helping California’s migrant farm labor. Taking advantage of the occasion, he also took several days to view the agency’s file of photographs, a file later deposited in the Library of Congress (Kehl 2; Hurley 140). In addition, during the summer of 1938, as he was engaged in writing The Grapes of Wrath, his earlier newspaper articles of mid-1936 were collected in a pamphlet, “Their Blood Is Strong,” which contains a number of Lange’s photographs. Finally, he may well have even examined Land of the Free, since it appeared in April 1938, just before he began writing The Grapes of Wrath. In the discussion which follows, I will focus on Lange’s untitled cover photograph for the “Their Blood Is Strong” (figure 27.3), since it offers a specific and resonant example of the possible ways in which Steinbeck was influenced by Lange’s work as he wrote the novel.
Lange’s photographs of the “American Exodus” occupy niches in what constitutes a full narrative of the 1930s migration westward of prairie farmers preserved in the photographs of the event commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (Ohrn). Each stage in the migration has its repetitive iconic images—the tractored-over land, now emptied of farm houses; the displaced farmers sitting idly on their haunches in prairie towns; the jalopies transformed into overburdened trucks; the makeshift camps of tents and shanties—that render both the story of these displaced farm families and the meaning of that story. The story is that of a western migration that reverses the expectations of the myth. Seeking a better life in the west, the migrants find only hardship and misery. The photographs not only document the (p. 478) stages in this ironic reversal but also interpret it. The farm families are almost always white and from the older strains of the American settlement. Their bodies give evidence of lives of hard labor, but they have little to show for their efforts and will soon be reduced to having nothing. Yet—and this is an important “yet” for Lange’s photographs—they have not given up all hope. There is some ineluctable source of inner strength that they continue to draw upon and that will see them through. As Robert Coles noted, Lange’s migrant photographs “attest to a vitality, a perseverance, a willfulness of purpose” (177). This quality of mind and spirit, however, needs nurturing, and it is the California government camps that complete the narrative in that they offer some hope of recovery and perhaps eventual renewal.
This is of course also Steinbeck’s narrative and theme in The Grapes of Wrath, and it is thus not surprising that scholars have identified specific Lange photographs with specific portraits and scenes in the novel.14 The photograph I will discuss, that of a nursing mother and child on the cover of “Their Blood Is Strong,” is not the only such Lange image. Her 1936 “Migrant Mother,” perhaps her most famous photograph other than “White Angel Bread Line,” though similar in subject matter to the pamphlet cover, also differs significantly. Its mother is considerably older and more worn than the woman depicted on the cover, and there is less of what can be identified as an enduring will in her countenance. She appears to be merely suffering. Both shots seem to be unposed photographs of opportunity—we are viewing a bit of actuality caught on the run, as most actuality is encountered. But in fact here and elsewhere Lange was guided by a series of selective devices that comprise a powerful interpretive tool. Most prominent of these was the choice of a nursing mother in miserable surroundings as the subject of the portrait, a subject loaded with deep and powerful religious and natural allusive strains. We as a nation, photographs of this kind say, have travestied the fecundity we celebrate as a nation when we allow it to occur within settings of this kind.15 In addition, Lange almost always took a series of photographs of a particular scene (as she did for both “Migrant Mother” and the cover photograph), and then selected one for distribution that best suited her purpose. And finally, she cropped a great many of her photographs as a form of editorial emphasis. So, for example, the cover photograph is one of a series of the same nursing mother, a series that reveals that a man is lying next to her. Lange, however, has cropped that portion of the photograph for the cover (one can now only see the man’s feet to the right of the shot) in order to make the woman and child central to the image.16
The principal image of a nursing mother in The Grapes of Wrath occurs in the final scene of the novel. A flood of Biblical proportions has enveloped the remnants of the Joad family just as Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn child. The family takes refuge in a barn, where a man lies dying of starvation. Encouraged by her mother, the stalwart Ma Joad, Rose agrees to nurse the stranger, and the novel ends with her doing so. Rose and Ma Joad have had the instinctive wisdom and strength to realize the transcendent virtue of preserving life by whatever form this act requires, a realization that crystallizes our recognition both of what they are and of what we owe them. Just as the Lange cover photograph encapsulated the central thrust of what Steinbeck had to say about the migrant experience in the reportage (p. 479) of a pamphlet entitled “Their Blood Is Strong,” so it seems to have served a similar role in informing the fictional portrayal of a migrant mother in the final scene of The Grapes of Wrath.
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(1) . There has been considerable discussion about the possible influence of Stephen Crane’s 1894 sketch “The Men in the Storm” on Dreiser’s depiction in “Curious Shifts of the Poor” of a similar scene involving men waiting in a snowstorm to be admitted to a lodging house (see, for example, Moers 60–68). I do not myself take up this possibility since my emphasis here is on the relationship of “Curious Shifts” and Carrie to visual expression.
(2) . For Dreiser and Stieglitz, see Greenough and Hamilton; Haines; Moers; Rabb; and Shloss. For Dreiser and the Ash Can School, see Kwiat (“Dreiser and the Graphic Artist” and “Dreiser’s The ‘Genius’”); Moers; and Zurier (Metropolitan Lives and Picturing the City).
(3) . See Dreiser’s “A Master of Photography,” “The Camera Club of New York,” and “A Remarkable Art: Alfred Stieglitz.”
(4) . Dreiser was later to publish his own collection of New York sketches under the title The Color of a Great City (1923).
(5) . See Pizer, “The Bread Line,” which also contains a reproduction of the drawing.
(6) . It may be helpful to summarize the chronology that I have posited for the relationship of Stieglitz’s and Shinn’s New York work to Sister Carrie:
(•) Stieglitz exhibits his New York–based photographs in the mid-1890s; Dreiser’s first article on Stieglitz appears in June 1899. Dreiser comments on Stieglitz’s “Winter on Fifth Avenue” in an article published in October 1899.
(•) Shinn and Dreiser meet in 1898. Most of Shinn’s New York street-scene pastels are dated 1899 by him and are probably based on winter scenes of early 1899. Dreiser’s “Curious Shifts of the Poor,” which is published in November 1899, was written in the spring or summer of 1899 and is thus no doubt also based on winter scenes of early 1899. Both Shinn’s work of this period and “Curious Shifts of the Poor” include sketches of Fleischmann’s bread line. Shinn’s show at the Boussod-Valadon Galleries opens in late February 1900.
(•) Dreiser begins writing Sister Carrie in September 1899, but having stopped work on the novel several times, does not reach the portion devoted to Carrie and Hurstwood in New York until February 1900. He includes in this portion of the novel almost all of “Curious Shifts of the Poor.”
(7) . For Riis and Crane, see Gandal; Giamo; Hales; Leviatin 36–37; and Orvell.
(8) . Gullason notes Crane’s report of the lecture and also several later occasions (after the publication of Maggie) when Crane and Riis met in New York.
(9) . It should be clear that there is a significant difference between the photographs reproduced in many modern editions and discussions of How the Other Half Lives (for example, see Gandal and the 1996 Bedford edition of How) and those in the original 1890 edition. The former derive from prints preserved in the Museum of the City of New York and are much clearer and larger than the prints in the 1890 edition.
(10) . See especially Bergon and Nagel.
(11) . See, for example, Crane to Lucy Brandon Monroe, April 1894 (Correspondence 1: 63).
(12) . See Pizer, Hamlin Garland’s Early Work 133–43.
(13) . See Runge and Shloss for the fullest accounts of Lange’s influence on Steinbeck.
(14) . See especially Kehl and Valenti.
(15) . Steinbeck himself discusses at some length in “Their Blood Is Strong” (8, 22–23) the prevalence of stillbirths and infant mortality in the migrant camps.
(16) . An uncropped photograph from this same series (Dorothea Lange 35) contains a man, with his face to the camera, in the foreground of the photograph, thus dominating it.