Nature in Naturalism
Abstract and Keywords
This article addresses the question of what naturalism has to do with nature. Darwinian evolution transformed the face of “nature,” shattering the idea that nature exists in a state of grand repose and projecting instead a reality of struggle, competition, and violent change—not only among plants and animals, but in human society and even within the individual chaotic mind. The idea of studying the human's place in nature—that is, to study human nature as a branch of Darwinian natural history—absolutely displaced the work of earlier writers such as Emerson or Thoreau, who believed that the soul transcends nature. But as the Darwinian revolution developed, affecting every field of thought, realist narratives began to shift from comic to more tragic presentations of people's place in nature.
First-time readers of American naturalists such as Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser might justifiably wonder what naturalism has to do with nature. It’s easy to see how London’s famous stories of the north feature landscapes from those latitudes, but what about the other naturalists? Expecting to find scenes from the green, or at least the white world, one finds instead the squalor of Crane’s Bowery, Norris’s San Francisco, or Dreiser’s Chicago. Aren’t these naturalists supposed to be nature writers? And those who might want to approach this question from another angle will find little help in such recent volumes as Literature and Nature: Four Centuries of Nature Writing (2001), where the editors avoid any mention of naturalism and include only two famous stories from that movement, Crane’s “The Open Boat” and London’s “To Build a Fire.” Worse, the editors’ only comment about these two pieces is that they describe the “struggle for survival” and serve mainly to “question American self-confidence and technological prowess” (Keegan and McKusick 771). If, having gone this far in their efforts to understand what naturalism has to do with nature, students can take comfort in knowing that even Henry James shared their confusion. Grappling with the meaning of naturalism in his 1880 review of Zola’s Nana, James wrote testily that “the only business of naturalism is to be—natural” (“Nana” 91). He felt that the novel contained only “filth” and he wondered how Zola could “call that vision of things … nature” (92). James went on to suggest that “The mighty mother, in her blooming richness” would “blush” at Zola’s presentation of herself, and he demanded to know “on what authority does M. Zola represent nature to us” in this way (92)?
The best way to clear up this confusion is to underscore the point that American literary realism (including the later and more pessimistic variety we think of as naturalism) arose largely in response to the scientific revolution that began in the 1830s with the discovery of geological time. As Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–33) (p. 53) helped clear Darwin’s way in formulating his theory of evolution by means of natural selection, the Origin of Species contributed to Lyell’s own new work in The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, with Remarks on Theories of the Origin of Species by Variation (1863), and, more importantly, to the book published that same year by Thomas Henry Huxley, Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature. The idea of studying the human’s place in nature—that is, to study human nature as a branch of Darwinian natural history—absolutely displaced the work of earlier writers such as Emerson or Thoreau, who believed that the soul transcends nature.
Darwinian evolution transformed the face of “nature,” shattering the idea that nature exists in a state of grand repose and projecting instead a reality of struggle, competition, and violent change—not only among plants and animals, but in human society and even within the individual chaotic mind. During the first decades of the Darwinian revolution, the young, self-described realists such as W. D. Howells and Henry James showed little interest in the supposed beauty and simplicity of rural life and were inclined instead to present scenes of city life, wherein the nature of civilized humanity could be studied with ease. They echoed new work in anthropology and sociology that reflected evolutionary change and emphasized the origins of marriage in the capture of brides. Like most writers of their generation, they took comfort in the idea that Anglo-Saxon and, especially, American civilization had evolved to such a high state that we scarcely resembled the “savage” or “barbaric” humans who still occupied the lower fringes of society. These unfortunates (particularly Native Americans and African Americans) were usually to be found only at a safe distance from the civilized town square and seemed doomed to evolutionary extinction. Of course, even civilized whites were descended from the lower primates, but writers could smile at their characters’ faintly vestigial animality and take heart in the idea that evolution was constantly lifting us to ever higher planes.
But as the Darwinian revolution developed, affecting every field of thought, realist narratives began to shift from comic to more tragic presentations of people’s place in nature. The most disturbing problem had arisen from Darwin’s prediction in the Origin of Species that “psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation” (488). Within a decade after Darwin had driven that point home with startling force in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal (1872), William James began formulating the first evolutionary psychology, The Principles of Psychology (1890), and young novelists were exploring the Darwinian unconscious. By the mid-1890s, naturalist novelists such as Harold Frederic and Stephen Crane would begin dramatizing what they called the “chaos” of their characters’ minds.
Although the realists/naturalists agreed that human nature was their essential subject, they sharply disagreed on how to define that nature. It is important to realize that, while the evolutionary view of life was reshaping virtually every discipline, even biologists, including Darwin and Wallace themselves, disagreed on just exactly how evolution by means of natural selection proceeds. Similarly, while the realists/naturalists all assumed an evolutionary reality of some kind, they differed in (p. 54) their interpretations of evolution and human nature. Sharp disagreements often arose even among writers who considered themselves Darwinists, especially when writers from different social points of view sought to represent the evolution of sexual difference and racial difference. Moreover, such disagreements became even more complicated during the decades surrounding 1900, when a number of anti-Darwinian theories arose to challenge the theory of natural selection. Known in the history of science as “the eclipse of Darwinism,” this movement ended only in 1942, with what Julian Huxley called “The Modern Synthesis” of Mendelian genetics and natural selection. During the “eclipse,” writers could project the evolutionary “reality” in various ways, some embracing theories that best supported their own views in the social disagreements over sexual or racial difference, or over questions concerning eugenics or the possibility of evolutionary progress. Some writers aligned themselves with particular anti-Darwinian theories that would support narratives wherein some higher power such as “love” (as in Joseph LeConte’s Evolution, 1888) or “creative evolution” (as in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, 1911) promises to lift us beyond the gross workings of natural selection.
Although the realists/naturalists produced narratives that interpreted human nature and evolution in a variety of ways, they agreed in general that the human’s place is in nature; and they continued in this way well beyond the period of time that was long delineated in the title of the leading journal, American Literary Realism, 1865–1910 (the dates were recently dropped from the title). Just as many novels from the years surrounding the Scopes Trial (1925) reflected our culture’s intense interest in the controversies over Darwinism, many literary works of the present time share the assumption that the human being exists in nature, particularly those works that examine the human’s place in the ecological web. And to help clarify this context in the study of American literary realism and naturalism, it is worth noting that the contemporary scholars (mostly in philosophy and psychology, and none in literature) associated with The Center for Naturalism underscore the point that their guiding philosophy is “that human beings are fully included in nature” (Center); that is, without absolute free will or recourse to any “sky hooks” to lift the mind above the biological fray.
The realists/naturalists construed human nature in a variety of ways, depending in large part on the particular writer’s point of view as the stream of evolutionary thought developed over time—that is, as a number of theorists sought to reinforce or redefine Darwinian evolution. To illustrate this point it is useful to note the example of Henry James, even though few would describe him as a naturalist. By considering James’s keen interest in Darwinian evolution in the 1870s and ’80s, we can better understand how the first currents of evolutionary thought developed over time to inform not only works by naturalists such as Jack London, but a wide range of other narratives by writers such as Charles W. Chesnutt and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Only four years after James expressed confusion and distaste for Zola’s form of naturalism, he was referring to himself as “quite the Naturalist”—after having visited Millbank Prison to take notes for scenes in his 1886 novel The Princess Casamassima (Edel 315). But he had long since become a kind of naturalist. He had met both (p. 55) Darwin and Huxley and was well aware that the struggle for survival includes what Darwin called “the sexual struggle,” for no organism can evolve without achieving reproductive success. Thus both he and his colleague in founding American realism, Howells, fixed their attention on Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. This was the underlying subject of the famous story he gave us in his mid-thirties, “Daisy Miller: A Study.” The subject of his “study” is not the title character, Daisy, but his main character, John Winterbourne, and how he came to miss the opportunity James presented him when the “pretty American girl” (Daisy) came to stand before him “in a garden” (309). Though this would be one of countless courtship narratives that explored Darwin’s theory of sexual selection during those years, its tragic conclusion is often misunderstood. In James’s study, the courtship fails not because of Daisy’s melodramatic death or because she selected another male, but because Winterbourne “had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him” (314). And the consequences for him are graver than most realize: in the “garden” of life, from the evolutionary point of view, the prize goes only to those who obey the first law and achieve reproductive success. There will be no evolutionary future for Winterbourne. The story is replete with Darwinian imagery of the courting male, but even though Winterbourne possesses one of the male’s important secondary sexual characters for attracting a female, a moustache (James shows him “smiling and curling his moustache” ), he cannot compete in the sexual struggle as do successful Darwinian males, by either dancing or singing, or by battling with his competitors. He falters at a crucial moment in his courtship when the thought that Daisy “was surrounded by half-a-dozen moustaches” in Rome “checked [his] impulse to go straightway to see her” (333).
James explains that his hero lost his “instinctive certitude” (356) by having lived so long in Geneva, the “metropolis of Calvinism” (306), where he “had become dishabituated to the American tone” (314). Now, if at this point we could ask of James the same question he asked of Zola—“on what authority does [he] represent [human] nature to us” in this way?—the obvious first answer is that James was relying on Darwin’s analysis of the male’s role in the sexual struggle. But James was also relying on the authority of contemporary theorists of his own time, such as his brother William. In his Atlantic Monthly essay of 1880, “Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment,” William James not only championed Darwin’s work but extended it by explaining “the function of the environment in mental evolution” (455). Praising Darwin’s “triumphant originality” in showing how spontaneous variations are subjected to the environmental forces of natural selection and sexual selection, James begins his study of mental evolution by citing “the facts … drawn from the lower strata of the mind … from the region of intelligence which man possesses in common with the brutes,” and by emphasizing how “excessively instable” the “human brain” is (443, 456). But James goes on to explain how mental variations—such as those that tilt an individual “towards masculinity or femininity, towards strength or weakness, towards health or disease, and towards divergence from the parent type”—are acted upon by the individual’s social environment (444). Just as the geographical environment “selects” certain variations above others, the “habits and associations” one gains (p. 56) from one’s social environment are crucial to that person’s evolutionary fate (455). This is not to say that William would have agreed with Henry’s fictional exploration of mental evolution in his portrait of Winterbourne; only that, by considering this kind of scientific background during the 1870s and 1880s, readers can better appreciate the unexpectedly powerful role that nature plays in narratives such as “Daisy Miller.”
Assuredly, it can be discouraging to know that critical readings of naturalist fiction should be informed by a knowledge of relevant developments in the stream of evolutionary thought. But readers who are willing to follow up on this point will not only achieve a clearer understanding of literary history, but gain respect for, and insight into, particular works by the authors whom they most admire. It is a great disservice to writers such as Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, or Edith Wharton, for example, to ignore both the extent to which they were inspired by Darwinian thought and their ingenuity in testing and interpreting it in their own studies of human nature. Also, it would be a mistake to imagine that it is either impossible or not worth our while to track this line of thought among the naturalists.
The Courtship Plot and Sexual Selection
At the risk of oversimplifying the issues in question, it helps to realize how much of the evolutionary puzzle in literature can be traced back to the theory of sexual selection. Yet this should be no surprise, for Darwinian evolution depends on reproduction. As Darwin wrote in the Origin of Species, there is “one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings—namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die” (208). Taking this into account, novelists realized that Darwin had re-invigorated the age-old courtship plot and that his theory of sexual selection was the key to their own further explorations of human reality.
Many pre-Darwinian writers from Shakespeare to Jane Austen had observed features of human courtship that were faintly animalistic—such as the male’s passion and combativeness in his pursuit of the female and her coyness in judging her suitors’ strength or beauty. But none had anticipated the way that Darwin’s theory of evolution would establish the human’s common descent with the so-called lower animals, much less the way that his theory of sexual selection would define courtship as part of the general struggle for existence, the evolutionary prize going to those who best succeed in propagating the species. According to Darwin’s theory, then, “the sexual struggle” involves mainly (1) the male’s efforts to “drive away or kill [his] rivals” in order that he may possess the female; (2) the male’s effort “to excite or charm” the female, in hopes that she will select him; and (3) the female’s power to select the male who most pleases her, usually based on the criteria of his strength and beauty (Descent 2: 398). As Darwin repeatedly noted, one should not be misled by the seeming simplicity of these main features, for sexual selection is “an extremely complex affair” (Descent 1: 296). This is certainly the case in the realm of fiction, (p. 57) where naturalist courtship plots often reflect not only a particular writer’s social point of view, but his or her interest in certain aspects of Darwinian thought that were being developed in his or her own time, perhaps in the work of a favored theorist such as Joseph LeConte, Ernst Haeckel, Henri Bergson, or Havelock Ellis.
Realist and naturalist writers agreed in general with Darwin’s assertion that “the season of love is that of battle” and that the “law of battle” pertains within the human community (Descent 2: 48, 325–26). In The Portrait of a Lady (1881), for example, James names one of Isabel’s suitors Lord Warburton but suggests that his nature as a warring male is now scarcely evident in his highly civilized state, as when James notices his “large, white, well-shaped fist” (196). A decade later, though, Stephen Crane focuses on Maggie’s favorable response to her lover Pete’s stories of his fights: “It appeared that he was invincible in fights” and that he “disdained the strength of a world full of fists” (Maggie 27). Later still, Frank Norris created a melodramatic “law of battle” scene in which McTeague breaks Marcus Schouler’s arm, and he noted that when the “bestial fury” subsided, one of the female observers giggled “hysterically” (McTeague 430). And in The Sun Also Rises (1926), the boxer Cohn’s appeal as a competitor for Brett Ashley is exceeded only by that of the bullfighter Romero. Generally speaking, as writers began to take Darwin’s theory of common descent more seriously, the male’s combativeness gradually emerged as the most difficult problem to be overcome in social evolution.
Similarly, many realist/naturalist narratives from the 1870s well into the twentieth century feature courtship scenes of music and dance (or “love-antics,” to use Darwin’s term), wherein characters of either sex seek to excite or charm their prospective mates. Working with Darwin’s analysis of biological beauty as an adaptive strategy in the struggle for existence, especially his theory that birdsong and music evolved by means of sexual selection, Edmund Gurney produced his revolutionary aesthetics of music in The Power of Music (1880), and nearly every novelist produced scenes of musical courtship. But here, too, there is a discernible development over the decades in the authors’ views of human nature. In Howells’s The Lady of the Aroostook (1879) the heroine’s church-singing is both “like a mermaid’s” and “like an angel’s,” and it causes “the long red neck” of one man to perspire (113, 258). In the late 1890s, both Harold Frederic (in The Damnation of Theron Ware) and Kate Chopin (in The Awakening) would feature powerfully erotic scenes in which music by Frederic Chopin arouses the characters’ sexual emotions in explicitly Darwinian terms. But only a few years later, Frank Norris dramatized the power of music in quite other terms, linking it to the kind of evolutionary evil that his mentor Joseph LeConte traced back to the lower stages of existence (LeConte 365). In describing the character Laura’s response to a musical performance in The Pit (1903), Norris relies on key passages from The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, but he names the male musician Corthell and arranges for his melodramatic performance of Liszt’s Mephisto Walzer. In the following decades, however, spurred by both popular Freudianism and the first strains of the jazz age, many naturalist narratives affirmed the expression of erotic emotions that Norris had sought to repress. Both Sherwood Anderson and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, (p. 58) give us many such scenes, often drawing on Darwinian theory through Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897–1928) and The Dance of Life (1923). In Dark Laughter (1925), for example, Anderson celebrates “The dance of life!” and seeks to heal his characters’ sexual repression by advising, “Dance the dance out to the end. Listen, do you hear the music?” (92).
An especially interesting development concerning courtship scenes of music and dance in naturalist fiction occurs during the Harlem Renaissance. But the backdrop to this involves literary history’s failure to appreciate why many African Americans were not just interested in, but felt liberated by, Darwin’s theory of racial evolution. He maintained that the “so-called races of men” are not “constant” or fixed by design, like the leopard’s spots, as many southerners maintained. Arguing that racial differences have merely evolved, Darwin explained why marked differences in skin color would have been produced more by sexual selection than by different climates (Descent 1: 248–50). Pointing out that there is no “universal standard of beauty with respect to the human body” and that “each race … possesses its own innate ideal standard of beauty,” Darwin argued that marked differences in skin color were established in the remote past, when humanity was in a state of “savagery” and when the most powerful males in particular tribes left the largest numbers of offspring (Descent 2: 353–54). Because “people of each tribe admire their own characteristics,” the dominant males would have mated with the “most strongly characterized” females, and through this process the particular characteristic (e.g., darkness of skin color) would have “been slowly and gradually exaggerated” (Descent 2: 384). Charles W. Chesnutt was the first African American novelist to embrace Darwin’s theory of racial evolution, believing that nature’s “laws” of natural selection and sexual selection were more just than American law and southern traditions. Chesnutt (who was so light-skinned that he sometimes passed for white) wrote of light-skinned blacks who passed for white and whose biological attributes made them attractive mates for whites. Perhaps because of his own social position along “the color line,” Chesnutt imagined that the race problem in America would be resolved only through further evolution and complete racial amalgamation. For this reason, Chesnutt sometimes presented his own prejudicial portraits of darker people as being outcast or left behind by evolution itself, and this theme—the conflict within the African American community between those of lighter and darker skin—would be hotly debated among novelists of the Harlem Renaissance.
While most of the Harlem novelists affirmed Darwinian theory, they were further conflicted over the question that W. E. B. Du Bois posed in a symposium published in the influential journal Crisis, titled “The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?” The underlying issue in Du Bois’ question involved the added complication that popular Freudianism had brought to the discussion of the race problem. Some white and African American novelists (e.g., Carl Van Vechten or Claude McKay) sought to affirm the race’s so-called “sexual primitivism,” as an indication of its good mental health—that is, its freedom from white America’s neurosis of sexual repression. But Du Bois and others hoped to portray a more elevated, spiritual love among African Americans. Thus, while some writers affirmed the blues as the (p. 59) truest expression of African American nature, Du Bois maintained that the soul song, sorrow song, or spiritual best expressed the African American reality.
Two Harlem writers, Claude McKay and Rudolph Fisher, were especially attuned to the evolutionary biology of their time, particularly as it pertained to the evolution of race. Fisher, a physician who had taught embryology at Howard University and co-authored articles in scientific journals, believed that evolution was the “savior” of modern science (McCluskey xiv), and McKay recalled having discovered “suddenly like a comet … the romance of science in Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature and Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe,” key elements in what he called the “emotional-realist thread” that defined his work (Long Way 12, 250). But Fisher and McKay disagreed with W. E. B. Du Bois, whose own credentials in modern science were impeccable.
The difference between these writers’ views on music and human nature is evident in their scenes set in Harlem cabarets. In Dark Princess (1928), Du Bois developed the theme that he had presented in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), that the soul song or sorrow song is the essential black music. Thus, his brief cabaret scene features a degraded woman who sings “her vulgar ‘blues’” with writhing movements and an unnatural “harsh shrill voice” (66) that appeals mostly to the whites and bores the blacks. Du Bois’ hero is only momentarily affected by this kind of music, which the novel finally overwhelms with spontaneous outbursts of “Go down, Moses!” and “I am seekin’ for a City” (310). McKay, on the other hand, celebrated the blues and even the African drum beat because they best expressed the unrepressed racial life. Thus, in Home to Harlem (1928), McKay describes the blues rhythm as “simple-clear and quivering … like a primitive dance of war or love” suggesting the “sacred frenzy of phallic celebrations” (196–97). And in a chapter called “Spring in Harlem,” he reunites his hero and heroine in a cabaret scene wherein, at the first notes of the music, the dancers showed “all their teeth” and “started shivering for their partners to come.” Soon, they all “picked up the refrain and jazzed and shouted with delirious joy” (296–97). Similarly, though not quite as boldly as McKay, Fisher (a jazz musician in his own right) produced cabaret scenes that celebrated so-called primitive music and dance in a number of short stories, such as “Common Meter” (1930); and, in The Walls of Jericho (1928), he playfully suggested that “a rising tide of rhythm” in the music of that era might be America’s best hope for allaying racial fears (82). Orchestrating this scene at the racial improvement society’s annual ball, Fisher remarks that on the dance floor, people of all varieties of skin color “rubbed joyous elbows, laughing, mingling, forgetting differences”—until the music stopped (82, 74).
Darwin’s theory of sexual selection gives the female a powerful role in influencing evolutionary development—her power to select her mate and thus produce such physical attributes as the increasingly intricate designs on the peacock’s plumes or, among humans, relative hairlessness. But biologists and novelists alike have long disagreed about the female’s freedom to choose, and about the particular male attributes that most impress her. Darwin contributed to these disagreements by writing that among human beings, males had gained much of the power to select in primitive times, when marriage originated in the capture of brides. Thus novelists from the 1870s on have presented this aspect of human nature in a variety of ways. (p. 60) For example, wanting to project evolutionary progress that led to a genteel society, Howells gave us many heroines who select strong but gentle males who scarcely exhibit the kind of passion that drives the Darwinian male, and he suggests that behind the female’s unconscious choice is a higher evolutionary power somewhat like manifest destiny, promising evolutionary progress if not utopia. At the same time, Henry James gave us a number of heroines like Isabel Archer (Portrait of a Lady) or Verena Tarrant (The Bostonians) who naively believe in their freedom to select or even not to select a male. But, revealing both his belief in the violent origins of marriage and his own views on women’s rights, James’s narratives end when such women are captured by men of exceptional mental strength.
Perhaps the most impressive exploration of female choice in naturalist fiction is Kate Chopin’s study of her heroine Edna Pontellier in The Awakening (1899). Anyone with a serious interest in Chopin should read what was certainly her favorite chapter in The Descent of Man, chapter 14 of volume 2, which she mined in creating Edna Pontellier and other women such as Mrs. Mallard (in “The Story of an Hour”). Although Darwin takes up the question of “Choice exerted by the female” in this chapter on birds, Chopin followed his assertion that “the mental powers of birds … do not fundamentally differ from ours” (Descent 2: 124). Thus, working with Darwin’s point that “every male of the same species” does not “equally excite or attract the female” (2: 99), Chopin first establishes that Edna’s sexual antipathy toward her husband was only natural, and she then supports that analysis by drawing on Darwin’s discussion of female pigeons who refuse to mate with males selected for them by breeders. One of Edna’s ways of asserting her independence from Mr. Pontellier is to arrange to have her own “pigeon house.” Also, building on Darwin’s point that the female pheasant not only selects her mates, but sometimes actively courts the male, Chopin describes Edna’s active role in pursuing her affairs with two other males. Described by the Darwin-like Dr. Mandelet as “some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun” (952), Edna first awakens to the sexual power of music in a memorable scene that closely echoes Darwin’s description of such emotions. Moreover, Chopin arranges for Edna to defend her choice of a lover. Denying that women “select” for the typical qualities that Darwin imagined civilized women found most attractive—social position and wealth—Edna explains that she is drawn to her lover, Robert, because of his eyes, nose, lips, and so forth: that is, apparently, because she finds him beautiful and because she herself is “happy to be alive” (965). Chopin was only one of many writers to feel liberated by Darwin’s theory of human nature.
Among the innumerable versions of women exerting their power to select in naturalist narratives is Edith Wharton’s well-titled story, “The Choice” (1916). Here another married woman feels antipathy for her husband and selects a lover with the appeal that he is somewhat androgynous (as is Edna’s lover, Robert) compared with her hyper-masculine husband. But in the final crisis, when the two males are joined in battle, she cries out for her husband, unconsciously revealing her desire for a powerful, even somewhat brutal mate. Similarly, the character Edith in Harold Frederic’s The Market-Place (1899) frankly acknowledges her desire for the ruthless financier Thorpe, an “exceptionally strong and masterful character” who can reduce (p. 61) her “brain to a sort of porridge” (160–62). But in another narrative, Wharton gave us a woman (in The Custom of the Country, 1913) who elevates her social position by choosing a series of ever-more wealthy mates, even abandoning her own child along the way. In Sister Carrie (1900), Dreiser presents Carrie’s power to select more sympathetically. After Carrie is more or less caught by her first mate, a “rudimentary” man named Drouet, she leaves him for Hurstwood, who “she instinctively felt … was stronger and higher”—until she meets Ames (58, 82). Now, with “an ideal to contrast men by” (239), Carrie refuses to sleep with Hurstwood, but because Ames is beyond her reach, Dreiser last pictures Carrie in a state of wistful loneliness.
Still, in the early decades of the twentieth century a number of novelists continued to place their faith in the female’s power to select as the key to possible evolutionary progress. In The Valley of the Moon (1913), for example, Jack London produces a promising marriage by emphasizing his heroine’s care in selecting her mate. Repeatedly asking herself, “Is this the man?” she rejects a number of suitors, one, for example, who was too brutal in his battle with other suitors, and one who was too soft and ineffectual (13). She selects a man, Billy, who has the requisite biological features of strength (he is a champion boxer) and beauty (in his physical features and in his grace as a dancer). London’s key points are that Billy is a gentle man who fights only when fighting is necessary, and that, in touching the heroine, Saxon Brown, Billy exhibits the kind of sensitivity that Havelock Ellis was advocating at the time (in Sexual Selection in Man) as an essential part of the psychology of sex. Thus, having found a man who does not arouse “the old sex antagonism” that Saxon had felt with other men, she solved what London calls “the pre-nuptial problem of selecting a husband” (78, 117). Then, after Saxon solves “the post-nuptial problem of retaining a husband’s love” (117; here again London draws on Havelock Ellis), London’s ideal couple can proceed on their quest to find a way of life best suited to deal with the larger evolutionary problem that London addresses, the world’s population explosion, including the social ills that then plagued Oakland, California.
Some final examples of naturalist fiction that centered on the female’s power to select are to be found in several novels of the Harlem Renaissance. After a half century of realist/naturalist narratives that had focused on courtship as the essential pathway to the evolutionary future, and on the civilized female’s power to select, novelists of the Harlem Renaissance generally agreed that any further racial evolution would depend largely on the female’s choice of mates. While other realists and naturalists had looked ahead to possible “new” men and women, the Harlem novelists’ more immediate sense of a brutal past propelled their interest in racial “betterment,” “uplift,” and “the Younger Generation” to whom Alain Locke dedicated his landmark anthology, The New Negro (1925). Nella Larsen, for example, was greatly affected by the novelist T. S. Stribling’s belief that “no people can become civilized until the woman has the power of choice among males” (Davis 153). But Larsen’s own narratives on racial evolution were tragically complicated by her own position along the color line as a woman of mixed race and by her intensely introspective Freudianism. The heroine of Quicksand (1928), Helga Crane, is first drawn to a black man, largely for the Darwinian reason that his “deep voice” was (p. 62) “particularly pleasing” and that it produced in her “a mystifying yearning which sang and throbbed in her”; but these emotions simultaneously produce in her “something very like hysteria,” the classic Freudian symptom of sexual repression (19–20). Thus Helga flees from this opportunity to select a mate and then, in Denmark, selects against a white suitor because of “some impulse of racial antagonism” (84). She has a “curious feeling of repugnance” both for his physical features (his, hair, his voice, the shape of his nose) and for what he brings to mind regarding American history: she tells him, “I’m not for sale … to any white man” (86–87). Finally, back in America, she is drawn by strains of church music into an encounter with the black “Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green.” After a quick marriage they return to his “primitive flock” in Alabama, where she sinks into the quicksand of primitive religion and sexuality. Her “palpitating, amorous” emotions sprang up in her “like rank weeds … with a vitality so strong that it devoured all shoots of reason,” leaving her not only with the several children she had contributed to her “despised race” but an overpowering sexual “aversion” to Green and his belief that his persistent lovemaking is “a natural thing, an act of God” (125, 127).
Other Harlem novelists, however, were committed to the idea of evolutionary progress and saw great promise in the female’s power to select. In Du Bois’ Dark Princess, the promising couple (Matthew Towns, a black man from Virginia, and Kautilya, a woman from India) meet at an international conference, “The Great Council of the Darker Peoples.” In an incident there, Matthew stands out as a beautiful and combative—that is, Darwinian—male, when he drives away a white man who made a pass at Kautilya. As Kautilya later recalls, “you knocked him down quite beautifully,” and “I had a curious sense of some great inner meaning to your act” (17). Eventually, the two consummate their love and produce a son whom Kautilya’s countrymen view as a “Messenger and Messiah to all the Darker Worlds!” (311). Projecting an evolutionary future that was attuned to the music of “Go down, Moses!” and definitely not the blues, Dark Princess is something between “outright propaganda” and “quaint romance,” as Arnold Rampersad remarks (204); but it is scarcely more of a romance than Frank Norris’s narrative of Anglo-Saxon supremacy in The Octopus, which Du Bois had in mind.
In a much more inventive variation on the theme of female choice in the Harlem Renaissance, in The Walls of Jericho Rudolph Fisher introduces a “young Titan” of a male, noting that “an acknowledged master of men is usually attractive to women” (13, 80). Indeed, the heroine Linda quickly selects the hero Shine at the “General Improvement Association’s Annual Costume Ball,” after he had rescued her from an offensive male: she “flung herself impulsively toward him” (132). Fisher eventually sends his ideal couple “into another land,” toward a scene overspread with “sunrise like a promise … straight into the kindling sky,” but not until he has subjected both lovers, especially the titanic male, to his own kind of “general improvement.” Linda initiates this improvement in Shine by taking him to church, where they hear a sermon counseling that a man’s tendency to “boast that he is evil and merciless and hard” is only a shield to hide his true spirit of compassion and gentleness. Developing this point, in part by having Linda frequently advise Shine that mere muscle isn’t (p. 63) everything, and that he isn’t as hard as he pretends he is, Fisher suggests that much of Shine’s violence stems from his sexual repression, a neurosis that is most evident when Shine turns into “a gigantic madman” in a battle with his sexual rival. Thus, writing during the years when popular Freudianism was at its height, Fisher the physician suggests again and again that Linda and, especially, Shine will enter the evolutionary future only if they overcome the sexual repression that each exhibits along the way when they block impulses to reach out to the other. Fittingly, a key moment in Fisher’s effort to improve these two lovers comes in a hospital, where Shine is a patient. When, “not fully aware of his gesture,” Shine reaches out to Linda, she responds, creating a spark that Fisher describes as “the closing of a switch, the making of a circuit through which leaped new, strange, shattering impulses” (260–61).
Related Elements in the Puzzle of Human Nature
While we can learn a great deal about the naturalists’ views of human nature by focusing on the courtship plot and the theory of sexual selection, it is important to note that some naturalist novels and many short stories are not structured around the courtship plot (e.g., The Red Badge of Courage and “To Build a Fire”) and that the naturalists were also quite interested in several related pieces of the evolutionary puzzle, such as heredity, the environment, and other elements of evolutionary psychology not directly related to courtship. The naturalists’ views on these issues vary, but, in general, their increasing pessimism about biological determinism follows certain key developments in evolutionary thought over the decades. One very important example came in 1889, when August Weissman was credited for disproving the Lamarckian principle that traits acquired through training or education could be passed on to one’s offspring. This diminishment of the Lamarckian possibility gave renewed emphasis to the power of heredity in determining one’s fate—a power that grew even more oppressive with Ernst Haeckel’s studies in embryology over the next decade, and finally with the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics shortly after the turn of the century.
One of the unfortunate effects of the growing emphasis on heredity was to reinforce the already virulent strain of racism that promoted the idea of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Virtually every naturalist was affected by this malaise, whether in portraits of African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, Irish, or Southern Europeans. Though it is hard to imagine any uglier examples of Anglo-Saxonism in American writing than those to be found in the novels of Thomas Dixon Jr., Frank Norris comes close in his portraits of Maria Macapa, Zerkow (the red-headed Polish Jew), and their child in McTeague. Relying in part on his mentor Joseph LeConte’s writings on mixed races, Norris describes (p. 64) the sickly, short-lived child as “a strange, hybrid little being … combining in its puny little body the blood of the Hebrew, the Pole, and the Spaniard” (431). Even with her much more impressive scientific credentials, Gertrude Stein’s studies of characters such as the black woman Malanctha and the German women Anna and Lena (in Three Lives), as well as Julia Dehning (in The Making of Americans), suggest that such people’s hereditary makeup leaves them in a nearly sub-human state. And writing only a short time later, F. Scott Fitzgerald combined the Darwinian elements of sexual selection with those of modern genetics to explain the tragic fate of Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald was only one of many writers (such as Edith Wharton and Jack London) to have been influenced by Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe. He was especially impressed by Haeckel’s study of embryology and the idea that one’s identity is determined at the moment of conception, leaving the individual locked by accident within “the chain of generations” (Haeckel 143); and his sense of hereditary determinism was powerfully reinforced by the widespread interest in eugenics that was fostered by E. G. Conklin at Princeton University. Partly from these elements, he produced demeaning portraits of blacks and Jews while constructing a character (Gatsby) whose life and death are subject to a number of accidents. The first and most important of these is the accident of his lowly birth, which his wealth and social glitter cannot hide from Daisy’s selective eye, but his fate is further sealed by the famous automobile accident and finally by the “accidental” circumstances that Fitzgerald emphasizes in his description of the dead Gatsby afloat in his pool.
The environment as another shaping force in human nature did not engage the naturalists’ interest to the extent that sexual selection did, perhaps because it was not so easily fitted to the courtship plot. Still, writers such as Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Eugene O’Neill depicted the environment created by American industry as a crushing influence on workers’ lives and quite possibly their evolutionary fates. “The air in the collar and cuff establishment strangled” Maggie, causing her to realize that she was “surely shriveling in the hot, stuffy room” where other women bent over their machines like “mere mechanical contrivances.” Thus, she began to worry about her “youth” and “to see the bloom upon her cheeks as valuable” (Crane 34). London, too, presents his heroine Saxon Brown as “an entrapped animal” in the laundry where she works. Before Saxon can find her way into the evolutionary future that London has in mind for her, she must escape the crushing conditions that are “enough to kill a dog” (4). In London’s analysis, attuned to the emerging Freudian interest in female hysteria, Saxon’s workplace posed an explicit threat to her reproductive health because the women’s restricted and mechanically repetitive movements created an atmosphere of sexual repression that brought on occasional outbursts of hysteria. And even more melodramatically, the working environment of the steamship’s low-ceilinged stokehole in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1921) caused the character Yank and his fellow firemen to walk with the stooped posture of apes.
Occasionally, naturalists such as Norris also drew on scientific theories that were only very tenuously connected to Darwinian evolution, such as Cesare Lombroso’s Criminal Man (1876) and Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892), but there is a far more important, though unrecognized, trend in naturalist writing that (p. 65) gradually drew on Darwinian and related theories to explain and justify not the abnormal or monstrous, but the range of normality in human nature. That is, in our efforts to understand nature in naturalism, or the ways in which the realist/naturalist movement has explored human nature, it helps to remind ourselves how that approach to understanding humankind’s place in nature was initiated by “the biological blow” that Darwinian evolution dealt “to human narcissism,” according to Freud’s famous remark (Freud 17: 141). Looking at the realist/naturalist movement in this way, it is clear that the first realists, such as Howells or James, were far less troubled by the blow than were older writers such as Melville or Tennyson, who received it as a great spiritual wound. Though the young Howells and James were no doubt troubled by the biological blow, they could both welcome it as the new world view that helped them shoulder their older rivals aside (as in James’s critique of Hawthorne), and fend it off by imagining that, as highly civilized citizens of the new world, they were relatively untouched by the evolutionary past. They were encouraged by the evolutionary hierarchy that modern anthropology had erected, wherein the animals, certainly, and then the “savages” and “barbarians” served to define their difference as almost a new species of highly civilized Americans whose main worry was that, like Winterbourne, they might have become overcivilized.
Only later in Howells’s career did he, and then naturalists such as Crane, London, Norris, and Chopin, begin bolder explorations of their characters’ place within the community of common descent. Howells referred to his character Dylks (in The Leatherwood God, 1916) as a stallion, because of his sexual passion, and London suggests the animal nature in his character’s name, Wolf Larsen (in The Sea-Wolf, 1904). In the heat of battle, Crane’s soldiers in The Red Badge of Courage express many of the emotions that Darwin had described in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals; and Norris described McTeague’s “hereditary evil” (285) and the degenerative beast that lurked in and finally came to life in Vandover (in Vandover and the Brute, 1914). All these characters embody aberrations, to be overcome, in London’s case, when the female selects against the brutal captain to signal his evolutionary extinction. Unlike these explorations of human nature, however, Kate Chopin’s study of Edna Pontellier is a landmark in our culture’s gradual awakening to, and acceptance of, the human’s place within the community of common descent. Edna’s awakening sexuality is certainly problematic in its threat to her marriage and because it leads to her own emotional instability, but Chopin gives her liberated character a certain dignity and beauty, as when Dr. Mandelet sees Edna “palpitant with the forces of life,” with “no repression in her glance or gesture,” like a “beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun” (952).
Chopin’s prescient reference to Edna’s freedom from repression echoes Darwin’s pre-Freudian use of the term (in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals), but it occurs in the history of naturalism at precisely the time when Freud was building on Darwin’s analysis of sex and the emotions to construct his own theory of hysteria and related neuroses as arising from sexual repression. Inspired by Darwin, Chopin celebrated the daring idea that a woman’s sexual emotions were natural and normal. Also, during the first decades of the twentieth century a number of other naturalists (p. 66) had begun to deal with the biological blow in similar ways. Whereas Howells had presented Bartley Hubbard’s mere flirting as a kind of evolutionary weakness in A Modern Instance (1882), Dreiser would somewhat confessionally analyze the male’s polygamous sexual appetite as normal though socially disruptive. Moreover, building on Darwin’s analysis of the bisexual embryo (and subsequent studies of the same phenomenon by Havelock Ellis and Freud), a range of novelists such as London, Anderson, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway explored the normality of their own androgynous sensibilities. And many African American writers embraced Darwin’s theory of race as justifying their claims to equal footing within the natural community of mankind, rather than outcasts by Biblical design. As T. S. Stribling wrote in Birthright (1922), a novel which created a great stir within the Harlem Renaissance, “what Christ did for theology, Darwin did for biology,—he democratized it” (219).
Such developments in naturalist thought certainly met with powerful resistance. Chopin’s The Awakening, for example, was highly offensive even to readers such as Willa Cather. And a good many newly uncovered facts or supposed facts about evolutionary biology were so disturbing that only the most courageous writers could include them in their explorations of human nature. Some wondered, for example, whether the frog’s sexual impulse, persistent even in males whose heads had been cut off, was related to that in human beings; whether cannibalism as a reproductive strategy among certain organisms reflected in any way on human “love”; what we can make of the startling sexual impulse among human infants; or to what extent the connection between sexual pleasure and pain might be considered within the range of human normality. In short, contemplating such questions about human nature, many naturalists grew increasingly introspective and shared what Gertrude Stein specified as her character’s “deepest interest”: in exploring “the varieties of human experience” and desiring “to partake of all human relations” (Fernhurst 19). By the time Stein wrote this (sometime between 1903 and 1905), naturalists had explored many new and troubling questions about the human being and his/her place in nature, but it would be a mistake to claim that the naturalist movement as a whole produced anything like a clear, general advance toward ultimate “truths.” In her later work, Stein, for example, came under the sway of Bergson’s Creative Evolution.
Human Nature and the Ecological Web
By 1913 at least one naturalist, Jack London, had extended his study of human nature to the point that he was prepared to write the first novel in American literature to explore what, from our point of view in the early twenty-first century, seems the most urgent question involving people’s place in nature: how we can accept our place in the ecological web and devise sustainable economies. In The Valley of the Moon, London built on his impressive studies of Darwinian evolution to imagine a couple who overcome the personal and social troubles that his earlier characters (p. 67) had encountered regarding sexual selection and marriage and who then proceed to find a new way of life in small-scale farming. In this way, they save themselves from the industrial pollution and labor strife then troubling the San Francisco Bay area, help bring an end to large-scale farming’s rape of the soil, suggest ways to deal with the world’s exploding population, and also insure their own survival by preserving their marriage and achieving reproductive success. London’s ambitious novel was certainly not the last word in literary naturalism. By the 1940s, Aldo Leopold and John Steinbeck were exploring ecological questions in their non-fictional works A Sand County Almanac (1949) and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1941). And in The Old Man and the Sea (1952) Ernest Hemingway probed an essential feature of human nature that London and other naturalists before Steinbeck left untouched—Santiago’s struggle to accept and deal not with his reproductive needs (as many other Hemingway characters must do), but with his need to kill and eat (i.e., the second of the two forces that move the world, as Freud put it, love and hunger).
Whatever questions involving humankind’s place in nature might arise to shape naturalist fiction in years to come, it seems inevitable that the chief motive in generating such work will endure in our culture’s general resistance to the idea that there is any human nature. Similarly, organizations like the Center for Naturalism will no doubt redouble their efforts to counter our culture’s reluctance to embrace Darwinian evolution—its devotion to the ideas that human beings enjoy complete free will and that supernatural forces define humanity. Still addressing the old question that Steinbeck posed in 1941 in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, why do we “so dread to think of our species as a species?” (266), the Center for Naturalism believes that, “by acknowledging our origins in evolution, the naturalist perspective” can enhance “our feeling of kinship with the other species with which we share this planet, and our desire to sustain and nurture the planet itself” (Center). Regarding recent American fiction, it is clear that the evolutionary view of humanity’s place in nature is still a vibrant theme in a number of works such as T. C. Boyle’s Drop City (2003). There, quite in the tradition of Jack London (including a reference to “To Build a Fire,” 390–91), Boyle portrays a community of hippies in California who talk about “getting back to the earth” (16) and believe in free love; but as that experiment collapses of its own weight, he ends the book in celebrating an Alaskan couple’s survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Like London, Boyle constructs this elemental social unit largely from the heroine’s painstaking selection of her mate, whom we see at last looking around to appreciate “the natural order” while “heading home, … a man clothed in fur at the head of a team of dogs in a hard wild place, going home to his wife” (444).
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