Monday, November 26, 2007

Baraka & Theatre of Cruelty

Baraka's work is often said to extend concepts from the French playwright and theorist, Antonin Artaud, specifically the concept of cruelty:

Theatre of Cruelty is a concept in Antonin Artaud's book Theatre and its Double. “Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds” (Artaud, Theatre and its Double). By cruelty, he meant not sadism or causing pain, but rather a violent, physical determination to shatter the false reality which, he said, lies like a shroud over our perceptions. To put it another way, it's not cruelty in the sense of being violent, but the cruelty it takes for the actor to completely strip away their masks and the cruelty of showing an audience a truth that they don't want to see. He believed that text had been a tyrant over meaning, and advocated, instead, for a theatre made up of a unique language halfway-between thought and gesture. Antonin Artaud described the spiritual in physical terms, and believed that all expression is physical expression in space.

You might notice above some concepts central to our discussion of the primitive/modern: "our present state of degeneration," the merging of the material/spiritual, also the "shattering of false reality" that literature can often abet.

In Dutchman, pay special attention to signs of these concerns--specifically, the notion of a language that is between thought and gesture--a new kind of realism that is designed to shock audiences in a primal, Neitzschean way.

Of course, others have stated: "the Theatre of Cruelty has often been called an impossible theatre--vital for the purity of inspiration which it generated, but hopelessly vague and metaphorical in its concrete detail." Is there a vagueness in detail or "message" in Dutchman, or does Baraka update his work to make it politically relevant?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Incest, Family, Politics (A Review)

We covered a lot in class today, touching on the text as a kind of allegory for the politicization of the primitive. That is, Cather is interested in how the nation conceives of itself as a "family" (which can reproduce only through incest) versus the assimilation of foreigners (like Louis) and other corrupting influences of modernity. Do you agree with this reading or want to expand upon it? How does it help illuminate the relationship between Godfrey and Tom? In that light, consider the inexplicable malaise that sets upon the professor: where does it come from and what is interesting about his dramatic episode near the end of the book?

Finally, what kind of political commentary might be implicit in the description of the peoples of Cliff City? In the description of the city as a place of "design"?

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Professor's House

Cather clearly is interested in dialectics throughout this work, in ways subtle and not so subtle. For example, what is the world of modernity---the new house, wealth, aviation technology---played off against?? Is the primitive figured forth in the text; if so, how and what are its values?

A close reader might also discover an incredible interest in colors throughout the text: Ch. 1 tells us about St. Peter's view, "From the window he could see, far away, just on the horizon, a long, blue, hazy smear--Lake Michigan, the inland sea of his childhood." There are many such--aesthetic?--appreciations throughout the text, and many such dwellings upon "observation": it's worth asking what role they have in the text.... Are they part of a larger dialectic?

Monday, November 5, 2007

In Our Time & The Multiplicity of Experience

One thing you'll no doubt notice about Hemingway's short story collection is its apparent randomness: war-time prefaces, often violent, seem to introduce disjunctive narratives concerning Nick Adams and a domestic, somewhat placid homefront experience. As we discussed avant-garde aesthetics relating to the "multiplicity of perspectives," consider how the collection embodies this, but also introduces an assortment of experiences peculiar to modernity. How, if at all, do these experiences speak to one another--from the often absurd violence of war to the pre & post-war experiences of Nick and other characters. How, for example, does the style of war pieces such as "On the Quai at Smyrna" differ from that of "Indian Camp"? What themes/images do the two pieces share? What emotions do they provoke in the narrator and reader?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

William Carlos Williams, "The artist works to express perceptions rather than attain standards..."

According to Williams, the object of writing is "the triumph of sense---the ability to set a thing up against the moment and have it escape banality... The sense is not carried as an extraneous 'meaning,' but is constituted by the work itself. One does not write a poem to say something but to write a poem... "

Williams, who closely followed some of the painters we are discussing, noted that "abstraction... has renew[ed] and reclarif[ied] pure form... The writer attempts to present the sense of the moment, revealed in climaxes of intelligence (beauty) through continually refreshed crystallizations of form."

Consider, in light of these rather complicated remarks, his interest in perception and time (Duchamp's Nude), and how this influences form in Williams' work.


Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
moving tense
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.


    WHEN I was younger
    it was plain to me
    I must make something of myself.
    Older now
    I walk back streets
    admiring the houses
    of the very poor:
    roof out of line with sides
    the yards cluttered
    with old chicken wire, ashes,
    furniture gone wrong;
    the fences and outhouses
    built of barrel staves
    and parts of boxes, all,
    if I am fortunate,
    smeared a bluish green
    that properly weathered
    pleases me best of all colors.

    No one
    will believe this
    of vast import to the nation.

Portrait of a Lady

YOUR thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady's
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze--or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
--as if that answered
anything. Ah, yes--below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore--
Which shore?--
the sand clings to my lips--
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

The Young Housewife

    AT ten A.M. the young housewife
    moves about in negligee behind
    the wooden walls of her husband's house.
    I pass solitary in my car.

    Then again she comes to the curb
    to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
    shy, uncorseted, tucking in
    stray ends of hair, and I compare her
    to a fallen leaf.

    The noiseless wheels of my car
    rush with a crackling sound over
    dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

      ORROW is my own yard
      where the new grass
      flames as it has flamed
      often before but not
      with the cold fire
      that closes round me this year.
      Thirtyfive years
      I lived with my husband.
      The plumtree is white today
      with masses of flowers.
      Masses of flowers
      load the cherry branches
      and color some bushes
      yellow and some red
      but the grief in my heart
      is stronger than they
      for though they were my joy
      formerly, today I notice them
      and turned away forgetting.
      Today my son told me
      that in the meadows,
      at the edge of the heavy woods
      in the distance, he saw
      trees of white flowers.
      I feel that I would like
      to go there
      and fall into those flowers
      and sink into the marsh near them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mina Loy's "Songs To Joannes"

The publication of Mina Loy's "Songs to Joannes" so angered a leading female poet of the time (Amy Lowell) that she vowed never to publish in the same journal as Loy. Known for wildly experimental, artful, complicated and compact poetics, Loy's poems (below) tell the tale of a illicit affair and abortion, material unknown to the poetics of the time (1917). Consider how (if) such a tale indeed emerges through her often distorted poetics; consider also how, like Cubism, Loy's poetics blur relations, and double and triple the meanings of words--something modern poets called logopoeia: the use of words not only for their direct meaning but also for the surprising, ironic, play between them.


Spawn of fantasies
Sifting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
"Once upon a time"
Pulls a weed white star-topped
Among wild oats sown in mucous membrane
I would an eye in a Bengal light
Eternity in a sky-rocket
Constellations in an ocean
Whose rivers run no fresher
Than a trickle of saliva

These are suspect places

I must live in my lantern
Trimming subliminal flicker
Virginal to the bellows
Of experience
Colored glass.


At your mercy
Our Universe
Is only
A colorless onion
You derobe
Sheath by sheath
A disheartening odour
About your nervy hands


Heavy with shut-flower's nightmares
Curled to the solitaire
Core of the


Shuttle-cock and battle-door
A little pink-love
And feathers are strewn


Let Joy go solace-winged
To flutter whom she may concern

We might have coupled
In the bed-ridden monopoly of a moment
Or broken flesh with one another
At the profane communion table
Where wine is spill't on promiscuous lips

We might have given birth to a butterfly
With the daily-news
Printed in blood on its wings


In some
Prenatal plagiarism
Foetal buffoons
Caught tricks
--- --- --- --- ---
From archetypal pantomime
Stringing emotions
Looped aloft
--- --- --- ---
For the blind eyes
That Nature knows us with
And most of Nature is green
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---


Green things grow
For the cerebral
Forager's revival
And flowered flummery
Upon bossed bellies
Of mountains
Rolling in the sun


I don't care
Where the legs of the legs of the furniture are walk-
ing to
Or what is hidden in the shadows they stride
Or what would look at me
If the shutters were not shut

Red a warm colour on the battle-field
Heavy on my knees as a counterpane
Count counter
I counted the fringe of the towel
Till two tassels clinging together
Let the square room fall away
From a round vacuum
Dilating with my breath

The moon is cold
Where the Mediterranean----------------

Gertrude Stein

What way to consider to the relationship between painting and poetry at this time is think of them as homologous arts---both foregrounding the materiality of the medium--paint/words--and obscuring the content, or referent. Consider how these two poems from 1914 function structurally:


by: Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

      HAT was the use of not leaving it there where it would hang what was the use if there was no chance of ever seeing it come there and show that it was handsome and right in the way it showed it. The lesson is to learn that it does show it, that it shows it and that nothing, that there is nothing, that there is no more to do about it and just so much more is there plenty of reason for making an exchange.


by: Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

      HAT is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.
      What is the wind, what is it.
      Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it.

Picasso, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907)

Duchamp "Nude Descending A Staircase No. 2" (1912)

Poetry & Paintings for Thursday--The Avant-Garde

Whereas today we investigated works that established communion or connection in the midst of the chaotic crowd (Whitman, American "Realist" painters), for Thursday we'll consider poems and paintings that ostensibly challenge the possibility of such contact--or suggest, at least, that former "traditional" notions of representation are outmoded in the 20th Century. Hence, some of the work will challenge us through various methods of "abstraction"--purposeful distortions of the traditional visual/verbal field that mirror many of the distortions (multiple perspectives, amoral aesthetics) that we have associated with the rise of modernity.

Some of the paintings we will look at come from European artists, while others are from Americans they inspired. Cubism sums up (more or less) the "school of thought" surrounding the work, a style that "emphasized the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, and rejected the traditional techniques of perspective, foreshortening, modeling..." (Brittanica).
For Picasso this rejection took an explicitly primitive turn with his use of African masks, for Duchamps it was a satire on the traditional beauty of the "nude."

Ensor & the Multitude

Consider how the painting's colors might change your initial (black & white) impressions.

Friday, October 26, 2007

George Bellows, "Both Members of this Club" (1907)

As we discussed with early cinema, violence and various forms of bloodsport became quickly associated with the visual culture of the time. Consider how Bellows' work is invested in the thematics of violence and visual consumption.

Robert Henri, "Laughing Child" (1907)

We have started to discuss the child-as-primitive in relation to language and poetry. Consider Henri's depiction here of the child: what qualities does the painter invest in the subject and by what means?

John Sloan, Wake of the Ferry (1907)

Consider this other Sloan painting: what thematic interests can you discern? What stylistic elements?

Realism & American Painting

John Sloan, Hairdresser's Window, 1907

This painting comes from a general movement at the turn of the century that we might call "Realist" or "Romantic Realist". What qualities about the painting might you associate with conceptual notions of primitivism we have thus far discussed? How is different from Millet's painting?

Jean-Francois Millet (1860-1862)

In a period of grand historical paintings, this one made a splash.
Why do you think?

Poetry For A Democracy (For Tuesday)------More To Come!

As we discussed vis-a-vis Synge, the primitive turn had specifically political roots: to found a national art and a nation in Ireland. Something like this was also happening in the poetry of America at the turn of the 1900s, a belief that poetry could reclaim its position as The Voice of a truly democractic, egalitarian country. Up to this point in American history, American poetry was largely considered a subset of the great English tradition (think Shakespeare, Romantics, etc.)

This is part #1 of the poetry we will be looking at for Tuesday: note how it is strongly influenced in its style and content by the ideal of American democracy. We will consider how the poetry claims for itself the "primitive" voice in reasserting an authentic American tradition of American poetry.

The Man with a Hoe (1899)

by Edwin Markham
This was one of the most popular poems ever published in the United States in terms of reproductions. Based on a well known painting, the poem seems to return dignity to labor and the underclass. Do you read it in a naturalist light or no?

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back, the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?

Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
To feel the passion of Eternity?
Is this the dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep?
Down all the caverns of Hell to their last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this--
More tongued with cries against the world's blind greed--
More filled with signs and portents for the soul--
More packed with danger to the universe.

What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of the Pleiades?
What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
Time's tragedy is in that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Powers that made the world,
A protest that is also prophecy.

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
Is this the handiwork you give to God,
This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?
How will you ever straighten up this shape;
Touch it again with immortality;
Give back the upward looking and the light;
Rebuild in it the music and the dream;
Make right the immemorial infamies,
Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes?

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings--
With those who shaped him to the thing he is--
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?

Edgar Lee Masters
(1868–1950). Spoon River Anthology. 1916.

The following is a sample of poems from one of the most popular and influential books of poetry published in the early 20th Century. The Spoon River Anthology is essentially 215 short poems from 215 characters--all of whom lived, or at least were born in the Illinois town of Spoon River. The characters now dead sum up their lives. Consider the sheer variety of characters represented, the epitaphic style of the poems, and how poetry captures the pathos of life in a midwestern town.

3. Ollie McGee

HAVE you seen walking through the village
A man with downcast eyes and haggard face?
That is my husband who, by secret cruelty
Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;
Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth, 5
And with broken pride and shameful humility,
I sank into the grave.
But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?
The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!
These are driving him to the place where I lie. 10
In death, therefore, I am avenged.

4. Fletcher McGee

SHE took my strength by minutes,
She took my life by hours,
She drained me like a fevered moon
That saps the spinning world.
The days went by like shadows, 5
The minutes wheeled like stars.
She took the pity from my heart,
And made it into smiles.
She was a hunk of sculptor’s clay,
My secret thoughts were fingers: 10
They flew behind her pensive brow
And lined it deep with pain.
They set the lips, and sagged the cheeks,
And drooped the eyes with sorrow.
My soul had entered in the clay, 15
Fighting like seven devils.
It was not mine, it was not hers;
She held it, but its struggles
Modeled a face she hated,
And a face I feared to see. 20
I beat the windows, shook the bolts.
I hid me in a corner—
And then she died and haunted me,
And hunted me for life.

34. Percy Bysshe Shelley

MY father who owned the wagon-shop
And grew rich shoeing horses
Sent me to the University of Montreal.
I learned nothing and returned home,
Roaming the fields with Bert Kessler, 5
Hunting quail and snipe.
At Thompson’s Lake the trigger of my gun
Caught in the side of the boat
And a great hole was shot through my heart.
Over me a fond father erected this marble shaft, 10
On which stands the figure of a woman
Carved by an Italian artist.
They say the ashes of my namesake
Were scattered near the pyramid of Caius Cestius
Somewhere near Rome. 15

47. Margaret Fuller Slack

I WOULD have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.
For look at the photograph of me made by Penniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes—
Gray, too, and far-searching. 5
But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?
Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children, 10
And had no time to write.
It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death. 15
Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!

109. Elsa Wertman

I WAS a peasant girl from Germany,
Blue-eyed, rosy, happy and strong.
And the first place I worked was at Thomas Greene’s.
On a summer’s day when she was away
He stole into the kitchen and took me 5
Right in his arms and kissed me on my throat,
I turning my head. Then neither of us
Seemed to know what happened.
And I cried for what would become of me.
And cried and cried as my secret began to show. 10
One day Mrs. Greene said she understood,
And would make no trouble for me,
And, being childless, would adopt it.
(He had given her a farm to be still.)
So she hid in the house and sent out rumors, 15
As if it were going to happen to her.
And all went well and the child was born—They were so kind to me.
Later I married Gus Wertman, and years passed.
But—at political rallies when sitters-by thought I was crying
At the eloquence of Hamilton Greene— 20
That was not it.
No! I wanted to say:
That’s my son! That’s my son!

207. Lucinda Matlock

I WENT to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis. 5
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick, 10
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed—
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys. 15
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters, 20
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

From Vachel Lindsay's
The Congo

Vachel Lindsay was a white, midwestern, popular performance poet, who chanted, howled, and shouted on stage as he recited poems. Consider how Africa and African Americans are depicted in his work, and how a primitivist poetics were constructed along racial and socioeconomic lines in America.

III. The Hope of their Religion
                  [Heavy bass.  With a literal imitation
of camp-meeting racket, and trance.]
A good old negro in the slums of the town
Preached at a sister for her velvet gown.
Howled at a brother for his low-down ways,
His prowling, guzzling, sneak-thief days.
Beat on the Bible till he wore it out
Starting the jubilee revival shout.
And some had visions, as they stood on chairs,
And sang of Jacob, and the golden stairs,
And they all repented, a thousand strong
From their stupor and savagery and sin and wrong
And slammed with their hymn books till they shook the room
With "glory, glory, glory,"
And "Boom, boom, BOOM."
[Exactly as in the first section.
Begin with terror and power, end with joy.]
And the gray sky opened like a new-rent veil
And showed the apostles with their coats of mail.
In bright white steele they were seated round
And their fire-eyes watched where the Congo wound.
And the twelve Apostles, from their thrones on high
Thrilled all the forest with their heavenly cry: --
[Sung to the tune of "Hark, ten thousand
harps and voices".]
"Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;
Never again will he hoo-doo you,
Never again will he hoo-doo you."

[With growing deliberation and joy.]
Then along that river, a thousand miles
The vine-snared trees fell down in files.
Pioneer angels cleared the way
For a Congo paradise, for babes at play,
For sacred capitals, for temples clean.
Gone were the skull-faced witch-men lean.
[In a rather high key -- as delicately as possible.]
There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
A million boats of the angels sailed
With oars of silver, and prows of blue
And silken pennants that the sun shone through.
'Twas a land transfigured, 'twas a new creation.
Oh, a singing wind swept the negro nation
And on through the backwoods clearing flew: --
[To the tune of "Hark, ten thousand harps and voices".]
"Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle.
Never again will he hoo-doo you.
Never again will he hoo-doo you."

Redeemed were the forests, the beasts and the men,
And only the vulture dared again
By the far, lone mountains of the moon
To cry, in the silence, the Congo tune: --
[Dying down into a penetrating, terrified whisper.]
"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Mumbo . . . Jumbo . . . will . . . hoo-doo . . . you."

Friday, October 19, 2007


J.M. Synge was at the forefront of an Irish Renaissance that sought to revive an authentically Irish culture at the turn of the 20th Century. One of Synge's well known lines, "To be human we must once again learn to be brutal" suggests the dialectic between primitivism and the new age: a return to roots was somehow needed to live in the new century. The Catholic-Irish were often popularly figured as this primitive element, untouched as they were by Anglo-colonial influence. And yet, his work criticized, parodied, and often made outright fun of the nostalgic attitude towards the poor. Can you see that in his work? What purpose does it achieve? What pro-Irish attitudes/blindspots might his work be addressing?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Prompt 2

As we discussed, storytelling--or the art of fiction / (lying?)--seems to have a significant role in the naturalist works we read.

Please analyze and discuss the function of stories/storytellers in the larger context of either Open Boat or McTeague. Particularly, consider the various roles that stories/fictions/falsehoods play in relation to the larger claims of truth/facts/scientific verity that surround the naturalist text. It's possible that you might want to focus on one facet specifically--lying, for example, or the role of art, or the comfort of belief. Whatever your angle, make sure to lay out a cohesive body of evidence that you can analyze and argue about.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


As we discussed in class, Naturalism seems invested in a special mode of narrative observation; this fascination seems to trouble the stable literary perspective we might often take for granted.
This interest in "observation" shapes the text at the level of "style" but also at the level of plot.

Use either Open Boat or McTeague as your source text to argue how methods of observation, watching, or even simply "eavesdropping" figure into the text at the level of plot and shape both the narrative and the style of the text.

Remember, beyond finding instances of what you might consider literary "observation" (and that can be a wide range of examples) in the text, please try to make an argument about their importance in relationship to the text and the larger concerns of the period---primitivism, naturalism, technology, etc. A good paper won't address every instance, but rather make a coherent argument from the most important evidence it finds in the text.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Fiction in Naturalism (Remember to sign your comments!)

"Did that wonderful service of gold exist outside of her diseased imagination?...
It was not impossible..."

Consider the subplot of Zerkow & Maria Macapa: what is the role of stories/fictions/myth in naturalist texts? We encountered some already in The Open Boat--Why is Zerkow interested? What does he have Maria do? Consider repetition wherever you encounter it in the text....

McTeague & Gender

"Perhaps he dimly saw that this must be so, that it belonged to the changeless order of things--the man desiring the woman only for what she withholds; the woman worshipping the man for that which she yields up to him" (84).

Consider the courting process in McTeague, its attitude towards sexuality and gender: what is the role of women in the naturalist text? Remember, Open Boat was a male text....
Also, what is the logic (or calculus) of sexuality and desire? From where does it derive and to where does it lead? Do we hear about this logic in society today?


With any great work of fiction--especially one created by an artist invested in style--we can begin looking at the opening paragraphs to judge how the book wants to be read:

It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day....

What stylistic features about this intro might we want to point out?

& Why does the story begin on Sunday?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


The Age of the Primitive-Modern is in part a profound encounter with forces of science--specifically Darwinism--that had never been allowed into the realm of art.

In what ways does Crane's story register these changes? At the level of plot, style, dialogue?

Is there a framing device for this story as we had in Chesnutt?
That is, do we encounter the Neitzschean dialectic once again?

You might want to consider that conservative critics of the time argued that "naturalism"
and everything it embodied was the result of a dangerous Neitzscheanism pervading America....

Is it?


The term naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Unlike realism, which focuses on literary technique, naturalism implies a philosophical position: for naturalistic writers, since human beings are, in Emile Zola's phrase, "human beasts," characters can be studied through their relationships to their surroundings. Zola's 1880 description of this method in Le roman experimental (The Experimental Novel, 1880) follows Claude Bernard's medical model and the historian Hippolyte Taine's observation that "virtue and vice are products like vitriol and sugar"--that is, that human beings as "products" should be studied impartially, without moralizing about their natures. Other influences on American naturalists include Herbert Spencer and Joseph LeConte.

Through this objective study of human beings, naturalistic writers believed that the laws behind the forces that govern human lives might be studied and understood. Naturalistic writers thus used a version of the scientific method to write their novels; they studied human beings governed by their instincts and passions as well as the ways in which the characters' lives were governed by forces of heredity and environment. Although they used the techniques of accumulating detail pioneered by the realists, the naturalists thus had a specific object in mind when they chose the segment of reality that they wished to convey.

In George Becker's famous and much-annotated and contested phrase, naturalism's philosophical framework can be simply described as "pessimistic materialistic determinism." Another such concise definition appears in the introduction to American Realism: New Essays. In that piece,"The Country of the Blue," Eric Sundquist comments, "Revelling in the extraordinary, the excessive, and the grotesque in order to reveal the immutable bestiality of Man in Nature, naturalism dramatizes the loss of individuality at a physiological level by making a Calvinism without God its determining order and violent death its utopia" (13).

Monday, October 1, 2007


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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Charles Chesnutt, in his own words

How is the primitive imagined, confronted, contained in Chesnutt's fiction?

It might help to consider the cultural atmosphere in which Chesnutt published his fiction: the very established Northern literary magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, published "Wife". Does this matter? Are their traditional or non-traditional attitudes in the work, do you think?
By 1900, fiction about African -Americans was in the air, with the work of Dixon (author of the drama from which Griffith would adapt his The Birth of a Nation) and establishment authors considering race in their work. What would be the role of African-Americans--and their relation to the society that so harshly dispossessed them--in the 20th Century?

Chesnutt, on the publication of his first stories, including "The Wife of His Youth":

At the time when I first broke into print seriously, no American colored writer had ever secured critical recognition except Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had won his laurels as a poet. Phillis Wheatley, a Colonial poet, had gained recognition largely because she was a slave and born in Africa, but the short story, or the novel of life and manners, had not been attempted by any one of that group. . . . [101]

Thomas Dixon was writing the Negro down industriously and with marked popular success. Thomas Nelson Page was disguising the harshness of slavery under the mask of sentiment. (See information on the "plantation school.") . . .

The firm of Houghton Mifflin [publishers of The Atlantic Monthly], however, was unique in several respects. . . . Three of the Atlantic editors wrote novels dealing with race problems-William Dean Howells in An Imperative Duty, Bliss Perry in The Plated City, and Mr. Page in The Autobiography of Nicholas Worth.

The book was favorably reviewed by literary critics. If I may be pardoned one quotation, William Dean Howells, always the friend of the aspiring author, in an article published in the Atlantic Monthly for May, 1900, wrote:

"The stories of The Conjure Woman have a wild, indigenous poetry, the cretion of sincere and original imagination, which is imparted with a tender humorousness and a very artistic reticence. As far as his race is concerned, or his sixteenth part of a race, it does not greatly matter whether Mr. Chesnutt invented their motives, or found them, as he feigns, among his distant cousins of the Southern cabins. In either case the wonder of their beauty is the same, and whatever is primitive and sylvan or campestral in the reader's heart is touched by the spells thrown on the simple black lives in these enchanting tales. Character, the most precious thing in fiction, is faithfully portrayed."

My race was never mentioned by the publishers in announcing or advertising the book. From my own viewpoint it was a personal matter. It never occurred to me to claim any merit because of it, and I have always resented the denial of anything on account of it. My colored friends, however, with a very natural and laudable zeal for the race, with which I found no fault, saw to it that the fact was not overlooked, and I have before me a copy of a letter written by one of the to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, which had published a favorable review of the book, accompanied by my portrait, chiding him because the reviewer had not referred to my color. . . . [103]

While The Conjure Woman was in the press, the Atlantic published a short story of mine called The Wife of His Youth which attracted wide attention. James Mc. Arthur, at that time connected with the Critic, later with Harper's, in talking one day with Mr. Page, learned of my race and requested leave to mention it as a matter of interest to the literary public. Mr. Page demurred at first on the ground that such an announcement might be harmful to the success of my forthcoming book, but finally consented, and Mr. McArthur mentioned the fact in the Critic, referring to me as a "mulatto." [104]

From Charles W. Chesnutt: Selected Writings, ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Chesnutt, on race:

"What is a White Man?" (THE INDEPENDENT, May 30, 1889).

The states vary slightly in regard to what constitutes a mulatto or person of color, and as to what proportion of white blood should be sufficient to remove the disability of color. As a general rule, less than one-fourth of Negro blood left the individual white--in theory; race questions being, however, regulated very differently very different in practice. In Missouri, by the code of 1855, still in operation, so far as not inconsistent with the Federal Constitution and laws, "any person other than a Negro, any one of whose grandmothers or grandfathers is or shall be deemed a mulatto." Thus the color-line is drawn at one-fourth of Negro blood, and persons with only one-eighth are white.

By the Mississippi code of 1880, the color-line is drawn at one-fourth Negro blood, all persons having less being theoretically white.

Under the code noir of Louisiana, the descendant of a white and a quadroon is white, thus drawing the line at one-eighth of Negro blood. The code of 1876 abolished all distinctions of color; as to whether they have been re-enacted since the Republican Party went out of power in that state the writer is not informed.
Jumping to the extreme North, persons are white within the meaning of the Constitution of Michigan who have less than one-fourth of Negro blood.
In Ohio the rule, as established by numerous decisions of the Supreme Court, was that a preponderance of white blood constituted a person a white man in the eye of the law, and entitled him to the exercise of all the civil rights of a white man. By retrogressive step the color-line was extended in 1861 in the case of marriage, which by statute was forbidden between a person of pure white blood and one having a visible admixture of African blood. But by act of legislature, passed in the spring of 1887, all laws establishing or permitting distinctions of color were repealed. [26-27]

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Getting Started: Charles Chesnutt for 10/2

Our first readings, Charles Chesnutt's "The Goophered Grapevine" and "The Wife of His Youth" are readily available online: google = etext.virginia + title.

More postings to follow!