First Dreiser Lecture

I started today by trying to get a larger perspective on American Literary Naturalism, which we study in Crane & Dreiser, & which (as a movement of the 1890s) also included Frank Norris & Jack London (like Crane & TD, born in the 1870s). Why did "Am Lit Since 1865" became "Naturalistic" in 1890s? That's one of those impossibly big questions to which I offered two short answers: European books & American experience.

We started with European books: Emile Zola, the French novelist who is usually labeled first literary Naturalist; Charles Darwin, whose ideas about "the origin of the species," for ex, lie behind the animal imagery in Red Badge; and especially Herbert Spencer, the British prose writer who popularized Darwin's ideas & applied them directly to human condition. TD refers to Spencer in Sister Carrie, and on the site's Dreiser page you can see what TD himself said about how reading Spencer (in 1895) "blew to smithereens" his view of the human condition.

But American Naturalism was not chiefly derived from books. Spencer made such an impact on TD because his view of the amoral struggle for survival seemed to sum up what writers like TD had already seen happening to and in America. I generalized a lot -- TOO MUCH, don't ever do this in a paper! -- about big socio-cultural and economic changes in America between 1865 & 1890's -- industrialization (cf. the factory metaphors in Red Badge), urbanization, the rise of big corporations, the economic cycles of boom & depression (esp. the Panic of 1893, worst economic crisis in Am history, except for "Great" Depression of 1930s), labor/capital violence, etc. On the Dreiser page I've also included a brief passage in which TD himself, in his autobiography, reflects on the gap between earlier & modern America, agricultural vs. urban/industrial America. We looked at Carrie coming into City, seeing all the size & power of the urban forces, & how this New America led writers of this generation to feel that amidst these huge forces individual lives determined, helpless, ess. insignificant.

The ocean or a Civil War battle is Crane's symbol of that; the city is TD's. We looked at how TD can express the way city seems to dwarf individual by opening with Carrie's quest for a place inside it (cf. pp. 14-15); at how, by novel's third paragraph (1-2) both man & God effectively drop out of novel's universe -- their roles played instead by the city as a "superhuman force"; and at how city seduces Carrie even when it's Drouet (65) or Hurstwood (120) doing the talking. Carrie is "carried" by these environmental forces, which will determine her (& the other characters') fates.

At the same time (to get at the whole significance of her name) Carrie carries what Ames, at the end of the novel, calls "the world's desires" (cf. p. 443), the longings of the America that is building & moving to this modern world represented by the city. I compared her to Bunyan's Christian, in Pilgrim's Progress, whose quest is for heaven (represented in Bunyan's allegory as the Celestial City). Carrie is questing for a new life, salvation, redemption from desire, the fulfillment of all her longings, but her Celestial City is Chicago (& then New York), and her pilgrimage cannot envision a kingdom beyond these entirely material worlds. That's one of the questions we'll go on with Wednesday, one of the questions I think TD is as curious about (and even, at start of Sister Carrie, his first novel, as undecided about) as Carrie herself: Carrie's fate & Chicago's shining new buildings are being created by human desires, but is there any point at which the world in which she finds herself can satisfy the desires that define herself?

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