American Naturalism and the Jews: Garland, Norris, Dreiser, Wharton, and Cather

University of Illinois Press
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American Naturalism and the Jews examines the unabashed anti-Semitism of five notable American naturalist novelists otherwise known for their progressive social values. Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser all pushed for social improvements for the poor and oppressed, while Edith Wharton and Willa Cather both advanced the public status of women. But they all also expressed strong prejudices against the Jewish race and faith throughout their fiction, essays, letters, and other writings, producing a contradiction in American literary history that has stymied scholars and, until now, gone largely unexamined. In this breakthrough study, Donald Pizer confronts this disconcerting strain of anti-Semitism pervading American letters and culture, illustrating how easily prejudice can coexist with even the most progressive ideals.

Pizer shows how these writers' racist impulses represented more than just personal biases, but resonated with larger social and ideological movements within American culture. Anti-Semitic sentiment motivated such various movements as the western farmers' populist revolt and the East Coast patricians' revulsion against immigration, both of which Pizer discusses here. This antagonism toward Jews and other non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicities intersected not only with these authors' social reform agendas but also with their literary method of representing the overpowering forces of heredity, social or natural environment, and savage instinct.

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About the author

Donald Pizer is Pierce Butler Professor of English Emeritus at Tulane University. He is the author of The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism, the editor of The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism and A Picture and a Criticism of Life: New Letters, Volume I by Theodore Dreiser, and coeditor of Theodore Dreiser: Interviews.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Illinois Press
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Published on
Oct 1, 2010
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Pages
112
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ISBN
9780252092176
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Language
English
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Genres
Literary Criticism / American / General
Literary Criticism / General
Social Science / Jewish Studies
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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From the moment I got to Auschwitz I was completely detached. I disconnected my heart and intellect in an act of self-defense, despair, and hopelessness." With these words Sara Nomberg-Przytyk begins this painful and compelling account of her experiences while imprisoned for two years in the infamous death camp. Writing twenty years after her liberation, she recreates the events of a dark past which, in her own words, would have driven her mad had she tried to relive it sooner. But while she records unimaginable atrocities, she also richly describes the human compassion that stubbornly survived despite the backdrop of camp depersonalization and imminent extermination.

Commemorative in spirit and artistic in form, Auschwitz convincingly portrays the paradoxes of human nature in extreme circumstances. With consummate understatement Nomberg-Przytyk describes the behavior of concentration camp inmates as she relentlessly and pitilessly examines her own motives and feelings. In this world unmitigated cruelty coexisted with nobility, rapacity with self-sacrifice, indifference with selfless compassion. This book offers a chilling view of the human drama that existed in Auschwitz.

From her portraits of camp personalities, an extraordinary and horrifying profile emerges of Dr. Josef Mengele, whose medical experiments resulted in the slaughter of nearly half a million Jews. Nomberg-Przytyk's job as an attendant in Mengle's hospital allowed her to observe this Angel of Death firsthand and to provide us with the most complete description to date of his monstrous activities.

The original Polish manuscript was discovered by Eli Pfefferkorn in 1980 in the Yad Vashem Archive in Jerusalem. Not knowing the fate of the journal's author, Pfefferkorn spent two years searching and finally located Nomberg-Przytyk in Canada. Subsequent interviews revealed the history of the manuscript, the author's background, and brought the journal into perspective.

Scorned by critics since birth, decreed dead by many, naturalism, according to Donald Pizer, is “one of the most persistent and vital strains in American fiction, perhaps the only modern literary form in America that has been both popular and significant.”

To define naturalism and explain its tena­cious hold throughout the twentieth century on the American creative imagination, Pizer explores six novels: James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., John Stein­beck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, and Saul Bellow’s The Adven­tures of Augie March.

Pizer’s approach to these novels is empiri­cal; he does not wrench each novel awk­wardly until it fits his framework of general­izations and principles; rather, he approaches the novels as fiction and arrives at his defini­tion through his close reading of the works.

Establishing the background of natural­ism, Pizer explains that it comes under attack because it is “sordid and sensational in sub­ject matter,” it challenges “man’s faith in his innate moral sense and thus his responsibility for his actions,” and it is so full of “social documentation” that it is often dismissed as little more than a photographic record of a life or an era; thus the “aesthetic valid­ity of the naturalistic novel has often been questioned.”

Pizer posits the 1890s, the 1930s, and the late 1940s as the decades when naturalism flourished in America. He concentrates on literary criticism, not on the philosophy of naturalism, to show that literary criticism can make a contribution to a particularly muddled area of literary history—a natural­ism that is alive and changing, thus resisting the neat definitions reserved for the dead.

In his first book devoted exclusively to naturalism, Donald Pizer brings together thirteen essays and four reviews written over a thirty-year period that in their entirety constitute a full-scale interpretation of the basic character and historical shape of naturalism in America.

The essays fall into three groups. Some deal with the full range of American naturalism, from the 1590s to the late twentieth century, and some are confined either to the 1890s or to the twentieth century. In addition to the essays, an introduction in which Pizer recounts the development of his interest in American naturalism, reviews of recent studies of naturalism, and a selected bibliography contribute to an understanding of Pizer's interpretation of the movement.

One of the recurrent themes in the essays is that the interpretation of American naturalism has been hindered by the common view that the movement is characterized by a commitment to Emile Zola's deterministic beliefs and that naturalistic novels are thus inevitably crude and simplistic both in theme and method. Rather than accept this notion, Pizer insists that naturalistic novels be read closely not for their success or failure in rendering obvious deterministic beliefs but rather for what actually does occur within the dynamic play of theme and form within the work.

Adopting this method, Pizer finds that naturalistic fiction often reveals a complex and suggestive mix of older humanistic faiths and more recent doubts about human volition, and that it renders this vital thematic ambivalence in increasingly sophisticated forms as the movement matures. In addition, Pizer demonstrates that American naturalism cannot be viewed monolithically as a school with a common body of belief and value. Rather, each generation of American naturalists, as well as major figures within each generation, has responded to threads within the naturalistic impulse in strikingly distinctive ways. And it is indeed this absence of a rigid doctrinal core and the openness of the movement to individual variation that are responsible for the remarkable vitality and longevity of the movement.

Because the essays have their origin in efforts to describe the general characteristics of American naturalism rather than in a desire to cover the field fully, some authors and works are discussed several times (though from different angles) and some referred to only briefly or not at all. But the essays as a collection are "complete" in the sense that they comprise an interpretation of American naturalism both in its various phases and as a whole. Those authors whose works receive substantial discussion include Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, James T. Farrell, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and William Kennedy. Of special interest is Pizer's essay on Ironweed, which appears here for the first time.

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