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.
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.
Relying heavily on the manuscripts and letters in the Dreiser Collection of the University of Pennsylvania Library, Professor Pizer seeks to establish the facts of the sources and composition of each of Dreiser's eight novels and to study the themes and form of the completed works. In this study he relates what can be discovered about the factual reality of a novel to its imaginative reality. His interpretation of the novels avoids the suggestion that there is a single overriding theme or direction in Dreiser's work and emphasizes that Dreiser deserves examination primarily on the basis of the individuality and worth of each of his novels. A separate chapter is devoted to each of the novels: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, The "Genius," The Financier, The Titan, An American Tragedy, The Bulwark, and The Stoic.