Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Welcome to today's discussion of literary naturalism. It is not necessary to be a complete nihilist, but it helps.

Naturalism is literary realism that read Darwin, gasped, and said, "Dang, Emerson was wrong! Humans are not the center of the universe, and nature doesn't look out for them. They're just as pointless as the flies we swat every summer afternoon."

This theory was further refined to maintain that humans were the helpless victims of their genetics and their environment, and those two things would conspire to make them miserable at every turn. Further, if they somehow escaped with good genes and good luck, nature itself would try to kill them. The mantra of literary naturalism is "Life sucks, and then you die."

One might wonder why, if writers truly believed that humanity had no point, they bothered to write about it. Possibly they felt that shared misery was more bearable than the lonely belief in their futility. Possibly they just wanted to shock people. More likely, though, and I'm actually being serious here, they got sick of the moral complacency that arose out of Transcendentalism. "If we're so great," a naturalist would ask, "Why was the war so brutal, and why do we continue to exploit everything and everyone we come across?"

Late 19th century American industrialism and expansion came at a price, and often it was a very high one in terms of human life and human quality of life. Children died in industrial accidents; Native Americans died in settlement disputes, and over all of this was the specter of the Civil War, that left many people desperately poor and still oppressed. The naturalists looked at this world and felt confident in saying that people are not inherently good, and life is not full of promise.

Prominent "naturalistic" writers include Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Frank Norris. In all their work, we can discern the grey thread of hopelessness, mingled with the red one of vicious nature, looking for its next meal.

It is interesting to note that, with the possible exceptions of London and Drieser, a lot of naturalists died young. Ambrose Bierce was getting up there in age when he disappeared in the Mexican desert but we can assume he wasn't happy about it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

We're Ba-a-a-a-ck

Yes, the American Literature blog continues, with yet more opinion, irreverence, and tangential discussion.
When we left off, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman had revolutionized poetry, at least for the American literati. The popular taste, as it is wont to do, lagged behind. One of the behinds that it lagged was Julia A. Moore, "The Sweet Singer of Michigan," whose poetry left many readers speechless.
Mrs. Moore wrote several volumes on such topics as gory disasters and untimely deaths. She also enjoyed dispensing advice to children, when she wasn't writing about dead ones. Her idiosyncratic terribleness, complimented by her tin ear and her horrible choice of subject matter, made her the favorite poet of Samuel Clemens, and he said so, at length. Because irony was lost on her, Mrs. Moore took this as an endorsement, and used Clemens' name to sell even more volumes of poetry. She was, and I wish I was kidding, one of the best-selling poets of the late 19th Century, although it's impossible to tell whether anybody took her seriously, or if they read her work for the same reason they ogle train wrecks (which she also wrote about).
Just to whet your appetite for another four months of American Literature, here is a sample of the work of Julia A. Moore. Enjoy.
Hattie House
Come all kind friends, wherever you may be,
Come listen to what I say,
It's of a little girl that was pleasant to see,
And she died while out doors at play.
Oh! Hattie, dear Hattie,
Sweet little Hattie House --
May the flowers ever bloom o'er the little tomb,
Of our loved one, Hattie House.
She had blue eyes and light flaxen hair,
Her little heart was light and gay,
She said to her mother, that morning fair,
"Mother, can I go out and play?"
Her mother tied her bonnet on,
Not thinking it would be the last
She would ever see her dear little one
In this world, little Hattie House.
She left the house, this dear little girl,
On that bright and pleasant day --
She went to play with two little girls
That were near about her age.
She was not gone but a little while
When they heard her playmates call --
Her friends hastened there to save the child,
Alas, she was dead and gone.
Those little girls will not forget
The day little Hattie died,
For she was with them when she fell in a fit,
While playing by their side.
She was her parents' only child,
And her age was near six years,
And now she has left them for a while --
Left all her friends in tears.
She has left this world of grief and woe,
Dear friends, she has left behind --
She is waiting on the other shore,
To meet them bye and bye.
One fine morning, the fifth of July,
The summer flowers were in bloom,
Eighteen seventy-one, little Hattie died,
And is sleeping in her tomb.
If you just have to have more of this, and I have no doubt that you will, then you can find LOTS of Mrs. Moore's work here: http://www.poemhunter.com/julia-a-moore/poems/ Feel free to weigh in . . . oh, yes.