English 567: Dunbar’s Sport of the Gods
Article Expert: Amy Goldman
Jarrett, Gene Andrew. “Second-Generation Realist: or, Dunbar the Naturalist.” African American Review 41.2 (2007): 289-94.
- Core Claim: Accurate assessment of naturalist literary trends at the turn of the twentieth century must include attention to the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar and to his first novel, The Uncalled.
- In late 1890s, a “wider, generational, and largely Anglo-American shift […] was resisting realism as a theoretical idea and literary practice” (290). Crane and Norris were reacting against the literary realism represented by Howells, who is himself is aware of the new literary current. Jarrett quotes an interview with Stephen Crane in which Howells replies to Crane’s assertion of a “‘a change in the literary pulse of the country’” that he too has “‘seen it coming…. I suppose we will have to wait and see’” (290). Jarrett notes Dunbar as an essential author in this change.
- Dunbar experiments with “literary ways of stretching realism in naturalist directions” in his first novel, The Uncalled (291), and letters he wrote during its composition in 1897 demonstrate his awareness of the “generic tension” between realism and naturalism (289). Jarrett calls attention to the fact that Dunbar was experimenting this way prior to Norris and Dreiser, who became critically established as the “second-generation realists” even as Dunbar’s contributions were was generally ignored.
- The Uncalled received critical praise from British reviewers. Jarrett argues that, aside from a positive review in the New York Times, the novel was overlooked in the United States due to the “racial exclusionism” of literary circles “beginning, of course, with Howells” (290). Jarrett elsewhere credits Howells’s 1896 review of Dunbar’s poetry with securing Dunbar’s status as “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race” (289), but here notes that critics had difficulty responding—or simply chose not to respond—to a novel that “submerg[ed] the conventional markers of racial realism—including black portraiture and political subject matter—that were expected of black-authored literature in the late nineteenth century” (293).
- The naturalism of The Uncalled has evaded appropriate scholarly discussion in part because Dunbar “tailors [naturalism] to accommodate ideas of human uplift and redemption” (290). Shockingly, the protagonist of The Uncalled overcomes the social stigma of his “immoral” family origins and even reconciles with his father before the latter’s death, then goes on to redeem his own life through the positive influence of a healthy romantic relationship.
- The Uncalled also resists the “masculinist ‘plot of decline’” present in many naturalist works and instead “illustrates the importance of individual will to overcoming environmental forces, even within the city” (293). Jarrett here characterizes The Uncalled as a “novel of triumph, which captures Dunbar’s revision of this genre” (293). Note the contrast with naturalist works we have read; see questions below.
Thoughts on the Article:
Main Contributions to Understanding Sport of the Gods:
- Makes a solid case for Dunbar’s inclusion as a founding member of the naturalist club.
- Analyzes how Dunbar approaches and “revises” naturalist genre expectations.
- Jarrett credits Dunbar as both a pioneer of the naturalist genre and with “revision of this genre” (293). It’s not quite clear to me how he can simultaneously be a creator and reviser of the genre.
- In The Uncalled, Dunbar presents the importance of individual choice in overcoming environmental influences. Given our experiences with naturalism so far, does this disqualify The Uncalled as a naturalist novel, or do we agree with Jarrett that such agency could co-exist with the determinism typical of the genre?
- Jarrett points out that critics weren’t quite sure what to do with The Uncalled because it was not clearly tied to racial concerns. Racial issues are certainly present in Sport of the Gods, but does Dunbar still resist the “black portraiture and political subject matter” expected from “black-authored literature” of the era? If so, to what effect?
Pizer, Donald. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”: How Not to Read Naturalist Fiction.” Philosophy and Literature 34.1 (2010): 218-27.
Lolordo, Nick. “Possessed by the Gothic: Stephen Crane’s ‘The Monster'” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory. 57.2 (2001): 33-56.
My apologies for the late article post~ curious technological issues. AG
English 567: Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Article Expert: Amy Goldman
Poole, Adrian. “‘Men’s Words’ and Hardy’s Women.” Essays in Criticism 31 (1981): 328-44.
- Hardy “enjoys” exploring the limits of what can be “written about women and said by them” (471), and a significant element in that exploration lies in “the effort of men’s words to circumscribe and describe, confine and define, women’s bodies” (472). Poole relates this to Hardy’s interests in (a) how men look at women, (b) how women respond to being looked upon (473), (c) how women’s bodies “speak” (473, passim), and (d) how men—both literary characters and critics—attempt to describe or understand the “speech” of those bodies (passim).
- Hardy’s treatment of women is unique in that he allows them to move freely between polarities of “vague” and “coarse” behavior. Poole interprets these terms, originally used by Henry James in a review of Far From the Madding Crowd, as follows: “‘vagueness’ signifies a being too remote to be distinctly seen or touched or judged and ‘coarseness’ a being too close” (475). He attributes contemporary readers’ frequent discomfort with Hardy’s female characters as related to those characters’ “refus[al] to keep to a settled or ‘middle’ distance” (475).
- Poole examines “two main kinds of explanation for the distinctiveness of Hardy’s women.” These are two types: (a) the character as “unpredictable, vacillating, undecided,” unable to “make up her mind,” and (b) the character as representing “‘primitive’ and ‘pagan’ qualities which are indifferent and even hostile to socialization” (474).
- Poole posits that part of the interest in Hardy’s characterization of “indecisive” female characters lies in how their “indecision is […] the producer and product of men’s decisions and resolutions” and “teases out the processes by which men’s authority is produced” (476). He notes the frequent failure of Hardy’s men to actually assert such authority and “wish” of contemporary critics “that Hardy’s men would take their women in hand” (476). This connects to Poole’s later discussion of Hardy’s male characters as sometimes possessing feminine characteristics, both physically and in terms of their “irresolution” and “adaptability” (478).
- Similarly, the “pagan” type challenges men’s standards in their refusal to “care” about the “‘male’ sphere of mental culture” (477). This is uncomfortable for male characters, and contemporary readers, because it provokes a sense that the women have an “instinctive disregard […] for men’s rules” (477).
- Finally, Poole argues that Tess’s physicality, and the way in which it both “provides and gratifies” male desire, creates a dissonance for contemporary readers between her asserted status as a “pure woman” (Hardy’s subtitle) and the aspects of her character that connect her to prostitution (480). He connects this to the idea that critics’ assessments of Tess’s body and her actions often reveal their own attitudes about proper feminine behavior (479-80) and to Hardy’s rewriting of the novel as deepening the complexity of the relationship between that physicality and Tess’s efforts to reclaim both her body and her words from men (481-83).
Thoughts on the Article:
Main Contributions to Understanding Tess of the D’Urbervilles:
- Provides interpretive insights into the representation of Tess’s body and her physicality.
- Notes, and posits explanations for, contemporary reactions to Hardy’s female characters.
- Advances useful frameworks for considering male and female roles in the novel.
- Obscure organizational plan. Poole ranges over a variety of ideas and the connections between those ideas can be difficult to follow.
- Frequently makes assertions without convincing supporting analysis of the examples on which he draws. Example: Poole articulates “various conclusions” that “one might draw” from Hardy’s description of Tess’s mouth, then treats those conclusions as fact; he does not demonstrate how the text supports his reading (478).
- Do we agree with Poole that Tess’s decision to open her mouth to receive Alec’s strawberry, after her initial reluctance, is a mere “difficulty of resisting the gifts of [physical] admiration” (474)? Are there competing possibilities that Poole ignores?
- Does Tess fall into either of the “types” that Poole discusses? Does she cross between them?
I’m feeling a little bad for poor Theodore Dreiser, who has been orphaned by our presentation selection process. I’m thinking of taking him on and wondered if anyone else had been hoping to take Edith Wharton? If not, I may keep her and leave Dreiser presentationless, but if Wharton was your first choice, I will be happy to switch.
Reach me through the board here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If I don’t hear from anyone by Monday or so, I’ll likely stick with Ms. Wharton.