ALH Online Review, Series X 1
Katherine Fusco, Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative, and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2016), 208 pp. Reviewed by Stephanie Palmer, Nottingham Trent University Early cinema and US literary naturalism competed for the public’s attention at precisely the same time period, and Katherine Fusco shows the complex interactions between them. She conceives of both art forms in broad and interesting ways, such that early cinema includes not only Étienne-Jules Marey’s and Eadward Muybridge’s motion studies and the cinema of attractions but also factory films, which depict industrial environments and their inhabitants, either to instruct workers or to showcase technological achievement. Literary naturalism is defined broadly enough to include Jack London’s journalistic coverage of boxing and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “Bee Wise” (1913) along with her utopian novel Herland (1915). Discussions of Frank Norris’s ponderous invocation of wheat in The Octopus (1901) and London’s “To Build a Fire” (1908) touch on naturalism’s evocation of natural forces. Demonstrating complex networks of influence between the art forms, Fusco demonstrates how D. W. Griffith’s reading of The Octopus influenced the filmmaker’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) as well as his editing techniques in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Both artists, she finds, engaged the technologies of the day to tell “ambitious stories about the human condition” (62). Despite silent film appearing first in the book’s title, the emphasis of the study lies primarily with naturalism. Silent film and US naturalism are linked through their shared temporality—their obsession with time management, with “a sense of time as force and resource [that] appears in conversations across a number of arenas in early modernity” (5). The book considers developments in philosophy, for example, discussing Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1910). Much as Frederick Winslow Taylor urged workers to greater efficiency, and Muybridge’s photographs of a horse’s gallop instructed humans that the eye alone cannot solve time’s secrets, naturalism and silent film teach us that we cannot access time’s truths without paying attention to details too small to see or arcs of progress longer than the average life span. The art forms’ distrust in human cognition contributes to a wider turn toward impersonality in art and expert knowledge in all disciplines. As a result, naturalism and silent film encourage readers and viewers to believe that the group and nature will inevitably overwhelm the individual. The Introduction alone does not make a convincing case that these art forms are unique in their ability to register the inexorability of time. Yet by the end of the Fusco’s study, one comes to appreciate how much naturalist novels’ stories of transcendent forces and what she aptly calls “their grandiose narrative styles” (184) owe to their sense of time as unmanageable without technological or scientific expertise. Fusco’s © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: [email protected]
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focus on form and temporality leavens her close readings. Following from the overarching claim that naturalism and silent film privilege plot over character and progress over people, she reads The Octopus as a rumination on the inexorable forces of history that thwart people who are seeking to work together to fight monopoly capital. While many antimonopoly journalists like Ambrose Bierce sought to spur social action by invoking the Mussel Slough Tragedy—in which a shootout took place between the representatives of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the homesteaders who had been cultivating railroad land in the San Joaquin Valley—Norris treats the characters involved in his fictionalized shootout like a speechless swarm, as incapable of understanding their condition as the novel’s sheep. Fusco’s reading reminds us of the political limitations of literary naturalism in the US: the genre that most directly treats mass movements against capitalism also treats people’s understanding of their condition as flawed and mass action as dangerous or futile. The readings of the prevalence of racial panic in naturalist novels and narrative films skilfully demonstrate that these artists’ attitudes toward racial others are fundamentally linked to their naturalist ideas of time and modernity. Whereas previous scholars have found it hard to square London’s progressive socialism with his racism and his admiration for the black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, Fusco argues that London’s thinking about racial destiny is not contradictory, because he and others could have warm feelings for individual racial others yet believe that white racial achievement has lasted for longer and will prevail. Similarly, Gilman’s reform and fictional writings consistently privilege projects over people, such that she argues against excessive individuality or personality in the home or the decision to have children. Fusco’s key text is Herland, whose eugenic implications are impossible to miss. In addition to explaining that the women in the utopia manage the inhabitants so that only the clever ones have children, Fusco highlights the novel’s use of bee and machine metaphors, proving that none of the utopia’s inhabitants are allowed true individuality. The problem with these readings of naturalism and silent film as a joint system with a shared temporality and politics, however, is that Fusco’s archive of texts and scholarly antecedents is too narrow to be anything more than suggestive. The assertion that all silent film shares the same generic ideology beggars belief when one considers how broadly Fusco defines silent film. Only a few texts by London, Norris, and Gilman are featured, ignoring debates about which Norris titles fit the naturalist genre the best, leaving out other writers classically considered as formative to the genre like Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser or Upton Sinclair, sidestepping the possibility that a black writer like Paul Laurence Dunbar might have treated racial panic differently in a novel like The Sport of the Gods (1902), and neglecting the scholarship on women naturalists, which predates Donna Campbell’s recent Bitter
ALH Online Review, Series X 3
Tastes: Early Naturalism and American Women’s Writing with the essays collected in Twisted from the Ordinary: Essays on American Literary Naturalism, edited by Mary E. Papke and the Oxford Handbook of American Literary Naturalism, edited by Keith Newlin. The summaries of previous scholarship are sometimes rushed, such as when Fusco dismisses much previous scholarship on naturalism as “thematic,” a word that ignores June Howard’s attention to narrative structure, or Donald Pizer’s attention to writers’ activism. Fusco’s sense of the debates about Gilman’s eugenics is also thin. She claims that feminist scholars have only begun to acknowledge the connections between the author’s feminism and racism in “the past decade,” which ignores earlier work by Ann J. Lane and Gary Scharnhorst, or even an essay collection, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Her Contemporaries, edited by Cynthia Davis and Denise D. Knight, cited as evidence for Fusco’s claim. One simply cannot trace a unitary “perversity” through all naturalism and early cinema, in which texts “lament the rapidly changing modern world’s brute indifference toward the individual while simultaneously gesturing to a larger sense of progress that might set things right, if only inconvenient and ultimately inconsequential individuals would get out of the way” (184) on the basis of so few readings. The considerable strengths, as well as the unfortunate weaknesses, of this important study lie in its understanding of history and historicism. Historicism, particularly, new historicism, has come in for some casual dismissal lately. Peter Coviello in Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America criticizes historicist readings for aligning literary texts too closely to extraliterary discussion. Susan Manning in Poetics of Character critiques the entanglement of historicism with nationalism, in which literary texts are remembered only for their historical representativeness. US literary naturalism has long been associated with new historicist readings, often by third parties rather than the key theorists themselves, so assaults on new historicism are directly relevant to any study of naturalism. Fusco’s study demonstrates that there is indeed structural similarities among literary naturalism, silent film, efficiency managerialism, racism, and dismissal of broad social action, but it could never be clear from such a tightly focused study whether this system was pervasive, either in the epoch of production, or in these genres, whether it was self-contained or was or is unstoppable. The study exemplifies the veritable strengths of new historicist scholarship, but also some of its limitations, and it is a pity, because the story of the rise of expertise and impersonality continues to be crucial for our time.