Dioramas of the Sublime: Pseudonature and Fading Femininity in American Literary Naturalism

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Wilson, Jency Taylor
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Middle Tennessee State University
The study of American literary naturalism frequently relies on a handful of defining characteristics—plots of decline, aesthetic realism, and an emphasis on the deterministic forces beyond human control, to name a few. These characteristics often play out against the backdrop of late nineteenth-century urban settings fraught with the anxiety of a recently industrialized culture on the brink of modernism, and scholarship on naturalism tends to focus on the city. However, the emergence of pseudonatural spaces—areas of cultivated organic aesthetic such as parks or gardens—within that city setting has not been explored. Drawing on relevant ecocritical, psychoanalytical, and feminist theory, this project examines the depiction of these spaces in American literary naturalism and argues that representations of pseudonature emerge as a result of a unique overlap of cultural forces and reveal a new set of anxieties about the arrangement of the modern world. Chapter I introduces the concept of pseudonature and works toward both a definition for the material space of pseudonature and an understanding of the historical/cultural context into which this iteration of “Nature” emerges. Chapter II performs a close-reading of the pseudonature in three primary texts—Stephen Crane’s Maggie (1893), Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905)—through an affective ecocritical lens, focusing on the transcorporeal relationship between pseudonature and the female characters with which pseudonatural spaces are closely associated. Chapter III provides a psychoanalytic account of pseudonature, with a sustained reading of Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899) in the context of the Mark Seltzer’s “body-machine complex” outlined in Bodies and Machines (1992). This chapter combines psychoanalysis with feminist geography in order to explore the psychological implications of built spaces in the texts as reflective of human forms. Chapter IV applies the “body-machine complex” to the female bodies in these novels and explores the commodification of the female body through the lens of Stacy Alaimo’s concept of “toxic bodies” in Material Feminisms (2008), extending that commodification to the body of pseudonature with which the female form is linked. The final chapter makes a case for the scope of pseudonature in American art since this period and concludes with a reflection on how this project complicates an understanding of naturalism which has relied on complacent notions of inevitability in forces of culture.
American literature, Ecocriticism, Feminism, Naturalism, Parks, Psychoanalysis, American literature