Hounded beyond all bounds of reason: Morality and the sublime in American literary naturalism
Lotspeich, Justin Thomas
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American literary naturalists use theories of the sublime derived from Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant that have gone largely unexplored by scholars yet appear unique to the writing style. Significant characteristics from both philosophers' works appear vividly in the tales of Frank Norris, Jack London, and Stephen Crane, including emphases on self-preservation, mental reasoning, overpowering forces of nature, the frontier, and morality. Although these authors manipulate Burke's and Kant's sublimes differently, each uses the sublime to discuss self-preservation and its subsequent effect on reasoned morality as a social contract promoting selflessness. In examining Norris's McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), Vandover and the Brute (c.1896, posthumously 1914), and The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1903); London's The Sea-Wolf (1904) ; and Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895), we discover that Norris's characters commit acts of brutality in securing their self-preservation and desires; London's characters use Kantian reason to justify perverted morals of self-preservation that serve the individual rather than the many; and Crane's protagonist deserts his regiment out of self-preservation just to rejoin it in a murderous camaraderie as a singular killing machine obsessed with its own survival. By the end of the study, we see how three important American authors develop a new style of fin-de-siècle literature that relies heavily on the sublime to drive brutal tales of struggle and strife as characters negotiate mental and physical elements outside of their control that obfuscate and sometimes nullify morality.