An Interview with Judith Saunders, Author of American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives

  Photo by Judith Brown

Photo by Judith Brown

The inaugural book in ASP's new Evolution, Cognition, and the Arts series, American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives examines selected works in the American literary tradition from an evolutionary perspective. Using an interdisciplinary framework to pose new questions about long admired, much discussed texts, the collection as a whole provides an introduction to Darwinian literary critical methodology. Individual essays feature a variety of figures—Benjamin Franklin to Billy Collins—targeting fitness-related issues ranging from sexual strategies and parental investment to cheating and deception. Attention is paid to the physical and social environments in which fictional characters are placed, including the influence of cultural–historical conditions on resource acquisition, status-building, competition, and reciprocity. Discussion throughout the volume makes connections to existing secondary comment, suggesting how Darwinian scrutiny can generate unexpected insights into long familiar works.

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Academic Studies Press: As the first in ASP’s new Evolution, Cognition, and the Arts series, and as a contribution to a relatively young and pioneering field, can American Classics serve as an example for other scholars of how evolutionary theory can work as a critical lens for literary examination?

Judith Saunders: Because the book offers a dozen self-contained, illustrative examples of evolutionary analysis in action, it suggests the varied possibilities inherent in this interdisciplinary enterprise. Darwinian criticism does not confine itself (as often mistakenly is believed) to a small number of topics directly related to mating and reproduction. Human physical and mental design is the result of natural selection over time: it follows that every aspect of human experience—physiological, social, psychological—necessarily invites evolutionary examination. Literary investigation based on evolutionary principles can and does encompass the whole range of human motivation and activity. One goal in writing the book, certainly, is to demonstrate the rich potential of this emergent field. Every chapter investigates a different set of evolutionary topics.

ASP: Why is it important to employ Darwinian analysis to classic texts? What sorts of new readings can be gleaned from its application?

JS: Works identified as classics have attracted comment from generations of discerning readers. Darwinian analysis can validate its claims to usefulness by shining a different light on these well known, much discussed texts. An evolutionary perspective may explain why earlier interpretive comments hold true, showing that they are located in foundational aspects of human nature ... or may open new ways of thinking about characters, themes, or plots ... or may offer compelling refutation of long standard readings by pointing to neglected textual features.

The chapter on The Great Gatsby, by way of example, looks among other things at Gatsby’s myth-making propensity. His creative manipulation of reality, including falsification of social and temporal reality (most apparent in his self-deceiving wish to wipe out Daisy’s marriage to Tom Buchanan and “put things back” the way they had been five years previously), supports his efforts to acquire a superior mate. One of the qualities men prize highly in mates is sexual fidelity, and they do so for fitness-related reasons: a man risks investing personal care and material resources in other men’s children if he cannot count on his mate’s exclusive loyalty. In order to maintain his image of Daisy as a faithful woman, committed only and always to him, Gatsby must find a way to deny the relationship with Tom that superseded her initial romance with him. To avoid admitting that she rejected him three years ago when she broke their tacit engagement and married someone else, Gatsby turns to counterfactual thinking. Nothing else will serve his desperate need to maintain his idealized image of Daisy: her personal history must be revised to fit his dazzling conception of her. Darwinian analysis shows how Fitzgerald’s novel explores connections between the adapted mating-mind and the capacity to sustain illusion. An evolutionary perspective rubs some of the fairy dust off Gatsby’s “dream” of recapturing the past but renders it more understandably human—an extreme and intriguing instance of a species-typical tendency—placing it in that wider context.

ASP: What can evolutionary theory offer to literary criticism in general?

JS: Interdisciplinary exploration in any academic field stimulates discovery by placing familiar ideas and materials in new contexts. Juxtaposition of two different sets of theory and method frequently leads to unexpected realizations. Nearly every field of study has been influenced in recent years by contemporary evolutionary science: anthropology, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and cognition, to name a few. Literary Studies can only profit by testing the potential of this now multi-disciplinary enterprise to generate valuable understandings.

A fundamental assumption of Literary Darwinism is that works of art must and do reflect adapted human nature, together with the physical and social environments influencing human behavior. Darwinian inquiry locates literary art, consequently, at the intersection of biological, psychological, and cultural aspects of human experience.

ASP: What can Literary Darwinism tell us about the act of reading itself—the types of stories that capture our attention and their emotional impact?

JS: Evolutionary criticism confirms our sense that works of imagination compel attention because they appeal to universal human nature and address recurring human dilemmas. Stories, plays, and poems address those dilemmas with a keenness that is both artful and urgent, moreover, engaging readers with emotionally vivid action or situation. Even works that seem unrealistically conceived and far removed from ordinary human reality—futuristic, utopian, or occult, for example—address familiar preoccupations, albeit indirectly.

We read for many reasons: to explore our sometimes satisfying, sometimes anguished, relationship with community expectations; to reassure ourselves that our understanding of our physical and social environments is sufficiently subtle and accurate; to escape temporarily from existential threats and torments; to assuage our griefs and to soothe our anxieties. Often, too, we read because fictive examples may enable us to refine or reshape our handling of real-life problems: we observe how literary characters cope with the intricacies of attracting mates, achieving status, building reputations, forging alliances, or acquiring resources. We read to immerse ourselves in social or physical worlds different from our own, tasting the vicarious pleasure of options unavailable to us in our actual lives. We read to project ourselves into characters representing a wide variety of human types, playing try-on with a vast wardrobe of identities.  We read to test and hone our social survival skills, watching characters read minds, detect deception, and avoid victimization. We obtain useful tips, too for perpetrating our own deceptions, for engaging in culturally permissible, potentially adaptive, acts of cheating. We read because we are fascinated by the antics of our fellow social animals, and literature offers us a cornucopia of examples.

ASP: Given unlimited space, what other works might you have chosen to include in the book?

JS: Poems by Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Elizabeth Bishop come immediately to mind. It would be satisfying to tackle Moby-Dick, but the analysis might well turn into a book as vast as the novel itself. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Crane’s Maggie, and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter would be prime candidates for evolutionary analysis, along with short fiction by Poe, Irving, James, Freeman, Cather, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin. Other possibilities include Stein’s Three Lives, Dreiser’s American Tragedy and Lewis’s Main Street … there’s no shortage of enticing materials for a follow-up volume.


Judith P. Saunders is Professor of English at Marist College in New York State. She is the author of The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson: Border Lines and Reading Edith Wharton through a Darwinian Lens: Evolutionary Biological Issues in Her Fiction.