Call for Contributions: “Intimate Knowledge in American Realism and Naturalism”

Selina Foltinek's picture
Call for Publications
August 16, 2020
Subject Fields: 
American History / Studies, Literature, Women's & Gender History / Studies

Call for Contributions: Special Issue of Studies in American Naturalism on
“Intimate Knowledge in American Realism and Naturalism”


Deadline: August 16, 2020


While many recent investigations into the late nineteenth century have focused on large-scale changes such as the growth of mass media and the consolidation of American national identity, this special issue of Studies in American Naturalism will investigate the negotiation of the ‘small,’ intimate concerns of life in literature. Realist fiction and its increased focus on the individual and ever more sophisticated techniques of exploring developments of thought and norms of experience not only reflect the growing interest in such ‘small matters,’ highlighting what contemporaries’ self-conception as ‘modern’ meant on the levels of emotion and consciousness, but also allow for new ways of engaging with intimacy and knowledge. At the same time, Naturalism’s fascination with the lower classes and issues such as prostitution, which American literature had previously shied away from, provided contemporaries with insights pertaining to sexuality, the body, and secrecy (even though Naturalist characters themselves are notoriously incapable of cognitively understanding their predicament). As such, we understand intimacy as including, yet going far beyond the concerns of sex and sexuality (cf. Intimate Matters). Intimate matters are also childbirth and grief, friendship and longing, love and relationships, introspection and domesticity, addiction and illness. In all these, intimate knowledge in fiction is thus always oscillating between disclosure and secrecy – a contrast ripe for exploration via literary means.

As John Gibson highlights, “Literature does not treat the world as an object of knowledge but as a subject of human concern,” and therefore offers “a dramatic investigation” (483). Such a mode of knowledge production, we argue, is especially valuable for those aspects of life closed off to other (particularly: scientific) modes of inquiry. The “experiential familiarity” (Felski) enabled by fiction offers unique access to intimate matters, which encompass “what is closely held and personal and […] what is deeply shared with others” (Yousef).

This special issue is part of the recent trend to explore extrascientific modes of knowledge production. It is also indebted to a number of studies, especially in affect and queer studies, which have explored intimacy’s ties to sexuality, capitalism (cf. Illouz), and politics (cf. Berlant). The contributions in this special issue want to link these two concerns to understand how intimacy is not only lived and experienced, but shared and mediated, in short: How it can be (made) known. The contributions further seek to historicize intimate knowledge. Given Realism’s and Naturalism’s programmatic investment in knowledge (and especially, epistemological uncertainty) and the era’s increased focus on individualism and interiority, we propose that literary texts from this period are uniquely suited for these endeavors.


Contributions might address the following questions:

  • What are examples of the breakdown of distance between text and reader, when matters are brought “unnervingly close” (Felski)? What are the aesthetic as well as ethical implications of such a discomfort?
  • How do Realist and Naturalist texts position themselves vis-à-vis public discourses which rely increasingly on the exploitation (e.g. rise in autobiographical writing; articles on scandals such as Tilton-Beecher-Affair) and investigation of intimacy (e.g. psychology; sexology; photojournalistic investigations of private spaces)?
  • How are late nineteenth-century approaches to intimacy (e.g. Wharton’s anthropological gaze) building on or producing different forms of literary knowledge than, e.g., sentimentalism’s focus on sympathy or pre-war concerns of affiliation (cf. Coviello)?
  • Which modes of communication (on the level of plot as well as narrative discourse) lend themselves to engaging with intimate knowledge (e.g. gossip, narration in free indirect discourse, dreams, dialogue, letters and diary entries)?
  • In what ways does Naturalism mobilize the representation of ‘real’ intimate matters to attack Victorian morality as ‘unreal’?
  • How did Naturalist writers deploy issues of intimacy in their quest for authenticity and their desire to carve out a new public image of ‘the author’ as bohemian iconoclast? 
  • How is intimacy bound up with cultural identity and social hierarchies? Whose intimacy is (not) depicted and to what ideological ends?
  • How is the treatment of intimacy in literature in the late nineteenth century shaped by the “slippage” between Realism and Naturalism, that is, “the presence of realist aesthetics in naturalist fiction and the presence of naturalist aesthetics in realist fiction” (Duneer)?
  • To what extent is knowledge produced in Realist and Naturalist writing, which famously embraced a strong truth claim by promising ‘the truthful treatment of material’ (W. D. Howells), a mirage, because writers were predominantly middle-class in social position and habitus, and thus had very little access to the lower classes, the demi-monde, etc.?
  • In contrast, how does a focus on authors beyond the ‘WASP canon’ (e.g. Charles Chestnutt, Sui Sin Far, Zitkála-Šá, Maria Cristina Mena) also broaden or change our understanding of intimate knowledge? For that matter, which insights can be gained from transnational comparisons of intimate literary knowledge?


We invite contributions that employ a variety of approaches, be they close readings of specific moments of intimacy in literary texts, comparative analyses of the topos in different works and contexts, phenomenological inquiries, theoretical explorations of the epistemological status of intimacy and the specific qualities of literary knowledge in this context, or historical studies of reading Realist and Naturalist works as an intimate experience for contemporary audiences (and discursive inhibitions against it).


Please send abstracts for this special issue of Studies in American Naturalism of approximately 500 words and a brief bio note to the guest editors of the special issue, Katrin Horn ( and Katharina Motyl ( by August 16, 2020. Authors will be notified about editorial decisions by late August. Full essays of no more than 8.000 words (including works cited) will be due by February 28, 2021 and undergo double-blind peer review.