The Managerial Imagination: Mastery and Drift in American Literary Naturalism
James Dorson

My book project examines the relationship between American literary naturalism around the turn of the twentieth century and the concept of management. While the modern sense of management as the efficient distribution of resources has technical origins in engineering discourse, the theory and practice of management also has profound cultural implications. Ever since the rise of management thought with the industrial revolution, where the labor process was increasingly divided between the planning and performance of work, fiction writers have negotiated the meaning of management. In turn management is not simply the result of technical innovation but has always responded to social and cultural change. The mutual influence of management and culture is continuous as literary texts narrativize the effects of management and management theories draw on cultural resources as “narrative productions” (Banta 1993). While management implies a certain way of looking at the world, a perspective that determines how one conceptualizes and approaches problems, through their style and structure literary texts may organize perception in ways that correspond with or challenge a given managerial outlook.

Nowhere is this relationship between management and culture more intricate than in the intersection of management and American literary naturalism around the turn of the twentieth century. Critics have shown how realist and naturalist texts at the time correlated with “a flexible control-technology of regulation and production” (Seltzer 1992); how they “absorbed social science into their very technique” (Mizruchi 1991); how they embodied an “engineering aesthetic” (Tichi 1987); and how naturalist fiction in particular “enact[s] a gesture of control in which the rational (and privileged) manage the brutal (and powerless)” (Howard 1985). While my project draws on such New Historicist work, the value of complicity critique is limited for understanding how theories and practices of management are subject to change over time. The objective of my project is to trace the conflicted ways that naturalist texts engage management thought by simultaneously embodying and critiquing it. If naturalist writers reflected a discourse of social control, they also turned reflexively against it. In order to understand this dialectical relationship between naturalism and management, I draw on Walter Lippmann’s opposition between Drift and Mastery (1914) at the height of the “efficiency craze” in the United States as a conceptual framework for analyzing naturalist fiction in the context of changing forms of management. Locating a fundamental tension between “mastery” (the scientific control of nature) and “drift” (the continuous adaptation to nature) in the work of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, my project examines how the literary construction and negotiation of the poles of mastery and drift in naturalist texts helped constitute what I call the managerial imagination.