Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women's Writing cover

Donna M. Campbell

University of Georgia Press: 2016


In 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her novel, The Age of Innocence. Wharton was part of a new generation born in the 1860s and 1870s who, equipped with new biological theories, challenged conventions of the Victorian era.

Deriving its title from one of Wharton’s remarks that Americans preferred the “ice-cream soda” of popular fiction over stories that conveyed reality and the often harsher truths of life, Bitter Tastes explores the way dozens of women writers approached their work around the turn of the twentieth century.

Donna M. Campbell, a professor of English at Washington State University, walks readers through the various works of women who redefined naturalistic fiction—which aims for accuracy and objectivity, and creates realistic, often grim, portrayals of people and their environment.

Like naturalism, film was also an emerging medium used to document the social truths and realities of modern life. Women played a large role in shaping the way these stories played out in early cinema, as nearly 40 percent of film writers were women.

Both men and women naturalists wrote with themes of determinism, Darwinism, and death. Women, though, also explore emotions, disability, and concerns of social justice in their writing. Campbell presents stories from women laboring in fields to stories of women laboring in childbirth. She explores the way women approached stories that revolved around living on the edge of poverty, and issues of sexuality, class, race, work, disability, slavery, and violence.

In Bitter Tastes, Campbell uncovers and highlights work from dozens of American women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, and Ellen Glasgow. In doing so, Campbell asks the reader to consider the boundaries of this genre, extends the context to film, and recognizes a more inclusive and diverse group of authors and their body of work than is typically taught or explored.