Friday, November 13, 2009
Updating “Melodramas of Beset Manhood,” by Nina Baym
Aaron has brought up Nina Baym’s canonical essay “Melodramas of Beset Manhood” twice recently—once w/r/t Mark Greif’s essay on the struggle for gay marriage and then again in discussing the Publishers Weekly epic fail of coming up with a male-only shortlist for 2009. Not having read the essay (despite its presence in the embarrassingly mostly-unread anthology I own called Locating American Studies), I decided I better get down to it.
Having done so, I certainly share in Aaron’s enthusiasm for the essay—some 28 years later (that sounds like a zombie film), it’s still a bracing rush of argument and still feels largely on target, perhaps because its targets are still mostly at large. It has also, however, been frequently criticized in the intervening years for being largely blind to race—its feminism is very white—and for still not really finding any place in American fiction for the gay writer or for gay themes.
But because it still has such capacity for generating enthusiasm and a feeling of recognition ("yep, guess we still do that"), I would like to see if I can think through its major claims here in light of the American fiction of the past ten year and the general position of the woman writer in America today. My objective is not so much to read Baym’s essay freshly as to read the past decade’s American fiction using a(n arguably) still serviceable model.
A very short essay commenting on “Melodramas” in the aforementioned Locating American Studies anthology summarizes Baym’s main argument succinctly:
She argues that male literary critics’ theories about what constitutes the best of American literature—and thus what characterizes the writing worthy of inclusion in the Ameican literary canon—have been hopelessly gender-biased. Influential critics have defined the central myth of American culture as the struggle of an (implicitly male) individual against the natural world of the wilderness and the constraints of society, both of which are coded as female. The “best” American literature, according to these critics, exemplifies this myth.
A couple of supporting points need to be added from the essay itself to flesh this out: first, Baym’s focus is on the themes present in American literary criticism; her argument is not so much that American novelists have written books that inevitably feature men as protagonists and women as either representative of the “entrammeling” forces of society or the landscape, but that this is the only way that American literary critics have thought of books which they consider great, and that any book which absolutely cannot be re-shaped to fit this narrative (the majority of which will be by women, and constituting the vast majority of women’s fiction) will be rejected as inferior or will simply be ignored. A good example of this is The Scarlet Letter, which she points out has often been re-imagined by critics as if Dimmesdale is the true protagonist, not Hester; that he is the one with the human drama and she is merely caught in an allegorical or mythic drama. Thus and only thus, does the novel fit the American myth, and because The Scarlet Letter is a demonstrable masterpiece, it must be.
Second, American literary critics have tended to emphasize that the “best” or “greatest” American literature is also the “most American” literature—the literature which best expresses the “American ideal” or the “American mind” or spirit or character or what-have-you. So the project of canon-formation is identical with the project of defining a unified “American character” or a universally underlying “American mind,” categories which these literary critics (D. H. Lawrence, Lionel Trilling, the myth and symbol school, F. O. Matthiessen, et al.) have basically assembled themselves to give a sense of impermeable continuity among the American writers they consider “great.” If that sounds circular, it’s because it is: theories of what constitutes great American literature proceed from a set of writers already selected for various reasons, and then those theories are used to judge whether writers not at first considered fit the narrative. You start out, say, with Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Whitman, imagine not only the real historical connections between them but a spiritual-artistic unity floating through each, and then you try it on others: does Theodore Dreiser share in this unity? No, throw him out. Edith Wharton? No, throw her out. Scott Fitzgerald? Maybe yes!
So, taking as our quarry literary criticism that has attempted to identify not only the best novels but the “most American” novels (even if they’re not always labeled such explicitly), let’s glance over the last decade. The point is to see if the novels that have been acclaimed as the decade’s “great” literature are still being so acclaimed because they fit the myth Baym critiques. Let me say before things get out of hand, though, that I am not attacking these novels; in fact, many of them are among my unambiguous and unconflicted favorites of the decade. Others aren’t, and I bet you can tell which ones, but my dislike for them isn’t comprehensively premised on the ease with which they can be assimilated to the American myth Baym describes. Okay, first stop, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.
The fact that there can be said to be multiple protagonists (one of whom is a woman) seems to mitigate against fitting the novel in perfectly. But then let’s remember that the focus usually rests on Chip Lambert’s narrative, one which absolutely lives up to the myth: Are women seen as the entrammeling forces of society? Major check: he’s screwed a female student and is in trouble; his mom nags him persistently. Does the protagonist make an effort to shed these woman-forged manacles and light out for the territory? Check! He scampers away to Lithuania. And while he does re-enter the domestic sphere willingly at the end of the novel, it is clear to all that his new-found stability is due entirely to his completion of the American myth: if he hadn’t gone through the whole experience of screwing his student and fleeing to Vilnius, he couldn’t be happy now. Most reviews gravitated to this storyline: I expect that if Franzen had not written it, but instead had written a novel “just” about a lesbian chef (Chip’s sister Denise), it wouldn’t be called the most characteristic novel of the Bush years.
Next up (this will not necessarily go in chronological order): The Human Stain, by Philip Roth. Is there a book published this decade which features a more vicious portrayal of an “encroaching, constricting, destroying” woman than Roth’s Delphine Roux, the French professor who does, in this morality play, in fact represent the forces of a psychotically politically correct society? The fact that this novel wasn’t laughed off the pages of every book review in the country but was instead taken as some sort of reasonable parable of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and the resulting legal proceedings (which were prosecuted almost entirely by Congressmen, by a male special prosecutor, and by conservative male pundits) is, I think, a pretty strong example of the way that great American novels are just expected to conform to the American myth and transmute any messy facts into its timeless tropes: woman as society, men as beset but struggling to break free.
Netherland: In a slight twist, the male protagonist doesn’t leave his wife (she leaves him), but her absence allows him to go out and look for America. Netherland, perhaps more than any other novel published this decade, was cheered and welcomed by American critics for being an American Novel, so close to The Great Gatsby that it is necessary to mention its resemblance in nearly every review. In fact we find we even have to (in fact we’re glad to!) shrug off the fact that other countries might have a slightly stronger claim to it: that it is as more of a British novel or a European novel than it is an American novel. Nope, our critics say, it’s ours because it fits our myth, and Europe can’t have it back.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: Besides the fact that Chabon’s most recent book is called Manhood for Amateurs, we have in this novel a male protagonist with a threatening ex-wife, a plot angle that serves as a constant obstacle to Landsmann’s attempt to solve the mystery at the heart of the novel. In the reviews I’ve read, this spousal conflict tends to get more play than the (arguably) much bigger threat of American policy and the weight of a tragic history and the messianic promise: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union just doesn’t work as well as an American Novel if the main antagonist is the American government, but it works great if the protagonist is struggling with marital problems. For instance, read Michiko Kakutani’s review: she dismisses the stuff about “the highest levels of the United States government” as “too far-fetched to be plausible,” but she takes extra care to describe the particulars of Landsmann’s conflict with his wife—evidently, Bina is the bigger and more credible threat, the more effective nemesis.
The Road: Like many another American classic, women are entirely banished from the space of the novel (except in memory, which the film plays up—an interesting tangent is the way the American myth changes when it is put on film). The absence of women is the obvious pre-condition for the particular action of the novel: if the child were a girl (or the father were replaced by a mother), the story probably would not even work.
The Lazarus Project: There are two storylines and both have elements of the American myth, but the stronger is definitely the present-day one, where we find a crumbling marriage which the protagonist flees from with a male companion. Self-discovery (including the discovery that the marriage is definitively over) and personal growth ensue, now that the protagonist is unencumbered by women/American society.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Here, Oscar’s virginity is the vehicle of the woman-as-entrammeling society motif. While there are luminous passages in the novel describing the actions, emotions, and consciousnesses of the female characters, Oscar becomes a sort of American Hero—and earns his place in the title of the book—by overcoming the massed forces of femininity by finally getting laid. Oh, and reading comic books. If Oscar didn’t exist in this novel, and exist as a character so assimilable to the American myth, would it be so acclaimed?
And I don’t even really want to talk about Indecision (which features a threatening woman-as-society subplot in the form of the protagonist’s incestuous attraction to his sister) and All the Sad Young Literary Men: while not exactly considered by anyone as the greatest novels of the past decade, they were produced by two men who have basically revived the project of Trilling-like (or Partisan Review-like) criticism in America and who have received significant amounts of attention for doing so. At any rate, there may be no two books of the past ten years more intentionally constructed to fit into the American myth than these two; reading them, I often had the feeling that the point of writing them seemed to be to create a literature which would support a rebirth of Trillingian criticism.
There are others, I’m sure, which could be similarly glossed, but I imagine I’ve made my point, or made enough of a point that we can argue over some particulars. Add some titles to the list, tell me I’ve read these wrong, but it seems to me that the literary critical project of reading American fiction according to this American myth still sets the table for what we will be served as the “best American fiction.”
Unfortunately this is a phenomena not unique to American fiction. In many ways the story of American poetry, particularly of the avant-garde is a similar, but more violent, rejection to the encroaching female. One can watch entire movements rise and fall in this struggle against women, or against that which is coded as feminine.
I finally had a chance to look at Baym’s essay, which I hadn’t read since my graduate seminar on 19thC American literature. I don’t know lit crit of contemporary American fiction well enough to say much in response to this post in particular, but your account of these recent novels (only a few of which I’ve read) does make it sound as if “best” is often still equated with the kind of myths and assumptions Baym describes. On the other hand--or, at the same time--I’ve just finished Olive Kitteridge, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize and is about the very opposite of all of this stuff. (Mind you, I also don’t know the relationship between the Pulitzer and the kind of critical viewpoint you are considering.) I wonder what other American novels by women (though Olive Kitteridge is not exactly a novel) are excluded from the implicit canon-making you describe. Looking over my own list of recent reading, I find a lot of books by British and Canadian women but hardly any by American women, and there’s no doubt, sadly perhaps, that my own selections are driven in part by the kind of hype that surrounds the latest greatest thing (e.g. I’ve read Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, The Corrections, Netherland. What have I been missing?
Do you mean in terms of American literature by women that has gotten similar acclaim/publicity, or missing in the sense of what is great but not getting covered?
In the first category, I suppose Jhumpa Lahiri would be in the conversation; Lorrie Moore’s book this year got the kind of star treatment regularly afforded to the Chabons, Franzens, et al. Both novels by Marilynne Robinson published this decade have been garlanded with plaudits; Nicole Krauss’s History of Love made a splash, I think, although it seems like every reference to her now notes her marriage to Jonathan Safran Foer (someone who I probably should have covered above), which is kind of irritating. Alice Sebold, Marisha Pessl, Rivka Galchen, Claire Messud, Chimamanda Adichie, and Kiran Desai have all received decent amounts of press, but as you note, none of the above has really been dubbed the latest greatest thing. I would argue, in fact, that (in terms of U.S. lit) the 2000s have been more dominated by literature by and largely for men than the 90s or even the 80s were.
As for what’s great but not getting covered well, I’m sure there are many people much better qualified to address that, but one author I’ve really liked is Meg Wolitzer.
Andrew--sorry, I wasn’t very clear! I guess what I was thinking was that if my own reading choices are being steered by my impressions of what is the ‘latest greatest thing,’ I may be missing women novelists in particular (though also male novelists) who do not meet that model of the “best” American fiction. Marilynne Robinson may be an interesting case here: as you say, she has gotten a lot of acclaim and attention, but it doesn’t sound as if her recent novels have much to do with ‘melodramas of beset manhood’ (I haven’t read them yet). So she may be something of a counter-example to your generalization, if she is indeed considered one of the “best.”
I actually think there is a case to be made for including Robinson in the roll-call of melodramas of beset manhood, but it is a case that required much more than a paragraph, and so I left her off. I never actually posted on Gilead when I read it, so making this case might be a good exercise for me.
But your point is very well taken--I think that there are many novelists who absolutely get screened out by this process, and unfortunately it is very difficult to get a sense of who among the masses that don’t “fit” the myth is actually worth reading.