Freedom is mine! Or, "Melodramas of Beset Manhood," redux.

I got my copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom from the mail carrier just minutes ago.  I’ll let you know what I think about it once I’ve read it, since I know some of you are also FranzenFans.

Meanwhile, upon Mamie’s recommendation a few days ago in our discussion of Jennifer Weiner’s and Jodi Picoult’s critique of the American literary establishment , I’ve been reading Nina Baym’s classic essay, “Melodramas of Beset Manhood:  How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors,” American Quarterly 33: 2 (1981), 123-139Dandelion made the same point that Baym elaborates on in her essay about American literature:  “In my reading, it seems the bulk of American literature deals with main characters individuating and separating. Since it’s ‘selfish’ for women to individuate and separate, the bulk of American literature doesn’t involve women. If women writers are writing stories about women’s lives, then, they are, by definition, not going to be writing literature.”

Baym writes about the rewriting of the literary history of the early Republic that will sound familiar to those of you who have followed my comments on American literary fiction and criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  (Which is to say that I’ve been influenced by Baym for decades, not the other way around, surely!)  In short, twentieth-century literary critics pushed aside the authors of the first wildly popular American novels like Susannah Rowson (Charlotte Temple, among others) and Hannah Foster (The Coquette) in order to crown Charles Brockden Brown the first real author of the American novel.  (Now, late eighteenth century novels aren’t the most readable relicts in all of literary history, but Charles Brockden Brown is widely known as the most unreadable of all early American novelists.)  Baym explains:

[I]n his lively and influential book of 1960, Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fielder describes women authors as creators of the “flagrantly bad best-seller” against which “our best fictionists”–all male–have had to struggle for “their integrity and their livelihoods.”  And, in a 1978 reader’s introduction to an edition of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, Sydney J. Krause and S.W. Reid write as follows:

What it meant for Brown personally, and belles letters in America historically, that he should have decided to write professionally is a story unto itself.  Americans simply had no great appetite for serious literature in the early decades of the Republic—certainly nothing of the sort with which they devoured. . . the ubiquitous melodramas of beset womanhood, “tales of truth,” like [Rowson’s and Foster’s books.]

There you see what has happened to the woman writer.  She has entered literary history as the enemy.  The phrase “tales of truth” is put in quotes by the critics, as though to cast doubt on the very notion that a “melodrama of beset womanhood” could be either true or important.  At the same time, ironically, they are proposing for our serious consideration, as a candidate for intellectually engaging literature, a highly melodramatic novel with an improbable plot, inconsistent characterizations, and excesses of style that have posed tremendous problems for all students of Charles Brockden Brown.  But, by this strategy it becomes possible to begin major American fiction historically with male rather than female authors.  The certainty here that stories about women could not contain the essence of American culture means that the matter of American experience is inherently male.  And this makes it highly unlikely that American women would write fiction encompassing such experience.  I would suggest that the theoretical model of a story which may become the vehicle of cultural essence is:  “a melodrama of beset manhood.”  This melodrama is presented in a fiction which, as we’ll later see, can be taken as representative of the author’s literary experience, his struggle for integrity and livelihood against flagrantly bad best-sellers written by women.  Personally beset in a way that epitomizes the tensions of our culture, the male author produces his melodramatic testimony to our culture’s essence–so the theory goes.

So the theory goes. How sad is it that Baym’s claims may seem more radical now than they were nearly 30 years ago?  (It’s that old devil patriarchal equilibrium again!)  Thanks to all of you for your insights and recommendations in the earlier discussion.

0 thoughts on “Freedom is mine! Or, "Melodramas of Beset Manhood," redux.

  1. Terrific essay. My typist had it in mind when we were working on that piece a couple weeks back on all those stories we saw this summer about getting away from technology and civilization, which has always been a flight from women and domesticity, of course. (That post is here: Moose started grad school in the fall of the year “Melodramas of Beset Manhood” was published, and it influenced her decision to become an Americanist. Crazy that it still seems so radical and necessary, but the Boys’ Club of Am Lit and Culture is alive and well, as you know, Historiann.

    Sorry we missed the earlier discussion — Re-entry week is distracting my typist from her blog reading, I’m afraid!


  2. I second Roxie’s comment–terrific essay. You know the “Aha!” moment when everything clicks into place and you realize what was wrong before? “MoBM” made everything click into place.


  3. Have you read Joanna Russ’s essay/short story about why women can’t write American literature? I know I pulled a copy of it from some anthology for my students a while back — I could send it to you if I ever find it.


  4. Brown’s work is difficult to understand only because he wrote within a radical idiom that has been successfully suppressed by ensuing waves of cultural conservatism. Strange to criticize the author of what was at that time the longest work of feminist social commentary (Alcuin) published by any American resident. Post-Baym criticism and editions of Brown, often informed by recovery work of feminist scholar Janet Todd, have made Brown, and his gender progressivism, newly legible.

    (And by the way, it was nineteenth-century critics, not twentieth-century ones, who made the claim for Brown as “father of the American novel”, but these literary histories also usually spent more time detailing the writing of a wider spectrum of women than are taught even in the most canon-revised seminars today).


  5. In reading reviews of Freedom, I noticed that the “monstrous” housewife, identified as a former high-school hoops star, has the same first name as the hoops-playing 1970s rape victim in Franzen’s story “Agreeable,” mentioned around here in an earlier post.

    Please report: does the “agreeable” victim really grow up to be a monstrous shrew?


  6. The points made in Historiann’s excerpt of Baym’s essay precisely echo the sentiments quoted in the NPR piece by Tanenhaus and Smiley. Tanenhaus praised Franzen’s work for providing us with ‘a panorama of our culture’ which also illuminated its deepest anxieties, tensions and questions. Smiley sympathized with the sentiments of Picoult, arguing that literature such as hers was overlooked because the ‘payoff was emotional rather than intellectual.’

    Alongside the gendered production and reception of the works under discussion, I think there are at least two other factors at work which explain some of the adulation that has greeted work such as Franzen’s. The first is that lit is one of the few places in American media where one can get away with scathing criticism of our culture. The phenomenon which is greeting Franzen’s latest probably came into current form with the popular reception of Sinclair Lewis’ works. Main Street and Babbitt are, among other things, relentless take-downs of small-town and urban middle-class life, yet they were devoured and critically lauded. There’s an axis that runs from Lewis, through Updike and on to Franzen in which readers have been reading about themselves in witty but unflattering ways. (With a lot more verve and nuance than Cheever, BTW).

    The second factor I think is at work is that these author’s projects — novels with aspects of social history — are closer to the journalist’s enterprise than those of Picoult or Weiner. I don’t find it very suprising that periodicals that traffic primarily in current affairs and contemporary high- and middle-brow culture highlight fiction that covers the same territory. Journalists are going to praise work that seems journalistic.

    ‘Dick-lit’? In the sense that these authors write primarily about male characters and sex drive from a white, privileged position, sure…but one must acknowledge the HUGE strain of male self-loathing that permeates Roth and Updike, and I’d argue most postwar male-authored American fiction. Their sexual natures are the source of far more anxiety than enjoyment…if there’s an essence to today’s ‘dick-lit’, I think that’s it.


  7. Anyone who loves their Charles Brockden Brown is welcome to him! I don’t think the more recent cultural studies literature makes his novels any more appealing or interesting, but YMMV.

    Geoff’s point is interesting about how journalists might be drawn to the big social novels as opposed to the self-contained worlds of other writers.

    And Mamie–yes, the “Patty” in the short story and the “Patty” in the novel are in the same character! (Good pickup). In fact, the first part of the novel is simply the two short stories Franzen published in the New Yorker recently (in the past year or so.) I’m still slogging through them to get to the new material. “Patty” is portrayed as an over-involved SAHM of the 1980s-early 2000s whose son rebels against her and disappoints her. I’m not sure where Franzen is going with the character, but the rape story is part of her own autobiography in the novel.


  8. Pingback: Tuesday roundup: drunken a$$hats edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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