Friday, July 10, 2009

The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros

In her essay on George Eliot in The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf described Middlemarch as "mature" and "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."

 I thought of this description when I read the first few pages of Leslie Fiedler's classic Love and Death in the American Novel and find him complaining that
There is a real sense in which our prose fiction is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe, though this is a fact that is difficult for Americans to confess. In this sense, our novels seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile. The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children's section of the library, their level of sentimentality precisely that of a pre-adolescent. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the incapacity of the American novelist to develop; in a compulsive way he returns to a limited world of experience, usually associated with his childhood, writing the same book over and over again until he lapses into silence or self-parody. (24)
Published in 1960, the year after Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus won the National Book Award, in the heyday of Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow1, Fiedler's diagnosis seems both descriptive and predictive of the careers of these writers and a number of their contemporaries. Such a broad statement, however, led me to begin thinking about how much or how little American literature may have changed since 1960 in the terms he sets out.

But first, I want to compare Fiedler and Woolf's comments for a moment and note that what Fiedler takes to be a distinctively American deficiency—the lack of great novels written truly for "grown-up people"—is noted as a peculiarity of English literature as well. Woolf's line is more of a throw-away, while Fiedler's complaint is the seed of a 600-page book, so we're dealing with significantly different types of comments, not to mention the fact that I think Fiedler and Woolf have quite divergent ideas about what a book for "grown-up people" would be, but I do find the similarity of sentiment interesting, at the very least in the sense that both imagine a Continental literature which must be (almost by default) immensely more mature or adult. (Well, I suppose such a notion is not all that far-fetched; you can't really get a children's version of Balzac, much less Collette, can you?)

At any rate, a few pages later, Fiedler refines his comments to
Moreover—and the final paradox is necessary to the full complexity of the case2—our classic literature is a literature of horror for boys. Truly shocking, frankly obscene authors we do not possess; Edgar Allan Poe is our closest approximation, a child playing at what Baudelaire was to live. A Baudelaire, a Marquis de Sade, a "Monk" Lewis, even a John Cleland was inconceivable in the United States. Our flowers of evil are culled for the small girl's bouquet, our novels of terror (Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, the tales of Poe) are placed on the approved book lists of Parents' Committees who nervously fuss over the latest comic books. If such censors do not flinch at necrophilia or shudder over the book whose secret motto is "I baptise you not in the name of the Father… but of the Devil," or fear the juvenile whose hero at his greatest moment cries out, "All right, I'll go to Hell," it is only another irony of life in a land where the writers believe in hell and the official guardians of morality do not. (29-30)
In an amusing footnote following his assertion that Sade, Baudelaire, et al. are "inconceivable" in the U.S., Fiedler adds,
In recent years, the situation appears to have altered radically—perhaps, in part, because the taste of boys has changed, as 'the latency period,' which Freud thought immutable, tends to be abolished. At any rate, the line between 'pornography' and respectable literature has blurred; and certain traditional themes of American literature—the love of white and colored males, for instance, and the vilification of women—are rendered with explicit sexual detail. Indeed, such detail becomes required reading rather than forbidden as American puritanism learns to stand on its head. It is a long way from James Fenimore Cooper to James Baldwin, or from Herman Melville to Norman Mailer; but even if our dreams have become more frankly erotic, the American eros has not really changed. We continue to dream the female dead, and ourselves in the arms of our dusky male lovers.
Alright, that's a lot of Fiedler for us to chew over, and it seems to me to take us quite far afield from the titular subject of this post, but really I have very little to say about Cisneros's novel. Nevertheless, the novel helps as an example of some of the changes in American literature since 1960, and, I think, exemplifies what may not have changed.

For one thing, there is obviously going to be a rather extreme shift in what we think the "American eros" is when critics like Fiedler begin to recognize that our "classic literature" includes women (Edith Wharton, notably, is absent from the book's index, and I dare not even look to see if Zora Neale Hurston is as well). Fiedler's thesis was notoriously selective even when nobody bothered to consider whether "theories of American literature" held true for both genders, but now it looks quite patchy.

Secondly, I think we can honestly say that the days when Parents' Committees blithely approve of classic American literature being taught to their children are at a definite end. I don't know the exact history of when books started getting regularly challenged by parents, but I would imagine it was when books by non-whites and women started getting regularly assigned, and then it moved back up the chain to where Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye started getting pulled as well. Maybe I'm wrong about that—here's the list of the ALA's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books 1990-2000, and it's a regular grab bag in terms of authors, although there are definite themes (stories about blacks, gays, and independent-minded women show up an awful lot).

However, I think it's worth noting that, while many things definitely have changed since Fiedler's diagnosis, and have changed even on a macro- level, there are still a lot of new "classics" that could conform with some adjustments to the American literature Fiedler described, and that this holds true even within some of the broadest changes, such as who is writing and being widely read. The House on Mango Street sure isn't a horror story for boys, but it does have some gothic touches and it certainly finds a home in the pre-teen section, even if it's also as often at home on a college syllabus. If there was any validity to Fiedler's complaint, I think it is born out rather than challenged by a book like The House on Mango Street, or even by something like The Woman Warrior, despite the fact that they obviously do not share in the very white, very male worldview that makes Fiedler's study possible in the first place.3

1Speaking of Bellow, Fiedler has a hilarious way of describing Henderson the Rain King as "a homoerotic Tarzan of the Apes," which strikes me as deliciously redundant.
2What an overwhelmingly Freudian phrase! [AS]
3It should be noted, however, that in many ways Fiedler was quite bold in trying to expand the canon beyond white men; I don't mean to slight such efforts on his part, but I think that Love and Death in the American Novel nonetheless is grounded in a canon and a worldview that is nowhere near as complete or inclusive as Fiedler often advocated elsewhere.

Edit 7/21: I realized when I read Adam Roberts's brilliantly impassioned post on the 2009 Hugos that I had made a typo in the first quote above; the last few words should read "silence or self-parody" not "silence of self-parody," which is an amusing concept, but not what Fiedler wrote. I have corrected it above.


Richard said...

I find it very entertaining that you persist in posting entries that seem like they will be reviews of certain novels but which end up being barely about those novels at all, in which you feel compelled to confess that, after all, "really I have very little to say about" them.

Andrew Seal said...

Well, partly that's because I try to keep the format of my posts fairly uniform. But mostly, I find that plot summary is better off crowd-sourced, to be honest. I mean, most of the novels I've written about in this fashion either have fairly detailed Wikipedia entries or Amazon descriptions. And I feel like not having much to say about the book is itself a sort of evaluation.

On the other hand, The House on Mango Street was the initial context for these thoughts about Fiedler, and removing that context seems to me to take something away that's fairly important. It's a way of anchoring it both in a particular text and in my life (I just read Mango), even if the anchor isn't particularly strong.

Mel said...

As to Fiedler's suggestion that the US has not produced great novels for adults, what of Henry James, Faulkner, and Pynchon?

Andrew Seal said...

Well, V. was only published in 1963, so Fiedler definitely gets a pass on him.

As for James, Fiedler makes an interesting argument that I don't entirely buy: "For all his subtlety and tact, James is basically, hopelessly, an innocent voyeur, which is to say, a child! And he is, indeed, the first novelist to do in full consciousness what Twain in Huckleberry Finn did just once unawares: present the complexities of adult experience as perceived by a pre-adolescent mind." This is in reference to What Maisie Knew, and elsewhere Fiedler works with Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller, which I guess are closer to stories for children than the rest of his stuff.

Fiedler thinks that Faulkner is, for other reasons, sexually immature: "In the work of William Faulkner, the fear of the castrating woman and the dis-ease with sexuality present in the novels of his contemporaries, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, attain their fullest and shrillest expression."

In both cases, Fiedler's not so much making the argument that these writers are writing for pre-teens as that the level of emotional development in terms of heterosexual relationships doesn't greatly exceed that of a pre-teen. The passages I selected are, I think, simply more polemical versions of this broad psychoanalytic argument--that American writers shy away from any kind of mature heterosexual romance in their books. Or rather, Fiedler thinks this psychological defect leads to a literature that is largely characterized most markedly by its relative appropriateness for and popularity among boys, and that Faulkner and James are just as subject to this defect as other writers, even if their works may not exactly be boys' lit.

Richard said...

Those are interesting observations on James and Faulkner; controversial I am sure. (As for Pynchon, it shouldn't be too hard to argue that his books aren't for grown-ups either.)

(Also, obviously I was teasing in my first comment, Andrew. I totally understand what you're saying. Though, it occurs to me, haven't you said you don't have much to say about books you've liked? And a plot summary and evaluation doesn't tell me much about what the novel is like or what it does. Not that you should do that, just saying those are some other ways of talking about the book...)

Nick said...

Hey! I remember "The House on Mango Steet"! However, my memory of Cisneros' prose is not as strong as that of the voluptuous high school English teacher who prescribed it to me.


Sorry, I felt like the discussion in the comments needed dumbing down.

I take it from the copious footnotes that you enjoyed Infinite Jest?

Andrew Seal said...

Richard, I'd have to check if I actually did say this, but what I meant to say was that I find it more difficult to catalogue and examine the qualities of a book I really like than those of a book I have mixed feelings about. That is, a book like A Bend in the River seems to me a sort of gestalt of excellence, seamless, and I have trouble picking it into separate ideas to write about. But I knew you were teasing--I just wanted to take the opportunity to explain myself--not really writing about the novels I'm ostensibly posting about is something that bothers me sometimes.

I'm nowhere near done with Jest yet, unfortunately. I'm actually only keeping up with the Infinite Summer schedule. I'll see if I can't pick up some ground soon, though.

Nick said...

When I'm reading a novel with a compelling prose style, it seeps into my own writing. One of the joys of having so many people writing about Infinite Jest is to see how writing styles change. I wonder if I'll start using footnotes too. (FWIW, I'm a few days behind on the Infinite Jest schedule.)

As to the content of your post... I've always identified Cisneros with her line, "when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one." So I agree that her writing makes a good frame for discussing Fielder's comments.

The "American literature is emotionally juvenile" theory may be a good fit for a lot of novels, but I think it misses some of the bigger picture. Yes, a pre-teen reader could read these books and make sense of them, emotionally and thematically. But that doesn't mean the books are limited, or that they indicate an "incapacity of the American novelist to develop." It just means that their more mature themes are concealed, and require more sophistication to sniff out.

Consider "The Graduate" as a concrete example. A lot of people identify with the Dustin Hoffman character. His character arc flows from a limited and naive worldview. Then there's Mrs. Robinson's character arc, which gives you a darkly mature and cynical picture of relationships. It is easy to miss that arc, particularly if you're young and identify strongly with Hoffman. It's an adult story tucked in the corner of a juvenile one.

So maybe a more accurate picture of am. lit. would be one where the novel gives you a mainline plot that's accessible to everyone, and conceals any maturity that it may possess. I wonder what Fielder would say to that?

Nick said...

d'oh. i meant Fiedler. My spell checker screwed me again.

Amateur Reader said...

Regarding your French examples: Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo? I don't think American fiction has any monopoly on "juvenile" fiction.

And if James is pre-adolescent, Balzac is practically infantile.