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."

9 comments:

Richard said...

Scattered thoughts on a few of the books mentioned.

For me, the female characters were easily the best thing about Oscar Wao. Over time, I found Oscar himself tiresome.

I've been thinking about The Road lately, how the woman dies before the time in which the book takes places. I loved the novel, but it has occurred to me that the the mother being unable to go on in the face of impossible adversity, while the father remains to protect the son, is wildly self-serving and, generally, historically distorting. It is, in fact, women who persevere. Men leave.

And now I must offer something of a defense of Human Stain. The depiction of Delphine Roux is indeed risible, but it must be remembered that this is no objective reality (none of Roth's fiction's purport to be). They are the points of view of the narrator, or that of Coleman Silk, a deeply flawed participant in the novel's proceedings. I think it's clear from the text that in "real life" Delphine is nothing like how she comes across (at least, I had a hard time taking the depiction seriously; admittedly it has been many years). She is a distortion. Also, did people really read it as a "reasonable parable of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and the resulting legal proceedings"? How tedious. To this reader, the connection to that affair was tenuous at best.

Andrew Seal said...

I completely agree about the female characters in Wao--those sections were superb. I just wanted to point out that Díaz didn't write a novel called "The Long Wondrous Life of Belicia Cabral," and that if he had, the novel probably would not have been so successful.

Ditto on The Road.

I would like to accept that Roth didn't intend for his portrayal of Delphine to be taken as identical to her objective reality, but he nevertheless shuts her out from contesting the subjective realities enforced on her by the other characters, and to me the difference between Roth not giving her a countering voice and Roth himself thinking that Coleman and Zuckerman's views of her are correct is negligible. Furthermore, at a certain point, Roth's desires to push buttons about gender override whatever more moderate views he might "really" have. But then again, I just can't stand Roth, so I'm sure I'm not giving him a perfectly fair hearing.

As for the Clinton stuff, Roth puts it right out front in the novel: pages 2 and 3 are about the affair, and the parallel to Silk is made explicit. It was also one of the main frames critics placed on it (e.g.).

Richard said...

Oh, I know he puts that stuff right up front, but I guess it seems a little to easy. Doesn't it? Though I guess it being easy is why it was indeed framed that way by the reviewers.

I don't know, I always find something in Roth to be well worth it, even when I find the premise irritating, or the framework painful.

Richard said...

"TOO easy", obviously. Sigh.

Jimmyyyy said...

Delphine Roux is a complete caricature, a straw(wo)man for Roth. Coleman Silk may have an unfair view of her, but she nevertheless lives up to her reputation with her ridiculous exit from the book that is more or less satirical.

Mike said...

So I think this argument is quite interesting... that the template for the great American novel was set in a sexist time, and so as critics measure what is 'great' and distinctly American, they reify away. Yet I wonder how that situation could be improved? It's a fallacy to assume that novels by women would necessarily break this mold; it's a fallacy to assume that criticism by women would either (Kakutani, as you mention). Perhaps the real problem is a lack of imagination and taste, and elevating and then rewarding a prescribed theme?

But that brings me to my issue with your (admittedly) quick reads of these books... you gloss plot and the formal aspects of the novel to suit this argument, and assume that pulling out theme, or finding evidence of this feature of the Am. novel suffices. Oscar Wao is hardly the same book as Human Stain in theme or substance or, as you yourself pointed out, characterization of women. In fact, even in considering critical response to those two books, the 'American'-ness of them was almost certainly NOT what drove people to praise them (or reject them, for that matter).

I'm convinced there's an issue, but I'm not sure it's been framed in a way that leads to any constructive discussion. And speaking of race being a flaw in the argument, what about the fact that neither of these writers would have been considered particularly 'American' when this template was set-- or today in some regions of the United States?

Andrew Seal said...

Mike,
These are very good questions, and certainly ones that need to be addressed.

What I was going for in this post was a foregrounding of similarities in the reception of these novels--what gets repeatedly remarked upon, what gets repeatedly praised for being "ambitious." There are many variables, but there are also a few consistencies, and I feel that pointing out those consistencies has its own usefulness--it helps us better understand strange things like the Publishers Weekly all-male top ten not as some sudden regression or some new form of patriarchal oppression but as in part the product of a highly adaptable set of ideas about American literature and the "American character."

So the objective was not to say that each novel embodies this myth in the same way, but that in each novel a critic or a reviewer can find a variant of the myth which can be used to praise it as ambitious and worth elevating.

Larry Werner said...

If there is someone who can aptly share their experience on the melodramas of beset manhood, it would be those who do court reporting miami fl. With the many court proceedings they've been into, they can enumerate quite a few instances where it manifested.

Mario Holt said...

Manhood problem is what's bothering me lately. I am at my 40's now and I can't perform the same as I was before. Any help?