Friday, September 3, 2010

The Genteel Tradition, Young Girls, and a Different Theory of Prudery in American Fiction

In an incomplete essay on the short story in his third volume of Main Currents in American Thought, Parrington recovers a quote from William Dean Howells about James: "To enjoy his work, to feel its rare excellence, both in conception and expression, is a brevet of intellectual good form" (Parrington 399; the original source is Howells's introduction to a 1906 re-printing of Daisy Miller). Parrington's full comments should be quoted; enjoying his prose may no longer (as it once was) be considered in its own way a brevet of intellectual good form, but it is still quite fun:
Henry James. His position peculiar. From his youth déraciné—his father hated American vulgarity, American journalism, and would not permit his son to take root. He grew up with an aristocratic conception of civilization—his sole interest lay in such civilization, and the manners of the polite society of that civilization. No other American has so hated and feared contamination from the vulgar. He was thus the last flower of the Genteel Tradition, transplanted to an environment more congenial. As the middle-class became more clamorous, he withdrew to the Continent, to England, where the older ideas still lingered. There in the spirit of the realist he wrote with refined art and persistent detachment—even to a punctilious and princely refinement. As Mr. Howells says… (ibid.)
I think "brevet" is not a terribly common word, so in spite of my feelings about the cliché of beginning a thought with "the Oxford English Dictionary defines…" I'll offer the OED definitions anyway:
1. An official or authoritative message in writing; esp. a Papal Indulgence. Obs.
2. An official document granting certain privileges from a sovereign or government; spec. in the Army, a document conferring nominal rank on an officer, but giving no right to extra pay.

Parrington's opinion is not difficult to parse, but "a brevet of intellectual good form…"? What a weird thing to say. It sounds so much like a backhanded compliment, an acknowledgment that the reason one likes James is because doing so makes one feel worthy of liking James—a circular frenzy of Bourdieusian-level cultural capital accumulation. Yet if it is a genuine compliment, then recognizing that fact may in a way its own little test: to imagine that the achievement of intellectual good form is not only a dignified objective, but even a normative one.

But wait: What makes the compliment even more interesting is its setting—a highly gendered reading of post-bellum literary history which Parrington completely elides:
Mr. James's time is still ours, and while perfect artistry is prized in literature, it is likely to be prolonged indefinitely beyond our time. But he belongs preeminently to that period following the Civil War when our authorship felt the rising tide of national life in an impulse to work of the highest refinement, the most essential truth. The tendency was then toward a subtile beauty, which he more than any other American writer has expressed in his form, and toward a keen, humorous, penetrating self-criticism, which seized with joy upon the expanding national life, and made it the material of fiction as truly national as any yet known. "The finer female sense," in whose favor the prosperity of our fiction resides, Mr. James lastingly piqued, and to read him if for nothing but to condemn him is the high intellectual experience of the daughters of mothers whose indignant girlhood resented while it adored his portraits of American women. To enjoy his work, to feel its rare excellence, both in conception and expression, is a brevet of intellectual good form which the women who have it prize at all its worth.
By 1906, there was already in literary circles a bit of a backlash against what was typically characterized as the tyranny of what might be called the daughter standard:
Remote from and insensitive to the dominant tendencies and major developments of American life, they [James Russell Lowell, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Edmund Clarence Stedman, Richard Watson Gilder, et al.] cast a fog of gentility over our literature. They came from and spoke for the least fecund class in the commonwealth, the class of the comfortably situated, governed by prejudice, incapable of realistic thought, committed to the worship of respectability in every sphere of action. Like that class they mistook prudery for refinement, timidity for self-restraint, and abstinence from the taking of bribes for civic duty. They were prepared to take Lowell's absurd dictum that no man should write what he [Lowell] was not willing for his daughter to read, and turn it into the even absurder one that no man should write what they were unwilling for their [own] daughters to read. (Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition 20)
In a similar vein, Frank Norris had said that, "It is the 'young girl' and the family center table that determines the standard of the American short story" (quoted in John Tomsich, A Genteel Endeavor, 5). More examples could be adduced (a particularly bitter—and early one—is mentioned here). In a sense, this bucking against the tyranny of the girl reader is the complement of Hawthorne's griping about the "damned mob of scribbling women." But there is also a quote from Howells to throw into the hopper which addresses the question far more thoughtfully, though he ends up very close to precisely the caricature Sinclair Lewis made of him when he mocked him in his Nobel Lecture ("Mr. Howells was one of the gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men, but he had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage. He abhorred not only profanity and obscenity but all of what H. G. Wells has called "the jolly coarsenesses of life". In his fantastic vision of life, which he innocently conceived to be realistic, farmers, and seamen and factory hands might exist, but the farmer must never be covered with muck, the seaman must never roll out bawdy chanteys, the factory hand must be thankful to his good kind employer, and all of them must long for the opportunity to visit Florence and smile gently at the quaintness of the beggars.") Here's Howells:
they [other American authors] ask why, when the conventions of the plastic and histrionic arts liberate their followers to the portrayal of almost any phase of the physical or of the emotional nature, an American novelist may not write a story on the lines of 'Anna Karenina' or 'Madame Bovary.' They wish to touch one of the most serious and sorrowful problems of life in the spirit of Tolstoy and Flaubert, and they ask why they may not. At one time, they remind us, the Anglo-Saxon novelist did deal with such problems--De Foe in his spirit, Richardson in his, Goldsmith in his. At what moment did our fiction lose this privilege? In what fatal hour did the Young Girl arise and seal the lips of Fiction, with a touch of her finger, to some of the most vital interests of life?

Whether I wished to oppose them in their aspiration for greater freedom, or whether I wished to encourage them, I should begin to answer them by saying that the Young Girl has never done anything of the kind. The manners of the novel have been improving with those of its readers; that is all. Gentlemen no longer swear or fall drunk under the table, or abduct young ladies and shut them up in lonely country-houses, or so habitually set about the ruin of their neighbors' wives, as they once did. Generally, people now call a spade an agricultural implement; they have not grown decent without having also grown a little squeamish, but they have grown comparatively decent; there is no doubt about that. They require of a novelist whom they respect unquestionable proof of his seriousness, if he proposes to deal with certain phases of life; they require a sort of scientific decorum. He can no longer expect to be received on the ground of entertainment only; he assumes a higher function, something like that of a physician or a priest, and they expect him to be bound by laws as sacred as those of such professions; they hold him solemnly pledged not to betray them or abuse their confidence. If he will accept the conditions, they give him their confidence, and he may then treat to his greater honor, and not at all to his disadvantage, of such experiences, such relations of men and women as George Eliot treats in 'Adam Bede,' in 'Daniel Deronda,' in 'Romola,' in almost all her books; such as Hawthorne treats in 'The Scarlet Letter;' such as Dickens treats in 'David Copperfield;' such as Thackeray treats in 'Pendennis,' and glances at in every one of his fictions; such as most of the masters of English fiction have at same time treated more or less openly. It is quite false or quite mistaken to suppose that our novels have left untouched these most important realities of life. They have only not made them their stock in trade; they have kept a true perspective in regard to them; they have relegated them in their pictures of life to the space and place they occupy in life itself, as we know it in England and America. They have kept a correct proportion, knowing perfectly well that unless the novel is to be a map, with everything scrupulously laid down in it, a faithful record of life in far the greater extent could be made to the exclusion of guilty love and all its circumstances and consequences.
What is remarkable (for me, at any rate) about this passage is the way that Howells hooks the growing "decentness" of the American writer onto the emerging discourses of scientific detachment (precisely the language that Zola, about whom Howells himself was ambivalent but who was certainly the bête noire of the other genteel American littérateurs) and of professionalism. The writer has become more circumspect because he has turned writing into a profession, and his readers have expectations of him similar to those they would hold when submitting to a lawyer's or a doctor's ministrations: a certain delicacy, and a confidentiality which suppresses rather than just contains unpleasantness. What an extraordinary image of the writer!

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