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), 123-139. Dandelion 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.
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