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One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” A hallmark utterance of any feminist — or, if I may be so optimistic as to suggest, any liberal arts — education. Simone de Beauvoir was talking, of course, about the age-old conundrum of nature and its evil sister, nurture, and her words have become cemented in gender studies curricula. Not so, however, in other fields of study.

I’ve been on a steady, aggressive, Sherman-esque march through the works of critics who have turned their attention to women in 19th century America (slashing and burning all the way), and have learned more than a few things that have nothing to do with 19th century American literature, or 19th century American women, or anything in between. Chief among these new insights is the fact that I, a critic through-and-through, have been far too lost to theory to remember what it’s like to read criticism … but more on that another time. Also among the scraps of knowledge gained has been the dawning realization that the nature/nurture debate — so central to feminist criticism for so long — has been overlooked elsewhere. And by elsewhere, I mean literary studies, and I mean literary critics, and I even mean feminist literary critics.

This leads me to Amy Kaplan’s 1988 (ergh, 22 years old and counting: remember when it was still cool to talk about women in the academy? ) The Social Construction of American Realism, and to her observation that “the genre of the novel was not shaped primarily by men, [] women have from its inception participated in its formation and development” (71). From its inception … that’s the part that sets my hackles a’quivering most of all. A novel, it appears, does not become a novel, but rather is born, a novel.

There are more than a couple problems with this statement of Kaplan’s. First and foremost, however, is one that any good historical materialist — and this ought to include Kaplan, whose project admits three lines of inquiry (“social change,” “class difference,” and “mass culture” [8]) that ought to qualify her as such — should notice right-off. And that problem is itself the problem, and the potency, of ideology. Kaplan, in her eagerness to say something, anything, which departs from the humdrum “party line” of feminist critics working in this era (she mimics this precise method of critique when she says that “to achieve an autonomous voice, women writers must therefore wrestle with the power of male influence and seek female predecessors who contribute to their own submerged countertradition” [71]), seems to forget ideology all together. Or, even more to the point, she seems to forget that literature itself, a facet of culture, is a necessarily ideological form. In Kaplan’s eyes, the novel, being of woman born, becomes a timeless vessel, an anti-historical form by which we are, paradoxically, supposed to locate the history of culture, and of women, and of women’s culture, etc. All this after 70+ pages of discussion which doggedly looks at novels as “products of their time” (I mean, really: she even suggests that we go easy on Trilling and Chase, poor chaps, and attempt to understand them in the “context of their time”[4]). Time, then, is a necessary consideration in the project of interpretation (criticism) except when the object of interpretation itself is atemporal (the novel) … ?

So, yes, fine, the novel is a primarily female invention, and thus a primarily female form of narrative and cultural expression, because a whole lot of females interested themselves in the writing of novels way-back-when, and whole lot more females interested themselves in reading novels.  And females, as history shows us time and time again, have been thoroughly immune to interpolation and, thus, blessedly un-ideological creatures, with free reign over their participative capacities for superstructural production.

Sorry: I do love to over-indulge my cynical tendencies.

Kaplan forgets that novels, realist novels most of all, are social/historical objects in themselves, shaped by the ideological forces of a society that has been built for, and by, men. Thus, even if 19th century women are kick-ass novel writers and kick-ass novel readers, they cannot escape a process of transmission that occurs when a cultural object is created, a process of communication by which the standards “of its time” are encapsulated in the object itself, not to mention the object’s author. I know Kaplan knows this, and I understand her eagerness to get to the place where she can put Edith Wharton on a well-deserved pedestal and say, “Look, everyone, it’s the mother of the realist novel!” But her eagerness comes at the expense of technique in this book. And while I generally enjoyed The Social Construction of American Realism — much more so than many a work of criticism I left smoldering behind me on my march — it made me nervous and uncertain about method even while it made me excited about application. In the end, I hope that Kaplan, and critics like her, have since come to remember that the processes of ideological progress and fluctuation that spur our need to consider objects, and people, not so much as products born, but as evolved, “of their time”.


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