Skip navigation

Tag Archives: 19th century

They should’ve given me Main Street. It was Babbitt, instead, that they assigned, but it should have been Main Street, with its domestic drudgery and double-crossing and female anxiety. So Main Street didn’t make it on to my exams list, but I read it anyway, unable to resist the clear serendipity of the occasion when I picked up a musty 1948 edition of it in a used book store in Hobe Sound, FL where a bedraggled, strangely docile orange cat fell asleep on the pile of books I had intended to buy. And did buy, including Main Street, after removing the cat and offering him a comparable stack of uncomfortable-seeming books, upon which he immediately, again, fell asleep.

I don’t know now how to properly enact a reading of Main Street, though, without the help of two texts which have proved indispensable to my understanding of it: Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint — itself responsible for many an energetic scribbling in the margins of my copy of Lewis’ novel — and, less directly, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps [Ward]’s The Story of Avis. From Phelps/Avis, I was able to keep in mind that the story Lewis tells of his protagonist, Carol, in Main Street is but one version of a tale all-too-familiar to its time. And from Berlant, I was able to see that someone — either Berlant or Lewis — had got that tale wrong in this particular instance. One might say (indeed, I’ll say it) that Main Street is wholly built on the notion of The Female Complaint, the idea which Berlant succinctly puts as this: “women live for love, and love is the gift which keeps on taking” (1). But building a narrative on this idea, and representing it, are two different projects.

Lewis’ Carol is, I think, an unfortunately sympathetic character — unfortunate for her very ability to make us readers feel sympathy for her since she is, quite unfortunately, doomed to one of a very small array of eventualities. On one level (the most immediate and obvious one), her complaint is the standard Female Complaint, the one which encourages our most facile, and least compelling, kind of sympathy for her. After first asking the question “What do we want?” with a “we” that includes “ten million women, young married women,” “business women,” “grandmothers,” “wives of underpaid miners,”and  “farmwives,” she is eventually bullied into a half-hearted response that comes in the form of “I”: “I want … to curl on the hearth with someone I love” (202-203). And this is the female complaint, sure enough, the desire for romantic love that mirrors everything women have been led to believe constituted such an experience, but it is not really Carol’s complaint in this passage, or in this novel — it is not really the female complaint at all. I would call it, instead, a kind of female ideology, an ideology of distraction, a consciousness of pre-programmed complaint against which Carol unceasingly struggles in Lewis’ narrative, yet stares aghast at the willingness of the women around her to happily wear its colors.

Carol’s real complaint, the one that most women sense but grant only veiled articulation through a more classic line of female grievances, is for work. And this complaint is at once precisely female — women desire access to compensated labor, and style this desire in the terms of agency and “freedom” they believe are associated with such an ability — and at the same time morosely human. For while Carol describes the “discontent in women with eight children and one more coming – always one more coming! And you find it in stenographers and wives who scrub, just as much as in girl college-graduates who wonder how they can escape their kind parents,” she likewise notes that “all of us want the same things — we’re all together, the industrial workers and the women and the farmers and the negro races and the Asiatic colonies” (202) in a speech that expresses the deep human resonance of this need in a way that does not disassociate, but rather includes, women. So the female complaint is for work (Step 1) and the larger human complaint is for fully conscious life that comes from non-alienated work (Step 2). Or, women want what men already have (evolution), and men want something better (revolution). Both of these desires express disassociation and alienation: women like Carol believe that work is an opportunity, a chance to choose your own route through the world instead of blithely washing the dishes that get handed to you; similarly, the larger “industrial cry” articulated by Carol in her speech to Guy Pollock pivots on the notion of becoming conscious of, and responsible for, the work you perform, the money you make and spend, the actions you take. In short, women, and men, get sick of being told what to do — but they do it anyway. Such is the power of ideology, be it a bit different for women than for men. “They [people] don’t know what they miss. And anybody can endure anything. Look at men in mines and in prisons” (284) Carol tells Percy Bresnahan. Bresnahan responds by saying “Humph … my humble (not too humble!) opinion is that you like to be different. You like to think you’re peculiar” (284). And, of course, he’s correct in saying so.

For Carol — as for Avis in Phelps’ The Story of Avis — the project of being “peculiar” is synonymous with that of resisting the forces of ideology. Difference itself is the thing, the quality that both encourages and discourages the struggle for “conscious life,” since it is only when you are painfully aware of your own difference that you feel conscious of your detachment from larger forces.

I’ve gotten going too quick here, and so will have to return to Avis — and Berlant, and everyone else who enters into this conversation — at a later date. For time being, though, a quick expression of love: I loved Main Street, not wanting to, not expecting to, not even being required to. But I loved it. It was painful and harsh and cutting and, in spite of all this, did not manage to ruin my week. 

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”.