Thursday, October 21, 2004

Love & Death in the American Novel, first 100 pages
Love & Death in the American Novel really is a tome, a thick doorstop of 513 pages. How does Fiedler know all this? It’s stunning!

Leslie Fiedler sees a difference between American fiction and European fiction. He says, “our novels seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile.” In fact, it seems, our greatest works are so juvenile that they could be “notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library” since “their level of sentimentality [is] precisely that of a pre-adolescent.” Fiedler blames that sentimentality, or “the incapacity of the American novelist to develop” on a tendency to revisit childhood. That makes the novelist write “the same book over and over again until” the writer finally either gives up or lapses into “self-parody” (4). These are strong words.

Another problem, he says in his opening gambit, is that since the American writer has no tradition of language to draw from, “no conventions of conversation, no special class idioms and no dialogue between classes, non continuing literary language,” he (or she) is “forever beginning, saying for the first time” (4). In other words, the traditional symbols do not yet exist.

Fiedler acknowledges that not every work of art must rely on love. He mentions the Iliad, for example, as a heroic poem that is an epic of war rather than love, but he goes on to say that the novel is more the province of love than the epic. It was, “the product of the sentimentalizing taste of the eighteenth century.” Further, the “subject par excellence of the novel is love, or more precisely—in its beginnings at least—seduction and marriage.” Still more interesting is that in Europe—specifically France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and England, Fiedler says, “love in one form or another has remained the novel’s central theme,” whereas the American “anti-novel, is the womanless Moby Dick” (5). He goes on to compare—While Europeans have Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice, we have The Scarlet Letter, where “all the passion is burned away before the novel proper begins” (6). He cites also Huckleberry Finn, Last of the Mohicans, Red Badge of Courage, Poe’s short stories, calling them “books that turn from society to nature or nightmare out of a desperate need to avoid the facts of wooing, marriage, and child-bearing” (6). Wow. What does that say about us as people? Would that predict that we’d be people who would watch Jerry Springer and Rikki Lake?

Rip Van Winkle supposedly “presides over the birth of the American imagination.” But as Fiedler would have it, since then, “the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat—anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility” (6). More strong words! Is it any wonder contemporary men have commitment issues?!

But outside in the big, bad natural world, there’s usually a “substitute for wife or mother […] waiting in the green heart of nature: the natural man, the good companion, pagan and unashamed—Queequeg or Chingachgook or Nigger Jim” (6). Watch out, though, because, that “Black Man” is another name, says Fiedler, for “the Devil himself” (6).

What Fiedler says about humor is interesting, but I’m not always sure I understand it. I do understand what he means about Twain’s humor, though, in that it really isn’t funny in many places. He points out that “American literature likes to pretend […] its bugaboos are all finally jokes: the headless horseman’s a hoax, ever manifestation of the supernatural capable of rational explanation on the last page—but we are never quite convinced” (6-7). He cites as examples when in Huckleberry Finn Huck’s father has D.T.’s in the beginning, or the horrific incident of soaking the dog in kerosene and lighting it, or the other deaths in the book. Fiedler says, “But it is all ‘humor,’ of course, a last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror. Our literature as a whole at times seems a chamber of horrors disguised as an amusement park “fun house,” where we pay to play at terror” (7).

Later, though, Fiedler says that “since the decline of orthodox Puritanism, optimism has become the chief effective religion” (8).

A little later, Fiedler talks about what led up to the invention of the novel. This is something I talked about with Bill H. who is taking a seminar on Jung and who mentioned that really the novel wasn’t possible until people had the concept of the personality. Until there was a sense of the inner workings of a person, there wouldn’t be an impetus for a novel. Interesting. Fiedler calls it “the Break-through,” discussing it in the context of the events that included the “American and the French Revolutions,” as well as “the rise of modern psychology, and the triumph of the lyric in poetry” (I guess that sweeping statement includes Jung). Those events were what led up to the invention of the novel and the romantic period. So this “Break-through,” according to Fiedler, was “characterized not only by the separation of psychology from philosophy, the displacement of the traditional leading genres by the personal lyric and analytical prose fiction (with the consequent subordination of plot to character; it is also marked by the promulgation of a theory of revolution as a good in itself” (13). Fiedler doesn’t mention this in the same context, but maybe the revolution and novel had an effect on religion, since “Institutionalized Christianity […] began to crumble when its mythology no longer proved capable of controlling and revivifying the imagination of Europe” (16).

In the second chapter, “Prototypes and Early Adaptations,” Fiedler spends the whole time looking at the way Richardson’s Pamela influenced early novels in America. The problem I have is that since I haven’t read any of these early novels, I have no idea what he’s talking about. He mentions Richardson and Fielding, English novelists (I understand Fielding is very funny…but how funny can an 18th century novelist be?). And then he talks about the early American novelists like Brown.

I have to say that when I read this part of the book, my head begins to spin. I’ve never read any of these. When will I even have time to read them? I stopped to seriously ponder reading Feilding, but there’s no time in the life of a graduate student. Or let me say it differently: I could easily be waylaid and try to read every book in the library to prepare for this Ph.D. It would just take me the rest of my life. I have to remember to save some books for my old age.

Moving right along, Fielder says that Richardson’s novel is basically in the Protestant genre, and that it’s more “puritan” than it is “realistic.” He adds that “beyond its representing the marvelous as the ordinary and passionate impulse as Christian piety, it also represents entertainment pretending to be a sermon (or alternately, a sermon pretending to be entertainment)” (26).

When Fiedler discusses the idea of endings, I was surprised. I didn’t realize that they are a modern invention, that ancient authors like Dante or Augustine wouldn’t know what “they lived happily ever after” means. Fiedler says, “Plato would not even have identified the ‘they’ as male and female; while neither he nor Augustine would have conceived ultimate bliss as a joining of flesh with flesh, no matter how fully sanctified the ritual and custom” (28). The troubadours, after all, look at marriage as an “enemy.” They want the woman to be married, but to someone else, so that she isn’t attainable (34). So really, Fiedler says, this modern idea of “sentimental love” is “part of a continuous process whose end is not yet in sight. It stands between the codes of courtly love, on the one hand, and the recent Romantic defenses of passion as the end of life, on the other” (28). As I understand what he’s saying, we don’t know where it’s heading.

In the early novels, the seduction theme was critical. Fiedler discusses the fine points of this at length, mentioning that at least part of the appeal in the English novel at least was of the “conflict of aristocracy and bourgeoisie” in the bedroom (53-54).

At the end of that chapter, Fiedler mentions parody in an interesting way, saying “Parody destroys nothing; it is only a reluctant and shamefaced way of honoring an example on is ashamed to acknowledge, and, for one too proud to attempt so popular a form as the novel without tongue in cheek, a way of becoming a novelist” (56).

Chapter IV is “The Bourgeois Sentimental Novel and the Female Audience.” I haven’t read any criticism of Fiedler yet, but there has to be plenty of this chapter. I know he is writing about some of the worst, cloying fiction in the world, but the way he talks about women in this chapter is degrading. The feminists had to have a field day with Fiedler.

Fiedler talks here about the “blight” of the sentimental novel (58). One explanation for the sterile novel in the U.S., he says, is that “no real tradition of gallantry [exists] in America, no debased aristocratic codes of love against which the bourgeois belief can define itself” (59). Most novels, he points out, with the chaste example of Richardson’s, have some adultery, or at least a hint of seduction. Fiedler quotes Denis de Rougement’s comment that “society requires that women have husbands…but in novels it is found necessary that they have lovers” (59-60). But not in America, “in its classical period.” None but Hawthorne even gets close to the topic until Henry James, whereas in Europe even pornographic novels like Justine came about, defining “a delicate line between obscenity and art, inconceivable to the American mind” (60). YET, at least.

The American novel had to “justify its existence on moral grounds—declaring itself the servant of religion and especially the keeper of the consciences and the virginity and young girls” (61). No wonder they were no good. Interestingly, though, “By the time of Mark Twain, however, even the claims of the old faith are asserted only by women; it is woman who has become the guardian of morality and the embodiment of conscience” (61). Another interesting connection that Fiedler makes is that America as a nation has denied so many fathers. We denied our fatherland (though why it isn’t a motherland as one is usually called, I don’t know). The pope and bishops have been rejected, as well as the king of England. So Fiedler says, “only the mother remained as symbol of authority that was one with love” (62). He uses that reasoning to justify the way the American novel evolved into the “Sentimental Love Religion” that “simultaneously disowns sex and glorifies women” (62).

Women were the writers of these sentimental novels. Hawthorn called them a “d____d mob of scribblers” (66). These were the true bestsellers, the books everyone was reading. They weren’t reading Melville or Hawthorne, and probably because the people couldn’t understand either one of them any better than anyone can today!

But…the interesting thing here, Fiedler mentions, is that there hadn’t before “been an art form whose production women played so predominant a part” (66). In other words—they could actually support themselves by writing novels, whether or not Nate Hawthorne approved. Fiedler calls it “a critical moment in the emancipation of woman” (66). That’s exciting…but then think about that sentence. Isn’t there something disturbing about the words he chose? Emancipation seems to imply enslavement. Hell, maybe he’s right.

Anyway, here are the numbers: “before the publication of Cooper’s Precaution in 1820, one-third of all our novels had been written by women—and within that third were to be found nearly all the best sellers” (66). That’s amazing.

Nonetheless, Fiedler offers harsh criticism of their work, which seems to be the precursor to today’s Harlequin romances: “Neither inwardness nor character, however, interested the scribbling ladies at all. They sought, however unconsciously, the mythical beneath the psychological—and rendered the myth in sub-literary or pre-literary form, degraded it to the stereotype” (67). I thought this was so cruel last night when I read it, but now that I see it in the light of day, I agree that he probably was right, particularly when I think of these novels, which granted I have not read, in comparison with Harlequin romances.

So, these sentimental novelists were “lady Richardsonians” in their sentimentality (68). But it began to happen that these American novelists started to try to find “sentimental substitutes for the struggle with the seducer” and by the end of the 18th century, “the treatment of seduction had been surrendered to literary radicals and semi-pornographers” read by “young girls in search of literary titillation” much like the romance novels of today (69).

The most interesting part of the argument to me is that Fiedler observes that “the thrill of seduction [is] expurgated from popular fiction and the threat of rape removed,” and as a result death becomes the focus. Rather than the prurient pleasure at the seduction, we take voyeuristic pleasure at the deathbed scene. As Fiedler says it, “melancholy becomes contraband in the polite world of woman’s books, permitted when bootlegged in small amounts, but frowned on as ‘morbid’ when overwhelmingly present” (71). “Cheerfulness,” he says, “became obligatory,” but only when it didn’t succumb to “melodrama” (71). He mentions as example here Uncle Tom’s Cabin. All these nineteenth century novels are really nauseating examples of this disgusting trend.

Eventually there was a move from simple seduction to a consideration of “relations between rich and poor,” says Fiedler, “but it was a long time […] before socialism penetrated deep enough into the American mind to make a modern version of the class-struggle novel possible” (73). In the meantime, Fiedler says, the recurring drama of the bestseller was of the good colonial girl remaining chaste against some intruding male of one kind or another. Related to humor, he says, “the farmer’s daughter and the traveling salesman of a thousand dirty jokes represent a last degradation (though a strange persistence, too) of the archetypal figures of Clarissa and Lovelace” (73).

Anyway, Fiedler chooses to make this point about these women writers: “In popular fiction produced in American by and for females, the seduction fable comes chiefly to stand for the war between the sexes and the defeat of the seducer […] as a symbol of the emasculation of American men” (73). That’s a pretty strong influence for scribbling women to have, isn’t it? But he goes on to say that no matter what it is, the sentimental drama “must end with the downfall of the male, “ whether it is in “Charlotte Temple [or] the latest daytime serial on radio or TV.” Fiedler even argues that “In this country the only class war is between the sexes!” (74).

So in these books, the “female is portrayed as pure sentiment, the male as naked phallus” and “though the male is allowed still to spout ‘ideas,’ those ideas are revealed as irrelevant to life and good sense, the babble of a bookish child” (74). The hilarious comment he makes is “What is baffling is why men […] should have accepted this travesty on their nature and role in life” (74). It’s a mystery, isn’t it Leslie? You ought to be asking how women put up with your bullshit for centuries without complaint!

Now when Fiedler does stoop to discuss these novels in actual detail, he refers to the women writers as Mrs. Rowson. He even says that women have “kidnapped” the form of the sentimental novel (77)! Who wanted it in the first place, for crying out loud!? Anyway, Mrs. Rowson writes the “first popular American image of the Seducer” (74), but she renders him fairly powerless. He tends to have “fits of insanity” (74) and she punishes him by being “forced to watch his children on the verge of an incestuous catastrophe bred by his sin and cowardice” (75). Incidentally, Fiedler says “The theme of brother-sister incest haunts the early American novel on lower levels of literacy as well as on the higher” (82). Even Fiedler acknowledges that Hawthorne borrowed from some of these melodramatic devices in the Scarlet Letter.

One interesting melodramatic device Mrs. Rowson used was in her novel, The Coquette, which was to fictionalize “a contemporary scandal (which may have involved Aaron Burr or, at least, the son of Jonathan Edwards) with only the most perfunctory attempt at disguise” (83). Now THAT’s American!

Anyway, Fiedler thinks that the sentimental, “women’s” novel’s rise so early in the country’s history had the effect of drawing a divide in the country’s reading, causing there to be a sort of division in the reading—an “intellectual” person’s reading and “the unlettered” person’s, which is interesting, given that the idea of starting the colonies was to move away from the sharp class divisions of Europe (77). Fiedler ends the argument by saying, “For better or for worse, the bestseller was invented in America (the flagrantly bad best seller) before the serious successful novel” (78).

Fiedler also talks about the first American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, who he says “lacked the wit and irony as well as the talent for structure of Jane Austen—so that, aiming at modesty, he created dullness; and avoiding the spectacular, he fell into the inane” (84). No wonder we don’t know his work. He wrote one called Ormond; Fiedler says it is “surely the most passionate […] but there is little erotic passion displayed” (87). Bummer.

So, in sum of this chapter, Fiedler says, no novelists could write about love without falling into sentimentality. He says, “only by bypassing normal heterosexual love as a subject could such writers preserve themselves from sentimentality and falsehood” (89). Is that why they called it the gay 90s?

Okay, so Chapter V is “The Beginnings of the Anti-Bourgeois Sentimental Novel in America.”

This is where we start to see novels “which asked the reader to identify not with the female victim but with her male betrayer—thus introducing a note of moral ambiguity baffling to the simple-minded sentimentalist” (90). Later, Fiedler calls it “the anti-type, the mirror image of the bourgeois sentimental novel” (96). So, while for the bourgeois, death or suicide on purpose would be shocking, to Werther (the hero of a novel), it is “the noblest of all actions” (98).

No comments: