Monday, November 01, 2004

Fiedler, Cooper, The Cloying and the False
This is some more about Leslie Fiedler. I left off at the end of the section on Prototypes and Early Adaptations. Fiedler is still talking here about Cooper’s hero, Natty Bumppo. He explains that Bumppo becomes a problem for Cooper as soon as Bumpoo is moved to hero status because “what can one do with the hero who, in essence and by definition, cannot get the girl?” (200).

Natty can’t be the hero because he “is the deliverer, the rescuer, the man who arrives in the nick of time” (200). Fiedler calls him a “Moral hermaphrodite” (201) because he’s always too busy rescuing the girl. One might choose an Indian wife for him because he’s a proponent of nature and the land, but Natty is “a fanatical exponent of racial purity” (201), so that won’t work.

In the next chapter, VIII, “Clarissa in America: Toward Marjorie Morningstar,” Fiedler talks about the sentimental novels as one way the way novels of seduction persisted in America. For one thing, he points out, the whole idea of the seduction drama did persist in the “sub-form of the lowbrow Western” (film) where “the black-hatted villain manages to violate the rancher’s blood daughter” (209).

Fiedler also notices that the villain of these “latter day sentimental” stories are made by “splitting the Lovelace figure […] into two components, whatever is truly masculine and attractive being identified with the ‘good,’ and whatever is grossly phallic and unduly polished being identified with the bad” (210)

So the upper class ladies could accept that lower class women could be promiscuous, but they could not accept that same truth about their own class. Yet, they could fully understand it if lower class characters were (211).

Now if love and death in the American novel are crippled or nonexistent, then Hawthorne’s books would quickly come to mind as exceptions. The Scarlet Letter, for instance is all about sex, but, according to Fiedler, the sex is “shadowy and sterilized” (221).

Really, it wasn’t until the turn of the (nineteenth) century that “the fatal consequences of seduction” started to be the focus of the American novel, rather than when “gentility triumphed over passion” as it did in the eighteenth century (241). Fiedler says that the novels that marked this change were Stephen Crane’s 1894 Maggie—a Girl of the Streets, Mark Twain’s 1894 Pudd’nhead Wilson, and Theodore Dreiser’s 1899 Sister Carrie (241).

The next chapter, IX, is “Good Good Girls and Good Bad Boys: Clarissa as a Juvenile.” This chapter covers the “period of thirty years or more (from the end of the ‘50s until the ‘90s had begun) when the seduction story was excluded from female middlebrow fiction” (254). So this is the time when westerns, like Own Wister’s The Virginian, became popular. Fiedler calls the story “a fable, cloying and false, which projects at once the self-hatred of the genteel eastern sophisticate confronted with the primitive and his dream world where ‘men are men,’ i.e., walk with smoking guns into the arms of women who cheerfully abdicate their roles as guardians of morality” (254-255). So here’s a setup of a cultural norm.

The problem was, Fiedler says, this kind of a story wasn’t especially appealing to women readers, who actually enjoyed the long-suffering heroines of sentimental fiction (255). While that sort of sentimental female—or western—novel might seem out of date, consider writers like Irwin Shaw and James Michener. Fiedler uses them as examples of writers of “the sentimental novel of protest” because they always are “searching for new examples among the abused ‘little people’ to set in the position of the Persecuted Maiden” (258).

From here, Fiedler looks carefully at some nineteenth century novels. Specifically, he examines Uncle Tom’s Cabin, discussing that the only two marriages in the book are between “a morally lax husband and an enduring Christian wife; [and] another between a hypochondriacal, self-pitying shrew” (260). So no real love exists there. Further, the “erotic episodes” aren’t worthy of our memory in this book, either, “neither Legree’s passionate relationship with the half-mad slave girl, Casey, not his breathless, ultimately frustrated attempt to violate the fifteen-year-old-quadroon” (260).

So we are left with “the fact of brutality, the hope of forgiveness […] twin images of guilt and reconciliation that represent for the popular mind of America the truth of safety” (261).

Fiedler mentions a little later that “to murder […] the preadolescent Virgo is to be granted the supreme pleasures of assaulting innocence, appeasing the hatred of virtue, which must surely have stirred uneasily before such atrociously immaculate examples” (264).

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