Man versus Men.
Lynne Tillman and the Great American Novel
Woman versus Women. Another important outgrowth of Transcendentalism was Brook Farm, an experimental community established by George Ripley in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Dwindling membership and a destructive fire led to its demise in Transcendentalism influenced many others as well, none so powerfully as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.
Thoreau tested out various occupations before establishing himself as a surveyor, naturalist, and author. Emersonianism also manifested itself in Walden. The Transcendentalists and Whitman, described by some critics as devoted to literature and philosophy rather than politics, in fact were in the thick of the slavery controversy. The Concord thinkers cannot be fully understood without the recognition that philosophy, politics, ecology, and ethics came together in their vision.
Early on, Emerson slighted certain reform movements. But his increasing awareness of social injustice soon impelled him to speak out forcefully on political issues, as critics like Joel Myerson and Len Gougeon have made clear. Thoreau also set off political sparks by his involvement in the antislavery cause. He and other Transcendentalists, including Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, protested publicly against the cruel treatment of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns, who in was captured in Boston, brought to trial, and forcibly returned to slavery in Virginia.
Thoreau placed John Brown among the greats of history, including Christ and the heroes of the American Revolution. For Emerson, Thoreau, and their ilk, abolitionism was in line with the physical world and metaphysical ideals—all were profoundly moral. Because ethical laws permeated society as well as individuals and nature, politics and philosophy were inseparable.
Writers on both the elite and popular levels were confronted with political and social paradoxes that raised deep philosophical and ethical questions. How could a republic founded on the ideal of human equality condone slavery or Indian removal? How could a society that promised social mobility and economic advance tolerate widespread oppression of laborers, women, and marginalized ethnic or religious groups? Stowe presents a gallery of Southern slaveholders, several of whom are well-intentioned and pious and yet are forced by the exigencies of economy or personal misfortune to sell their chattel, who in turn fall into cruel situations.
If Stowe offers nuanced portraits of Southerners, she is especially affecting in her depiction of enslaved blacks. The original subtitle of her novel, The Man that Was a Thing , points up the dehumanizing effects of slavery. The prevailing view of blacks, in both the North and the South, was that they were less than human. Racism was rampant in the North, and enslaved blacks in the South were treated as property to be bought, sold, and, frequently, maltreated.
They guffawed at the impish slave girl Topsy and shed thankful tears when she embraced Christianity. They were appalled by the sexual exploitation of enslaved woman like Prue and Cassy, and they were horrified by the fatal lashing of the gentle, strong Uncle Tom. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it is hard to point to a single author of the antebellum period who was not in some way caught up in the political and social currents of the age.
Not only was there a substantial body of political writing produced by African Americans, but stirring antislavery works were produced by poets like Whittier, Lowell, and Longfellow and by novelists such as Lydia Maria Child and Richard Hildreth. Popular culture came into its own in the antebellum period, taking on dimensions that have lasted until this day. Bestselling literature fell into two general categories: the sentimental-domestic and the sensational. This literature, aimed mainly at women, purveyed what modern scholars identify as the cult of true womanhood, promoting the values of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness.
The contrasting genre, sensational literature, included crime pamphlets, penny newspapers, pulp adventure fiction, and the city-mysteries novel. America witnessed a succession of popular crime pamphlets and collections such as Record of Crimes in the United States The Pirates Own Book , and The Lives of the Felons, or American Criminal Calendar , that fed into popular sensational fiction by Joseph Holt Ingraham, Ned Buntline, Sylvanus Cobb, and others, much of it published in so-called mammoth story weeklies.
This literature, under a thin veil of didacticism, often presented criminals as dashing, clever, or no more corrupt than outwardly respectable types. In the eyes of conservative critics, the engaging villain was a real threat to society. Among the most popular sensational genres of the period was the city-mysteries novel, which transferred Gothic darkness to the complex urban environment.
The city was suddenly perceived as a strange and overwhelming place, full of hidden crime, racial and class divisions, violence, and squalor, phenomena reflected in fiction that was volatile and often nightmarish. American authors tried to outdo each other in the vividness with which they described urban sensations. The winners in this grisly competition were George Lippard and George Thompson. I have known a mother and her son—a father and his daughter—a brother and sister—to be guilty of criminal intimacy. Edgar Allan Poe knew well the sentimental-domestic and the sensational genres that dominated the literary marketplace.
As a reviewer, Poe commented on every sort of literature, from the moralistic to the sensational. At the same time, Poe criticized what he regarded as the excesses of popular sensational fiction. He had no toleration for the common character type of the engaging criminal—the evildoer shown in a positive light. Simms with that species of delight with which we have seen many a ragged urchin spin a cockchafer [i. The sadism and perversity of which they are guilty is communicated not through extensive descriptions of blood but through portraits of their diseased psychology.
Poe at his best brings order and control to the horrific or sensational. He sculpts terror, using controlling devices such as the first-person narrator, understatement, and singleness of effect. His invention of the detective genre stems from his effort to apply logic and intuitive reason to crimes of the sort that were commonly reported in the penny press. His fascination with codes, cryptograms, puns, and the like shows his overriding concern with various kinds of logic. Poe, then, was in the ambivalent position of a writer immersed in popular culture and yet in some ways repelled by it.
He was simultaneously the alienated genius and the panderer to the mass audience. As magazine editor, fiction-writer, and poet, he knew he had to emphasize the sensational themes that captivated popular readers. By asserting such control in his own works, he produced enduring literary art. Like Poe, Hawthorne was a professional writer with an eye on the literary market.
Unlike Poe, he catered to this market on occasion. One group of his short stories shared the preachiness and optimism of conventional literature. But Hawthorne was also profoundly aware of the contrasting strain in American culture, associated with darkness and violence. Much of his interest in gloomy themes came from his guilt-ridden preoccupation with the Puritan past.
He counted among his ancestors two Puritan leaders, William Hathorne, who persecuted Quakers, and John Hathorne, a judge in the Salem witch trials. Hawthorne probed the harshness of Puritans in his fiction, and their Calvinistic faith provided the basis for his preoccupation with human sin. Hawthorne, however, was neither a Puritan nor a Calvinist. Instead, he frequently imported into Puritan settings motifs from 19th-century sensational writings.
The characters he chose for the novel were common in sensational literature. Hawthorne followed in the wake of popular sensational novelists who used subversive characters to puncture pious pretensions of supposedly respectable people. Hawthorne used similar characters in his tale of an adulterous woman who was involved with a clergyman and who had a misbehaving child and a vindictive husband with the powers of a demonic pseudoscientist.
There were, however, notable differences between The Scarlet Letter and popular novels. Hawthorne put stereotypical characters in a fully realized early New England setting. He invested these characters, who were portrayed with lip-smacking prurience in popular fiction, with new resonance and depth. Arthur Dimmesdale possesses both the illicit passions of the reverend rake and the conscience of the sincere Puritan preacher.
A hypocrite, he is nonetheless truly tormented and humanly believable. Hester Prynne is the adulterous wife but much more as well: she is a charity worker, a skilled seamstress, a bold thinker, and, above all, a woman committed to her lover. Her wayward daughter, Pearl, and her betrayed husband, Roger Chillingworth, come close to being stock characters, but they too have dimensions unseen in popular stereotypes. Pearl is not just the undisciplined rebel who refuses to recite her catechism; she is also a force for honesty, since she constantly demands that her mother and her paramour publicly confess their love.
Even Chillingworth, an unsavory combination of the vengeful cuckold and the satanic pseudoscientist, serves a moral function by helping keep alive a sense of sin within Arthur Dimmesdale. By placing subversive 19th-century characters in the moral context of bygone Puritan culture, Hawthorne creates a masterpiece of irony, symbolism, and psychological complexity. Having returned in from five years at sea, Melville set out to record some of his experiences in his adventurous early novels Typee and Omoo But, all the while, we cannot forget that he is a murderer. Melville continued to explore the engaging criminal in his portrayal of the sailor Henry Jackson in Redburn Such paradoxes, many of them rooted in popular culture, culminated in Moby-Dick.
The greatest paradox of American democracy, Walt Whitman averred, was the relation between the individual and the mass—or, on the political level, the relation between the separate states and the Union, which, along with slavery, was at issue in the Civil War. Several forms of literature were characterized by narrative discontinuities, oddly juxtaposed imagery, and confusions between dream and reality that were manifested in a centrifugal style.
Tocqueville noted that the bumptious, egalitarian spirit of the young American republic yielded a literature that was defiantly disruptive. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, and almost always strong and bold. In the antebellum period, such comic wildness permeated popular forms—including the Crockett almanacs, Old Southwest humor, minstrel shows, frontier sermons—that featured bizarre, kaleidoscopic images and fragmented structure.
Styistically, this popular literature was characterized by discontinuity and randomness. The unleashed style of such popular genres reflected centrifugal forces in American culture that the major writers tried to regulate with countervailing centripetal devices. Emerson combined the centripetal and centrifugal with unique suggestiveness.
Emersonian self-reliance is a well-spring of intuition that yields self-confidence and defiance of tradition. Along with this individualist, centripetal tendency in Emerson, however, goes a notably centrifugal one. His sentences are strung together with a looseness that has proven variously inspirational and baffling over the years.
This loose form had cultural meaning. Thoreau, like Emerson, was intent on enriching the formlessness of American culture. Rescuing sensational popular images from pointlessness, Thoreau supplied tenors to bizarre linguistic vehicles in order to convey serious social or philosophical ideas. Such manifestations of the centrifugal style led Poe to regulate popular themes artistically through his original use of centripetal devices.
His emphasis on tightness and unity was a direct reaction to the directionlessness he perceived in popular works. Poe carefully pared away excess and utilized first-person narration or ratiocination in the interest of manipulating the irrational. He famously defined plot as that from which nothing can be removed without detriment to the mass.
It incorporates voices and perspectives from many cultural levels, indigenous and international, with unique democratic openness. The result is a polyvalent novel with brief chapters that point in many directions. So, in productive subjects grow the chapters. Throughout Moby-Dick every potentially anarchic image or character related to formless American culture is fused with some counterbalancing image or character that prevents it from tumbling into thematic bedlam.
Besides incorporating such elements of togetherness and fusion, Melville generates depth and meaning by coupling 19th-century archetypes from classic literature and philosophy. Moby-Dick absorbs numerous American images and treats them not frivolously or haphazardly but instead takes them seriously, salvages them from the anarchically directionless, and gives them new humanity and mythic reference. The political and ethical tensions created by the slavery crisis were reflected in changing patterns in American literature between , when the infamous Fugitive Slave Act was passed, and , when slavery came to an end after four years of civil war.
While these and other writings vivified African American subjectivity in order to expose the cruelty and injustice of slavery, a sizable body of proslavery works portrayed slavery as a wonderful, time-tested institution, sanctioned by the Bible and the Constitution. For some authors, the social crisis disrupted the balance between the centrifugal and the centripetal that characterized their finest works. During the Civil War, Hawthorne, who was a Copperhead or Southern-leaning Democrat , lost his sense of artistic direction. At his death in he left behind the manuscripts of several unfinished novels, including The Dolliver Romance and Septimius Felton , whose aimlessness and thinness suggest that he had surrendered to the centrifugal forces he had regulated so masterfully in The Scarlet Letter.
Transforming the confidence man into an impostor who appears under eight avatars with different names, Melville creates a palimpsest of sham appearances, heterogeneous poses, and futile schemes. In his previous fiction, Melville had determinedly transformed cultural images with the aim of bringing new depth and resonance to them.
In The Confidence-Man such images become empty signifiers in a shell game, unattached to serious signifieds, mere scraps floating in a premodernist stew. Walt Whitman tried more vigorously than any other writer to staunch the fragmentation of American society. In the first edition of Leaves of Grass , he offered his poetry as the surest avenue to healing and unity to a nation on the verge of unraveling.
The first two editions of Leaves of Grass sold poorly and received generally harsh reviews. Although he continued to write poetry until the end of his life, he realized that what America really needed was fresh leadership. Five years later, as if by a miracle, that president arrived. L—n and W [ illeg. No longer did Whitman feel that he needed to fashion an all-encompassing poetic speaker who would heal the fractured nation.
My Captain! Whereas the war years brought a sense of resolution to Whitman, they opened up complexity and existential questions for the other great American Renaissance poet, Emily Dickinson. Most of her poems were published when, shortly after her death in , her sister Lavinia discovered the manuscripts of hundreds of poems, many of which were published, with regularized spelling and punctuation, in three volumes , , and edited by family friends Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
Shy and home-centered, Emily Dickinson left her native Massachusetts only once, on an excursion with her father to Washington, D. Like Leaves of Grass , her poetry registers multitudinous cultural voices. Following Whitman and the other major antebellum authors, Dickinson adroitly melds the centripetal and the centrifugal.
But in Dickinson, these terms have an utterly different connotation than they do for the others. On the one hand, her poems are centripetal to an unprecedented degree. They are highly compressed in both line length and the number of verses. Most of them consist of two or more quatrains whose lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, adopted from standard hymn meter as established by Isaac Watts.
Strong caesurae, usually in the form of dashes, break up her lines, and half rhymes or slant rhymes abound, disrupting standard rhythm. Her poems possess the irregularity and bizarre juxtapositions that Tocqueville associated with the literature of democracy. Despite her confined lifestyle, she was a voracious reader, and she was immersed in the more chaotic, subversive elements of the culture around her. During her formative period, she got great amusement from the disasters and tragedies that filled the sensational newspapers of the day.
One early poem 43 is a tiny poetic sensational narrative that describes a road at night haunted by banditti, a wolf, an owl, and a serpent. Another poem 38 portrays a piratelike day burying its treasure in the surrounding hills. It was the bleak side of war that elicited her deepest emotions. In these poems, the centrifugal treatment of death, pain, or depression opens up vistas of suggested meaning without providing answers. Indeed, her poetry can be viewed as the culmination of many themes that the previous American Renaissance writers had treated from their own perspectives.
Her handling of philosophical skepticism, mental illness, and false appearances reached back to Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, and there were moments of exuberance in her s poetry that matched even the brightest passages in Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. If we hear echoes of previous American Renaissance writers in these lines, there is one area in which Dickinson stands alone: her unusually flexible treatment of gender.
Her ever-shifting speaker took on a range of poses and guises, from the impish Daisy to the imperious Queen, and many in between. If women writers of the era such as Fanny Fern, Alice Cary, and Louisa May Alcott had converted role-playing into a positive force for women, so Dickinson was empowered by the sheer variety of her poetic performances. Dickinson experienced fragmentation and dispersal of meaning every bit as much as did writers like Melville or Hawthorne. She forged evocatively indeterminate poetry in a time of national division and bloodletting.
In her poetry, both the centripetal and the centrifugal forces of democratic America became the essence of a new kind of poetry. Buell, Lawrence. New York: Cambridge University Press, Find this resource:. Capper, Charles, and Conrad E. Wright, Eds. Castronovo, Russ. New Americanists. Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion, Goddu, Teresa A. Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation.
New York: Columbia University Press, Kolodny, Annette. Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden. New York: Oxford University Press, Matthiessen, F. Reynolds, David S. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Reynolds, Larry J. European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance. Slotkin, Richard. What happens to the American novel if the ideals of the country which had been enmeshed in the novel - being on the right side - no longer exist "Conversation". While AGAC clearly signals its interest in deconstruction - "lately I want to sunder relationships and take them apart" - it would, I think, be wrong to view the novel as wholly parodic.
For all her mischief, Tillman "still believe[s] in the American experiment, in the values that are implicit and explicit in the Bill of Rights" "Conversation" and her project is partly the long-established one of "argumentative national self-consciousness" James To entitle her novel American Genius, A Comedy , was, she says, to play "with the eighteenth-century idea of genius as a force of nature. The American experiment of Jefferson and Franklin was a kind of genius, an American form of ingenuity.
Calling it a comedy was a comment on what has happened to the American genius experiment in the present" "Conversation". Great American Novelists have always seen an "ailing America"; even when swathed in irony, their generic task is, as Philip Roth noted in , to diagnose the "national disease" and hopefully contribute to its cure A belief in the power of the novel to achieve such ends is, of course, itself a "national fantasy" Berlant , as potent and enduring as the fantasies of power and privilege it seeks to dissect.
For Tillman, the national disease is sensitivity. Her narrator worries inordinately about her own sensitive skin, but nevertheless recognize s that something bigger is at stake.
Moby Dick Essay | Bartleby
Everyone, she notes, is "sensitive about themselves" but "no one is sensitive enough about other people" 5. On the one hand, too much attention; on the other, too little. This disparity, she suggests, was part of American democracy from its cracked and contradictory beginnings - after all, George Washington "kept hundreds of slaves, couldn't bear to be touched" But sensitivity about our selves is also, particularly, a "problem" of "the time we live in" 9.
Ever "greater sensitivity" 34 is something that Tillman's critical essays have also explored. The success of Schindler's List , she argued in , had very little to do with the Holocaust and "everything" to do with the need of Americans to readjust to a new position in the global scheme of things. At "the end of the so-called American century," she said, "America's place in the world, culturally, economically, politically" was "drastically different from what it was" after the Second World War. Americans liked Schindler because they seemed to feel the need "to be legitimated as victims, as oppressed, as hostages to an uncertain fate, as subjects in need of a savior" Broader When did it all start to go wrong?
AGAC circles back to the narrator's childhood in the sixties. In the novel's most lyrical, least ironic, passage, she recalls the January day in on which she and her father watched the inauguration of John F. Kennedy on television. She remembers JFK's proclamation, "we dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution," and acknowledges that this "a heritage" she also "claimed.
The inauguration renewed a vital American tradition. But the revival brought turmoil in its wake. Kennedy died and so did her father, and the sixties found their image, some would say, in the "helter skelter" of the Manson murders As the narrator struggles to reinvent herself in her New England community, Manson family member Leslie Van Houten remains incarcerated in a Californian prison a parallel microcosm where she will forever be "the girl who stuck a knife into Rosemary LaBianca's back nineteen times" More recent events are studiously not named.
The historical shift in American self-image, from post-war redeemers to "subjects in need of a savior," runs parallel to, and seems to be reflected in, the American Novel's "fall" from Great self-criticism to Big self-assertion. Sensitivity then has formal, as well as moral and political, implications. One of the Warholian "teasings out" that ACAG "s narrator undertakes concerns listening and talking:.
Many people think they are good listeners, many more than who actually listen, since someone has to be doing all the talking, and most people will say they're good listeners, many more than who actually listen, although most aren't good talkers or listeners, but persons who tell stories that fill time, and many explain how they were hurt by others, because they are sensitive, but never admit they hurt others. Telling stories about one's own victimhood misery lit? Dialectical genre's final task is to frame that listening and talking, to de-sensitize the GAN both to its enduring Transcendentalism and to its new preoccupations with self-help.
While Tillman's narrator remains interested in the other members of the community, our understanding of them is restricted to their place in her thoughts. She doesn't pay attention to their names but eagerly makes up titles - Count, Contesa - or epitaphs - "the tall balding man," "the disconsolate woman. She speaks rarely of home, but of "the place I call home" 29, Naming represents one illusion of control, a narcissistic desire for the world to begin with one's own perception of it.
And the internal monologue merely reinforces a sense of "narrow-flowing monomania" Melville, In the last third, however, the novel changes quite dramatically, opening up suddenly to other perspectives, shifting from monological to the dialogical. Until this point, there is only one brief snatch of dialogue on p. As the narrator leaves her "sleeping room to engage society," we begin to realize that, on one level, this is a story about overcoming agoraphobia - "it's probably good to be with people," she writes, "not to avoid them, which I mostly want to do, because I'm not sure what they hold in store" , She goes to get her mail and we finally see her name as it appears on the wooden slot; as it appears, that is, to other people Is Helen her real name?
Does it identify her as the Helen who featured in Haunted Houses or the protagonist of Cast in Doubt who is "called Helen" although it "wasn't her real name but was close enough to it" 12?
Does it matter? And once she is named, her own naming loses its power. New generic conventions have entered the novel. Might Tillman have been thinking of the community-binding pageants in Virginia Woolf's national novel, Between the Acts ? At the start of the play, which Contesa has written and staged, its Narrator asks the audience to "touch the hand of the person beside you" It's not quite a Melvillean "squeez[ing] ourselves into each other" but it does, briefly, suggests the possibility of some kind of connection Melville, Helen is beginning to think that "home" can be "here" where "the Count recounts" or "Spike expands" or "the Turkish poet sighs" We are encouraged to believe that we have reached some kind of turning point or climax.
Is the play to be a "decisive event" for Helen ? Will either allow Helen to "move on" with her life ? When she sets off for the woods one Monday morning perfect for a "fresh start" , she thinks that spring is "finally coming" and with it a "renewal strategy" But, as we've seen, she simply finds herself on a "well-worn path" Helen rather self-consciously notes that she is looking at the residents with "brand new eyes" and that "everything's in motion" Compare with "So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes.
The others repeat these well-worn phrases: "One thing ends, another begins," declares Contesa ; "It's never too late," insists Moira And that, finally, is the crux of the Great American Novel. Unlike furniture or novel design, history can neither fall "into place" nor be "undone" We are where we are, but what does that entail?
Do we "stand defeated America" Dos Passos, , or might the "sickness" pass? Is there "no solution to progress, except more of it" , or have Americans trapped themselves in endless repetition? Tillman leaves both options open. Helen returns to the place she "call[s] home" and to the beauty salon for the ritual of her "regular treatment". All is as it was, except that her previous therapist has left and there is a "new" Polish woman "inaugurating the facial. Does this represent change?
One answer is no - the treatment for sensitivity is merely palliative; the comforting, conservative, comic routine simply carries on. The narrator of Motion Sickness ends up in the same Paris hotel room where she began, "as if it's all middle," Tillman said. Repetition, thinks Grace in Haunted Houses , is "like living at home" But another is yes - a new, potentially "much better", administration has been inaugurated and the American wish, "against all reason," just might triumph Who, "except a seer" , can predict what will come next - the stasis of comedy or the revolutionary force of genius?
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