Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Literary Conversation

I recently got into a longish internet conversation with another blogger, a former teacher of English literature. On her blogger profile she had said she had taught the novels of Edith Wharton. Since I had recently read "The Age of Innocence", I left the following comment on her blog:
I noted with interest that Edith Wharton was among the novelists you have specialised in, because quite recently I read the only novel of hers I’ve ever read, “The Age of Innocence”. Depicting the Gilded Age, it speaks to us loudly today, given what’s currently being talked about in the public sphere. And its theme of unrequited passion is timeless.

Now, I’m reading Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” which came out in 1899. Although subversive then, it’s arguably still subversive now. Have you read it?

An immersion in such novels is a welcome refuge from an oppressive present, so I find.
My interlocutor replied:
Oh Wow. An Edith Wharton fan!!

I taught “Ethan Frome” for 25 years. Talk about unrequited passion. The kids would read and read and read to get to the part where Ethan is finally alone with Mattie because his cold wife Zeena has gone away for the night. I won’t spoil the moment, but when the kids got there….they ran into my classroom saying, ”Is that all there was??? He didn’t even kiss her….” and so on.

I have read Chopin’s “The Awakening.” Marvelous novel. Now I am trying to remember the short story of hers that I taught. I will be back to you on this one.

I’d love you to post your reactions to “The Awakening.”
I replied:
I’ll put “Ethan Frome” on my “to read” list.

Your pupils’ (students) reactions (“is that all there was?”) to the overt chasteness between Ethan and Mattie put me in mind of David Lean’s 1946 film “Brief Encounter”, which is about consequences of a chance meeting at a railway station between two seemingly contentedly-married bourgeois people – he (Alec) a doctor, she (Laura) a housewife.

Bourgeois English society being then what it was, Alec and Laura had to conduct their affair almost wholly under the public gaze. So there could be well-nigh no touching. But it was precisely these restrictions that gave such piquancy to their meetings and such poignancy to their final parting.

I’ve now finished Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”. Much of its charm for me was the simplicity of its prose, and the slightly exotic air lent by the locale of New Orleans, and by the main characters being French Creole.

You will surely remember that the main character, Edna Pontellier, is a respectably married woman from the monied class (what today would be called the “’1%”), who feels stifled in her marriage and by the social role she has to to play.

Wanting to be free in every way, she moves out, and engages in a mode of living that can only lead to her becoming a social outcast, and to her death – the inevitable fate of a “fallen” woman in the literature of that time.

In openly depicting its main female character as having sexual feelings, and her expressing them through her making the moves on Robert, “The Awakening”, as a female-written novel, would, I think, have been very much ahead of its time in the English-speaking literary milieu, and have shocked the Establishment. Is it any wonder that it ended Kate Chopin’s literary career?

Was Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” more than seventy years on, standing on the shoulders of “The Awakening”?

Anyway, for me, “The Awakening” was a wonderful read.

What’s next for me in my current journey through nineteenth-century and early twentieth century American literature? Willa Cather’s “My Antonia”, I think. I’ll begin it, though, with reservations, since it’s told through a male narrator, and I have doubts that a female novelist can do this successfully. I could be wrong though, and probably am!!!
My interlocutor then wrote:
You should remember, Willa Cather was a lesbian with very male tendencies. If anyone can create a “male narrator” with some sensitivity, it is Willa Cather. Kate Chopin broke ground for many female novelists of the 20th century, that’s for sure.

Now about Ethan Frome… It’s a “stark” novel with a tragic ending…but I still love it. The language, the romance, the frustration, the irony…it’s all there.
After reading "My Antonia" I left this comment:
I have now finished Willa Cather’s “My Antonia”, and found it a wonderful evocation of what it must have been like to live in the American prairies in the 19th century. Although this novel is little different from an autobiography, are not straight-out autobiographies disguised novels anyway?

Ah have ter tell ya, though, that I didn’t find Jim Burden a convincing heterosexual male character, despite your saying that if there was any female novelist who was able to “……create a ‘male narrator’ with some sensitivity, it is Willa Cather……”.

I agree that Jim Burden had sensitivity, and lots of it, but it was more a female sensitivity than a male one. I felt that his overall “voice” was that of a woman, or of an effeminate man, but not of a “real” man. Every so often I came upon sentences or passages that showed this clearly. Well, at least to me they did.

For example, when Jim goes to live with his grandparents (his father, the grandparent’s son, had died), his grandmother, on waking him up after his first night there, remarks how much he looks like his father had. Then Jim, as the narrator, writes “….I remembered that my father had been her little boy; she must often have come to wake him like this when he overslept…….”.

“……I remembered that my father had been her little boy……” has something so…..so……motherly about it. A “real” man would have written “…..I remembered that my father had been her son…….”. Only after rewriting this sentence thus, might a man confidently show his face at the poolhall.

Jim liked to go to the dance hall on Saturday nights, to dance with Antonia, Lena, Tiny, and the other Bohemian and Scandinavian farm girls who the respectable burghers of the town looked down on. Jim wrote of these girls, “……I always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls come into their own, and I have......”.

To describe them as “my country girls” is not what a “real man” would write, for it, again, sounds motherly, or sisterly, and therefore not manly. A “real” man would write, not “my country girls”, but “these girls”. This would pass the poolhall test.

One evening Jim goes with Lena to see the play, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, two of whose characters were Marguerite (played by an actress “….already old, with a ravaged countenance….“) and a young man, Armand.

Jim writes of them, “….Armand was disproportionately young and slight, a handsome youth, perplexed in the extreme. But what did it matter? I believed in her (Marguerite’s) power to fascinate him, in her dazzling loveliness. I believed her young, ardent, reckless, disillusioned, under sentence, feverish, avid of pleasure. I wanted to cross the footlights and help the slim-waisted Armand in the frilled shirt to convince that there was loyalty and devotion in the world…….”.

So moved was Jim by this play that he “….wept unrestrainedly. Even the handkerchief in my breast-pocket, worn for elegance and not at all for use, was wet through by the time that moribund woman (Marguerite) sank for the last time into the arms of her lover…….”.

Would Jim’s reactions to “The Count of Monte Cristo” have passed the poolhall test?

Hardly.

Indeed Willa Cather may have had doubts about being able to portray Jim as a convincing man, since she had him write about himself and Lena on that evening, “……I congratulated myself that I had not brought some Lincoln girl who would talk during the waits about the Junior dances, or whether the cadets would camp at Plattsmouth. Lena was at least a woman, and I was a man…..”.

Why would Willa Cather have added the superfluous "…..and I was a man…..” if she was confident that her readers wouldn’t doubt that Jim was a bona fide man?

While Jim did have lots of female friends – which would have made him the envy of the fellows in any poolhall – his attitude to them wasn’t particularly sexual. While there was the occasional chaste-seeming kiss, and while Jim did say he was in love with Lena, and said later, to Antonia’s children, that he’d once been in love with their mother, were these simply more attempts by Willa Cather to convince readers of Jim’s manliness, or at least to remind them that the novel’s narrator is a man?

And what is one to make of Jim’s later marrying a woman with whom he appeared have little in common, and that he didn’t father any children?

Given that with just a few changes, Willa Cather could have given “My Antonia” a female narrator, which would have given it a more authentic “voice”, why did she bother with a male narrator?

Was it to eliminate the the possibility that readers might construe a female narrator as having homosexual feelings towards the likes of Antonia and Lena – a possibility which, I’m going to assume, may have caused such a novel to be banned, given the temper of those times?

OK – I’ve talked enough of “My Antonia”. Would the manner in which I’ve talked about it pass the poolhall test? I’m not absolutely sure. On the other hand, I don’t go to poolhalls.

I’m about to begin on Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie”. Have you read it?
My interlocutor then wrote:
You’ve written a convincing short piece of literary analysis. But first, you must define the poolhall test if you are going to compare Jim Burden’s sensitivity to the sensitivity a woman would have rather than a man.

If you hadn’t known that Willa Cather was a lesbian, would you have had the same sensitivities to her language usage?

I must confess that your examples are persuasive. Your final question about Cather’s concerns that her homosexuality might burst through the text may be accurate. I just don’t know.

Yes. I have read Sister Carrie but a long time ago…in college.
I replied:
You asked, “…..you must define the poolhall test……”

By poolhall test, I mean anything a man writes that, if read by fellows in a poolhall, wouldn’t cause them to think that the writer is anything less than totally manly. Such writing passes the poolhall test.

You also asked, “……If you hadn’t known that Willa Cather was a lesbian, would you have had the same sensitivities to her language usage?……….”

Good question. A book by any female novelist, regardless of her sexual proclivities, in which the main character is male, and is told in the first person, causes my antennae to wave, just as my antennae would wave if I read a book by a male novelist whose main character is female, and is told in the first person.

This is because the life histories, and sensitivities and emotions of men and women, and the ways they are expressed, are so different. Also, science is discovering huge differences between the male and female brains. In this connection I highly recommend a book called “The Female Brain” by Louann Brizendene.

Perhaps I might re-phrase your question thus: “If you didn’t know that ‘My Antonia’ was written by a woman, would you have had the same sensitivities as to the author’s language usage?”

Probably not. But I would still have thought it strange that a heterosexual man would have a lifelong interest in the lives of the young women he knew when he was a boy – especially as they were women that Jim appeared to have little sexual interest in, for he seemed to look upon them more as big sisters.

I found it odd that Jim wasn’t strongly sexually attracted to at least one. A heterosexual man surely would have been. It’s just the way heterosexual men are. Trust me, I’m one.

So, even if not knowing that “My Antonia” was written by a woman, I would still think Jim an effeminate man, even a homosexual one. Consider the nature of his friendship with Gaston Cleric. And consider a passage in which Jim and Gaston are discussing something in Virgil’s poem, the Georgics, which they found moving.

Then Jim writes, “……We left the classroom quietly, conscious that we had been brushed by the wing of great feeling, though perhaps I alone kept Cleric intimately enough to guess what that feeling was……..”.

What exactly was that feeling? And would it pass the poolhall test?!!!

I also wondered about Jim’s job as legal counsel for one of the great Western railways. Wouldn’t this have been in those days an excessively macho atmosphere for the comfort for the likes of Jim? Just asking.

Just because I doubt that male and female novelists can successfully have first person narrators of their opposite gender (sex), doesn’t mean I doubt they can successfully portray characters of their opposite gender (sex) when writing of them in the third person. There is a huge difference between observing someone by means of the third person, and being him/her by means of the first person.

Or so I think.
My interlocutor in her reply, said in part:
For our little book group about 5 years ago, we read a book by Reynolds Price. I can’t remember the title but it was a woman’s name. I thought he absolutely captured the female psyche.....
I then wrote:
I went into Google and learned that the titles of two of Reynolds Price’s novels were women’s names – “Kate Vaiden” and “Roxanna Slade” – and that both were written in the first person from a woman’s point of view.

May I assume that one of these two novels was the novel you read?

Accepting that Reynolds Price convincingly captured the female psyche through the first person, does this disprove my assertion that men and women writing in the first person through a character of the gender opposite to that of the writer, can’t as a general rule do this successfully, or was Reynolds Price merely an exception to this general rule?!!!
My interlocutor replied:
Thank you for doing my homework for me. It was Roxanna Slade. I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

I do not know the answer to your question. It is a very good one! Perhaps a Masters Thesis topic.

Have you considered going back to school?
I replied:
No. School and I were always uneasy bedfellows.
There the conversation ended.

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