Nina Baym

“Melodramas of Beset Manhood”

 

Canon: body of writings recognized by authority (critics, publishers, anthologists…etc) which include authentic works that they give their approval on.

American Myth: was notion that America was this new land that didn’t have any historical fingerprints on it or social interruptions in it, and the individual could “ achieve complete self-definition” here (pg. 1532)

 

We read lit. (literature) through perspectives allowed by theories

 

2. Baym completed a study on women in major British/ American literature in 1977 (pg. 1541)

 

only came up with 4 women writers

no women cited at all between 1865-1940

she concluded that all major novelists have been men

 

Seeing as though Baym wasn’t going to reread all American lit. to decide for herself who the major women authors were, she accepted the 4 extracted women… therefore she accepted the canon  (pg. 1541)

                                                                                                                                                                         

As late as 1977 the canon didn’t include any women novelists, yet if we look at the totality of lit., we find that American women authors have been active as early as the days of the settlement (pg. 1541)

 

I doubt there’s a student of literature who hasn’t heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin ( one of the biggest sellers in American history by Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth

 

Baym gives 3 partial explanations for why critics don’t recognize women authors in American lit. :

 

Critics are bias; they don’t like to face the fact that women can be writers. These critics put on a show and state that their theory is non-sexist BUT their practice does not live up to their stated theory

Somewhat of a gender hindrance to women writers. 

    

Women have not appeared to write excellent lit. … Baym explains the reason behind this : Suppose what people consider excellent writing is a work that includes classical allusions

Well, seeing as though classical education was restricted to men, then it means women would not have had the opportunity to produce excellent lit.

Idea of good lit. is not just a personal preference, but also a cultural preference

 

      (c) Gender-related restrictions put on women that arise out of critical theories

If we accept the current theories of American lit., then we accept what follows…that literature is essentially male (pg. 1542)

 

Baym talks about how American lit. is judged less by its form than by its content

 

Americans wanted their literature to be patriotic, therefore, they had to live up to the challenge of the new nation

American writers didn’t have any historical lit. To compare theirs to, so they were building on the method of “most” American lit. not “best”

The most sold/read American lit. had to conform to the idea of what was truly American (pg. 1542)

 

There are definitions that’s critics agreed on for the term “Americaness” :

That America as a nation has to be the ultimate subject

Aspects/experience have to deal with American characters only

It should display/meditate on the latter aspects in order to derive generalizations about the American experience

 

       - There should be no stories that comply with universality…stories should only apply to American experience       (pg. 1543)

 

Lionell Trilling in his essay “Reality in America” criticizes Vernon Parrington’s selection of American authors

 

Trilling says Parrington picked the wrong authors because he didn’t understand the  American culture

Therefore, according to Trilling, culture is the real concern… But Trilling himself cannot “objectively establish his version of culture over Parrington’s”

This appears to be a circular notion here

This circular movement around the issue of culture led Trilling to carry on the tradition of searching for cultural essence… which turned out to portray a kind of tension

In the end Trilling came up with his own choice of authors who turned out to be white/ middle-class/ males of Anglo-Saxon derivation (pg. 1544)

 

Trilling has the notion of “consensus [ general opinion] criticism of consensus”

 

Why did he exclude women authors if most of them were white, Anglo-Saxons?

Because critics assume that women writers “represented the consensus rather then the criticism of literature” … “their gender made them part of the consensus” which prevented them from participating in criticism   (pg. 1545)

 

Sydney Krause & S.W. Reid have a passage on page 1545 that entered women writers into the literary history as the enemy

 

women were being made fun of/criticized…they weren’t important or true

women could not show the essence of American culture (pg. 1545)

 

Baym presents us with another essay by Trilling which a group of Americanists looked at and found the American quality they had been seeking

 

The myth was a: “Confrontation of the American individual, the pure American self divorced from specific social circumstances, with the promise offered by the idea of America”

An interpretation of this promise is that people come before society; society puts destructive pressure on an individual

 

seeing as though America was open wilderness back then, there was nothing American were restricted by

Writers had open opportunities where they could inscribe their own nature/destiny

 

The American myth portrayed the notion of individual verses society (pg. 1546)

 

Baym asks: Does anything about this myth put women out of reach?

 

Answer: NO because the subject of the myth stands for human nature, and both men and women have this quality

 

Baym goes on to talk about protagonists in American stories

 

both men & women have social responsibilities & conventions

women are entrusted by society to rear children

men have the primary tasks of socialization

men view women as the antagonist: “ a character [the female] whose mission in life seems to be to ensnare him and deflect him from life’s important purposes of self discovery and self assertion”…in other words; women are a threat (pg. 1547)

women are not going to write books where they play this role

 

Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel comments on The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawethorne

 

in Fiedler’s text he presumes that all the readers[ of Hawthorne’s novel] are men

it is not a woman’s tale; it’s not about Hester as a human being (pg. 1548)

 

Fiedler’s novel is the melodrama ( “the American critic’s melodrama of beset manhood” ) ; there are no women authors in his chronicle (pg. 1548)

 

Baym stresses that women are stuck either way because :

 

when they write a story that conforms to the myth, it is not recognized for what it is because of the excess sexual specialization as it’s entertained in critic’s minds

And if women do not conform to the myth their lit. is seen as minor & trivial (pg. 1549)

 

Richard Poirier’s passage on page 1550 unites the writer ( creator) and the protagonist

 

creators have the “limitless opportunity”  to imagine & create from nothing

creators play the role of Adam in a way…the American myth transferred from the Adamic hero in the story, to the Adamic creator of the story

 

the identification of the “Adamic writer” is the informal appearance of his novel

the unconventionality in his work is interpreted as direct representation of open-ended experience of taming the wilderness & the rejection of society

There was no place for women writers in this role… Women were either: -silent like nature or – they were spokespeople for society (pg. 1550)

 

Baym’s conclusion notes that pushing the theory of American fiction to this extreme, critic’s “ deconstructed” it by creating a tool with no American reference

But rather, what is more apparent is a universal male psyche

 

 

Presented by: Layla Almatrouk