Monday, August 29, 2011

Valerie Martin--Property (2003)

The cover of my copy of Valerie Martin’s 2003 novel Property features an impressive blurb by Toni Morrison: “This fresh, unsentimental look at what slave owning does to (and for) one’s interior life must be a first.”  However, Martin’s novel is much more than a feminist reclamation of an unheard voice, as it goes well beyond simply telling the story of Manon Gaudet, the mistress of a Louisiana sugar plantation.  Rather, Martin gives Manon a complexity which reveals not only Manon’s impatience with her society’s sexism, but also Manon’s own shortcomings and lack of empathy: not only in dealing with her husband but—more importantly—in dealing with Sarah, her slave and her husband’s “mistress.”  The novel’s feminist subtext is strengthened not only by Manon’s candid voice, but also by the remarkable silences which surround Sarah. 
The novel opens with Manon expressing disgust for her husband, as she spies on him forcing his young male slaves to engage in naked horseplay, punishing those who become sexually aroused and then finding a female slave to satisfy his own arousal.  This is followed by a breakfast scene in which Manon implies that Sarah, who has born his children, shares her disdain.  When she tells Sarah that her husband is afraid that she is poisoning him, Manon observes that “Something flickered at the corner of her mouth; was it amusement?” (6).  Any solidarity which might be inferred here, however, is quickly dismissed in the following scene, in which Manon unhappily sews while Sarah fans her.  After Sarah gives a reasonable explanation for what Manon originally thinks is an extravagance, Manon acknowledges Sarah’s persistent silences while begrudgingly admitting that, “It is one of the annoying things about her; on those occasions when she bothers to speak, she makes sense” (6).
Sarah’s silence is one of the most important parts of the novel.  Manon is alternately unnerved, frustrated, and maddened by Sarah’s reticence.  However, she also learns from it: when her husband throws a fit over dinner, Manon “looked at him for few moments blankly, without comment, as if he was speaking a foreign language.  This unnerves him.  It’s a trick I learned from Sarah” (8).  Though Manon has learned to perform Sarah’s trick, she fails to realize the actual meanings of Sarah’s silences.  Rather than portray the two women, who both suffer under Mr. Manon’s rule, as having a growing understanding of each other, Martin instead shows how Manon’s self-centeredness and cruelty inflict further pain upon Sarah.  Manon cannot hear what is beneath Sarah’s silences; she can’t even read between her own lines.
For the reader, however, the most important meanings emerge from such silences, such as the striking example after the death of Manon’s mother.  Seeing Sarah nursing her baby, Manon—wordless herself—approaches Sarah and suckles from her breast.  The combination of sexual domination and the appropriation of a surrogate mother figure is intoxicating and rejuvenating for the grief-stricken Manon.  However, Sarah is silent and unmoving under this assault: “She had lifted her chin as far away from me as she could, her mouth was set in a thin, hard line, and her eyes were focused intently on the arm of the settee.  She’s afraid to look at me, I thought.  And she’s right to be.  If she looked at me, I would slap her” (77).  Here, Sarah’s silence is absolutely necessary, as Manon teeters on the edge of feeling an emotional connection with her.  Where previously, Sarah’s silences have been a silent rebellion against her owners, here her silence protects Manon from her own momentary vulnerability.
Both Manon and Sarah are eventually allowed some escape after Mr. Gaudet’s death during a slave revolt.  Sarah escapes to the North, and Manon is able to live by herself.  However, Martin refuses any tantalizing romanticism these events might offer, as Sarah is ultimately caught and returned to Manon, who herself remains constrained by her role as a widow in antebellum society.  In the novel’s last scene, Sarah is once again serving a meal to Manon.  Manon attempts to undermine any Sarah’s experiences of freedom which she might have had, ridiculing the idea of a black woman being treated as fully human.  However, freedom has changed Sarah, and she no longer suffers in silence.  In light of her previous persistent silence, that Sarah’s words—“It appeal to me” (192)—are the last in the novel, they gain a defiant force which they might have lacked had Sarah earlier been more loquacious.

Monday, August 22, 2011

John Howard--Men Like That (1999)

John Howard’s Men Like That “argues that notions and experiences of male-male desire are in perpetual dialectical relationship with the spaces in which they occur, mutually shaping one another.  This book examines sexual and gender nonconformity, specifically male homosexualities and male-to-female transgender sexualities in Mississippit from 1945 to 1985—from the end of World War II to the dawn of the age of AIDS” (xiv).  Howard’s work is different from much of gay and lesbian history, which is often “urban-centered and identity-focused” (xiv); instead, Howard’s work emphasizes “desire as an organizing category” (xviii).  Relying heavily on first person accounts, oral histories, and news stories—as well as his own memories growing up in Mississippi—Howard illuminates a Mississippi where many homosexual desires were able to be exist and be acted on in the context of a “tradition of quiet accommodation” (184).
Unlike many coming out narratives, which follow a trajectory of movement from the rural to the urban, Howard examines what took place within the rural setting.  He shows that much homosexual desire and activity took place despite of or because of this rural context; further, not only were there gay people who stayed in Mississippi and acted on their desires, but there were also people who, while originally followed the rural to urban trajectory, returned home (for myriad reasons, from families who needed them to their own desire to live in Mississippi).  Howard examines the role of the “closet” in these paradigms, noting that within the confines of the closet, much desire can be acted on.  Important to my own work, he makes the claim that “the South—rural space generally—functions as a gay America’s closet” (63).  We see this in the paradigmatic coming out narrative, then, the move from South to North—rural to urban.
An important point that Howard makes is how the “tradition of quiet accommodation” was interrupted primarily by the rise of the Civil Rights movement.  Over time, queer desire and civil rights agitation became conflated, as the “dirty beatnik” stereotype included suspect sexuality: “over the course of ten years, a vibrant, ever more successful civil rights movement would become connected in the minds of many Mississippians to queer sex, among other practices and ideologies.  Consequently, police and judicial responses to queer Mississippians would prove increasingly hostile and punitive” (129). 
Further, Howard shows how queer desire, acts, and identity were all very different elements which were not necessarily conflated.  While public officials earlier in the period were often quietly accommodated when their own queer sexual practices were discovered, more publicized sex scandals which arose later in the period nicely illustrated how desires, acts, and identities were understood as separate.  In his discussion of Mississippi Congressperson Jon Hinson, who was discovered on several occasions engaged in homosex, Howard points out that it is only when Hinson is discovered in an unacceptable sexual role—penetrated by a black man—that his public rebelled.  Using the Protestant rhetoric of sin and forgiveness, however, allowed Hinson to continue to “def[y] queer identity by speaking—and repenting—only of queer deeds” (270).  Howard’s analysis of this rhetoric in light of Judith Butler’s theory of queer performance is intriguing: “Hinson, in producing and performing a spiritual inside, ensured that he wouldn’t be relegated to a stigmatized cultural outside” (272).  By claiming (and I would say performing) an internal spiritual terrain, Hinson was able to mitigate the significance of the actions of this physical, external body.
I’m glad that Howard ended his analysis with the mid-eighties, as AIDS truly did change everything, including understandings of identity.  As I just read Henry Abelove’s Deep Gossip, I’m really intrigued by how the two texts interact.  Simply taking Abelove’s idea of the “queer commuter”—a term which he uses to describe a group of American poets from the first half of the twentieth century, whose travel away from and back to America (prompted by an America hostile to gay identity) informed their work—I’d like to apply that to the idea of the South, as I would maintain that no one can ever fully leave the South.  I appreciate Howard’s focus on an often-ignored identity.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Henry Abelove--Deep Gossip (2003)

In this collection of essays, Abelove reconsiders a number of aspects of gay, lesbian, and queer history, including Freud's legacy, the popularity of heterosexual intercourse during the eighteenth century, and the place of Queer Studies in American literature and American Studies.  The title of this essay collection comes from Allen Ginsberg’s elegy for Frank O’Hara, a “curator of funny emotions” who possessed a “common ear for our deep gossip” (xi).  To Abelove, these lines provide both an organizing emblematic structure for analyzing modern lesbian, gay, and queer culture in America as well as a role for such an analyst to aspire to.  Abelove shows how these lines emphasize nurturing and listening with “close attention democratically” (xii) to gossip—“illicit speculation, information, knowledge,” an “indispensible resource for those who are in any sense or measure disempowered” (xii).  And, “it is deep “whenever it circulates in subterranean ways and touches on matters hard to grasp and of crucial concern” (xii).
I appreciate Abelove's willingness to see how understandings of gay, lesbian, and queer histories have changed across both academic disciplines and generations.  Some of the strongest parts of these essays are not only in their reclamation (or re-reclamation) of figures from Thoreau to Freud in their significance to queer history, but also in their resistance to the all-too-common teleological tendencies of queer histories which often focus on identities rather than behaviors.  Finally, his consideration of the relationship between Queer Studies and American Studies is fantastic (and the role that Red Panic played in the disappearance of the former): using a psychoanalytic metaphor, he says that if Queer Studies was present at the start of American Studies in Matthiessen’s work, then it might be figured as part of the unconscious of the discipline—and “the future of American Studies would then depend in large measure on whether or not that unconscious is permitted to return” (69).  Reclaiming F.O. Matthiessen’s original conception of American literature with its implicit questions of the place of same sex desire from later critics such as Leslie Fiedler who insist on seeing homosexuality and democracy as separate, Abelove succeeds in bringing same sex desire back to the center of this discipline.

Robert Penn Warren--All the King's Men (1946)

            Published in 1946, All the King’s Men won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.  While many descriptions of the novel focus on Huey Long, the inspiration for Willie Stark, the novel’s central character, I think that such a focus really does a disservice to the novel.  Told from the perspective of Jack Burden, who becomes a key player in Stark’s administration, I see it as a much more general story of twentieth century, Freud-inflected American masculinity.  Nested narratives telling the stories of Jack Burden, his distant nineteenth century ancestor Cass Mastern, and Willie Stark’s own rise himself and loss of his son, the novel explores the evolution and interdependence of character necessary for these American men. 
Highly informed by oedipal conflicts, the men in these stories—Burden, Willie and Tom Stark, Adam Stanton, Cass Mastern, Judge Irwin, Sugar Boy, and the Burden’s various father and stepfather figures primarily identified by their occupations (the “Scholarly Attorney,” for example)—demonstrate in varying degrees the competition, struggle, and interdependence between fathers and sons in their struggle for identity.  Jack Burden’s sexualized relationship with his mother seems to be part Oedipal and part Hamlet, as he’s both put off by her hypersexuality as well as paralyzed by her when she turns her charms on him.  Willie and Tom Stark provide another tragic father-son dyad, as Tom’s drive to live up to his father’s expectations lead to an out of wedlock child and his own ultimate death from a football injury.  Finally, Burden’s own contribution to the death of his own father overtly plays out the Freudian interpretation of the Oedipus story.
Burden’s background as an academic historian provides a useful framework for allowing him to analyze and speculate on the nature of the stories he’s telling.  It allows the nested narrative of Cass Mastern, his ancestor who inadvertently contributed to the death of his beloved’s husband, echoing Burden’s own involvement in the death of Judge Irwin, whom he discovers is his biological father, as well as the murder of Willie Stark, certainly a central father figure in the novel.  Neither Jack Burden, Cass Mastern, or Tiny Duffy actually pull triggers in these deaths, but in Burden’s analysis are as responsible for these actions as those who held the guns.  Ultimately, Burden’s story is of his search for meaning—or, more specifically, for first causes and responsibility. 
That his very name is “Burden” underscores the difficulty which he finds his own very existence to pose.  Burden’s first explanation is the theory of the “Great Twitch,” which he develops on a spontaneous trip west he takes after discovering that Anne Stanton, the love of his life, has slept with Stark.  The "Great Twitch" is a particular brand of nihilism that Burden embraces during this journey westward: "all the words we speak meant nothing and there was only the pulse in the blood and the twitch of the nerve, like a dead frog's leg in the experiment when the electric current goes through."On his way back from California, Jack gives a ride to an old man who has an involuntary facial twitch. This image becomes for him the encapsulating metaphor for the idea that "all life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve."  In other words, life is without meaning; everything is motivated by some inborn reflex action and nobody is responsible for their choices or even their own destiny. The emotional distance permitted by this revelation releases Jack from his own frustration stemming from the relationship between Anne Stanton and his boss, and allows him to return to circumstances which were previously unbearable. 
Subsequent events (including the tragic deaths of Governor Stark, his lifelong friend Adam Stanton, and Judge Irwin, Jack's father) convince Jack that the revelation of the "Great Twitch" is an insufficient paradigm to explain what he has seen of history. "[H]e saw that though doomed [his friends] had nothing to do with any doom under the godhead of the Great Twitch. They were doomed, but they lived in the agony of will."  Ultimately, he grows to accept some responsibility for his part in the destruction of his friends' lives.  His reward for this acceptance of responsibility is marriage to Anne Stanton, with whom he has retained an alternately problematic and apathetic attachment to throughout the novel.  Especially when he is enmeshed in his family romance role with his sexualized mother, his behavior with Anne is seen to evolve without his conscious participation: they assume they will marry, though make no overt plans.  Physical consummation of their relationship is interrupted when an emotional connection is made.  As long as Burden does not see other people as people, but as roles, titles, or actors, he is fine; it is when their common humanity is acknowledged, he is paralyzed. 
It took me a while to warm up to this book: I have an aversion to narrators such as Burden, who read to me as mid-century, Freud-influenced, white men whining about their unhappiness.  Women in this book are two-dimensional and hypersexualized, a common characteristic of this type of book which bothers me.  However, I admit that the nested narratives and the ways in which they commented on each other did eventually win me over.  Warren’s command of language is at times hilarious and at times beautiful.  And the novel’s grasp on such a large scope of its interwoven stories is ultimately successful.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ellen Douglas--Can't Quit You, Baby (1988)

In Dirt and Desire, Patricia Yaeger uses the central metaphor in Douglas's novel, in which a young, carefree girl unknowingly water-skis over a nest of snakes.  Can't Quit You, Baby, is primarily the story of Tweet and Cornelia, an African American woman who works as a maid for the upper-middle class white Cornelia.  The narrator returns to this metaphor from time to time, showing Cornelia alternately skating over the surface of things or, alternately, turning down her hearing aid as a way of submerging herself in silence.

This is not just the story of their friendship, but of their own individual lives and how they intersect.  Their stories are told going back to their childhoods, showing how their lives have reached this point.  Cornelia escapes a domineering mother for a happy marriage which ends tragically when her husband dies suddenly of an aneurysm.  Tweet's happy childhood with her grandfather is cut short with his death, which leads to her marriage to Nig, and older man who makes her happy enough, though he runs around on her.  By the end of the novel, Cornelia has realized what a significant part of her life Tweet has been, and is in the process of trying to make it up to her.

Several times the narrator makes her presence known by overtly referring to her position in the narrative.  Her comments emphasize the problems of both portraying as well as critiquing relationships such as that between Cornelia and Tweet.  I find this particularly key right now with the discussions going on about The Help, a novel which attempts to portray similar relationships, but claims to convey the voices of black women in an unmediated fashion.  In contrast, Douglas's narrator points out the fact that she is incapable of getting inside of Tweet's head, that all she has been able to present is what Tweet has told Cornelia. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Margaret Mitchell--Gone with the Wind (1936)

          This was my favorite novel in seventh grade--partly because I was so darned proud of myself for reading a book that was 1448 pages, but also because it was exciting and romantic and had courageous characters who were impatient with gender expectations.  It was so gratifying to have a heroine to identify with who "was no lady." 

          I was a bit worried about reading it critically now, as I've enjoyed it as a beach kind of read for so long.  However, I was gratified to rediscover how useful it's going to be for my work on ugly women in Southern literature: page one: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful."  Well, there you go.  

          It is a problematic book.  Just starting with race, for a novel from 1936, it's pretty reactionary and racist.  The first African American character in the novel is Jeems, the body servant of the Tarleton twins.  Despite the fact that the narrator notes that neither Scarlett nor the Tarletons value book smarts, and “the boys had less grammar than most of their poor Cracker neighbors” (2), their speech is recounted in standard English, while that of Jeems is phonetically-spelled vernacular.  Jeems is presented as one who is wily and spies on the white folks.  He’s also presented as lacking in the “gentlemanly attributes” which it is implied make rich plantation owners (and their sons) inherently worthy of their wealth—such as when Jeems is afraid to make the kinds of jumps on horseback which the twins enjoy (14).

           The second African American character presented is Mammy, who is also such a problematic character: “Mammy felt that she owned the O’Haras, body and soul” (14).  As an aside, it’s interesting to note that she is described as “shining black, pure African, devoted to her last drop of blood to the O’Haras” (15)—the use of the word blood here is interesting to me.  Blood was such a prominent image in the description of the land that I can’t help but connect Mammy to the land.  But blood also evokes breeding—either breeding in terms of the kind of stock that Mrs. Tarleton is obsessed with, or in terms of bloodlines.  Even though Mammy is “shining black,” I can’t help but be interested in her own bloodline.  She was “raised in the bedroom of Solange Robillard, Ellen O’Hara’s mother” (15).  Who was Mammy’s father?

          The class and economic statuses pre- and post-war are an important theme in the book, showing both what was lost and what was resilient enough to return.  While the tone of the narration casts doubt on the usefulness of absolute allegiance to the Southern Cause, the inherent worthiness of economic and class status (while shown as mutable to some extent) is always ultimately affirmed.  

In fact, those of slave status are often characterized as affirming these systems of oppression.   Jeems expresses disdain for the poor white trash Slatterys, while the narrator explains how the composition of the Troop reflects the local class hierarchy: while small planters such as Able Wynder, while not rich like the big plantation owners, were respectable enough to lead the Troop, poor whites such as the Slatterys are not (11).  Such distinctions include gentlemanly behavior: “raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance  and carrying one’s liquor like a gentleman” (2).  Class and gender are implicated in these distinctions, as the narrator claims that “There was little snobbery in the troop.  Too many of their fathers and grandfathers had come up to wealth from the small farmer class for that….But the planters’ ladies and the planters’ slaves could not overlook the fact that he was not born a gentleman, even if their men folks could” (12).

This idea that men, who interact with the “real world” of war and finance, are more forgiving of slights against caste and class is a common one throughout the novel.  The pre-war women’s sphere is incredibly limited and strongly policed: women cannot afford to be as forgiving as men because the world does not forgive them.  The difference between Scarlett’s status and Rhett’s socioeconomic mobility is partly to demonstrate this.  There is a definite (albeit—that word again—problematic) attempt at a feminist undercurrent to the novel, as not only does Scarlett rebel against the strictures expected of her gender, but there’s definitely a moment that I would characterize as a consciousness-raising moment: “A startling thought this, that a woman could handle business matters as well as or better than a man, a revolutionary thought to Scarlett who had been reared in the tradition that men were omniscient and women none too bright.  Of course, she had discovered that this was not altogether true but the pleasant fiction still stuck in her mind.  Never before had she put this remarkable idea into words….during the lean months at Tara she had done a man’s work and done it well. She had been brought up to believe that a woman alone could accomplish nothing, yet she had managed the plantation without men to help her until Will came.  Why, why, her mind stuttered, I believe women could manage everything in the world without men’s help—except having babies, and God knows, no woman in her right mind would have babies if she could help it.  With the idea that she was as capable as a man came a sudden rush of pride and violent longing to prove it, to make money for herself as men made money” (862-3).

Right after this consciousness-raising realization, however, Rhett comes in to see if she needs his financial rescuing, and shows himself to be much more reactionary than Scarlett.  Though Rhett claims to admire women who value practicality over virtue, he is ultimately much less able to rid himself of the kinds of reactionary values over lost causes and virtues and romanticism than Scarlett is, as he admits to killing the black man who was “uppity to a lady, and what else could a Southern gentleman do?  And while I’m confessing, I must admit that I shot a Yankee cavalryman after some words in a barroom” (867).  Scarlett is about to criticize, but then remembers her own lack of regrets over killing a Yankee.  However, Scarlett kills the Yankee for self-preservation, while Rhett’s murders are over these ridiculous, racist/classist/regionalist?  outmoded Southern notions of honor.

He says that “I always felt that women had a hardness and endurance unknown to men, despite the pretty idea taught me in childhood that women are frail, tender, sensitive creatures” (866).  When complaining about Ashley, he says that “Among men, there’s a very unpleasant name for men who permit women to support them” (875).  All in all, on this reading, I did not find Rhett nearly as dashing and attractive as on my first read.  Of course, I found most people less sympathetic, except (surprisingly) perhaps Melanie.  [spoiler alert!] I was surprised at how saddened I was by her death on this reading.  

I’m also curious about just what the novel is saying about the South.  There is ultimately (to me) a critical tone toward the mythic idea of the South.  I’m not done thinking about either how the novel defines the South or what it’s ultimate tone toward this definition is.