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Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton.

At first glance, these three books appear to merit little consideration as a group except for their focus on women's writing in America. Aside from sharing the obvious characteristics of gender and nationality, the writers discussed create their body of work within the elaborated language and social structures of mature industrialism. But when we move beyond those very general characteristics, certain significant but less apparent similarities appear which unite the books. The most important of these arises from the challenge that all issue to received critical categories such as definitions of genre, conventional judgments of literary value, or "mainstream" male plots and patterns of characterization that ignore women's experience. The three critics show writing women from different places and times in America facing adversarial or indifferent social structures and addressing male communities of literary discourse closed to them.

Mary Papke's Verging on the Abyss examines the careers of two women, Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton, who are now firmly enthroned in all but reactionary American "major author" lists. Both women, whose careers are examined chronologically, are white, upper-class women of the literary period designated as American realism. As Papke presents their work, Chopin and Wharton place their individual female protagonists in conflict with their social order. Papke characterizes these fictional women, caught between individual desires and social duty, as "verging on the abyss" where culturally transmitted categories of meaning hold less coercive power. Chopin's and Wharton's female characters "search for states of liminality in which they might achieve, however momentarily, autonomy" (p. 6).

The Chopin section offers a valuable addition to the critical body of work on the Louisiana writer, uniting her earlier short stories with The Awakening by presentation of the protagonists' liminality. The strongest section of the book, however, is Papke's re-examination of Wharton's critically maligned later books, The Glimpses of the Moon (1922), The Mother's Recompense (1925), and Twilight Sleep (1927) as well as such fragments as "Beatrice Palmato" (1935) and The Buccaneers (1938). Here the critic neatly balances the demands of the social order, particularly the family, and the requirements of individual self-expression. Even in earlier works such as The Custom of the Country (1913), Wharton does not reject the demands of family on the woman's life; rather she protests the total irrelevance of women and their traditional social roles to the male financial competition that Wharton considers to be at the center of American society. A quotation from French Ways and Their Meanings (1919) shows Wharton's opinion of the desired balance between individual desire and traditional social roles in a "grown-up" civilization:

Marriage in France, is regarded as founded for the family and not for the husband and wife. It is not designed to make two people individually happy for a longer or shorter time, but to secure their permanent well-being as associates in the foundation of a home and the procreation of a family. Such an arrangement must needs be based on what is most permanent in human states of feeling, and least dependent on the accidents of beauty, youth, and novelty. (p. 128)

Because Wharton's book proposes the French as the "most human of the human race," and because France became her beloved second home, we may assume that this quotation describes the author's social opinion - despite her own marital difficulties (p. 101). As Papke understands, Wharton throughout her career insisted that American women have no real influence on society because their activities hold no interest for the money-making male leadership (French Ways, pp. 107-108). Despite numerous independent public undertakings, they therefore remain in "an infant class" as in the Montessori educational system which strives for the "development of the child's individuality, unrestricted by the traditional nursery discipline ..." (French Ways, p. 102). Papke's argument adds to the body of Wharton criticism, much of which concentrates on individual passion and self-assertion without placing them in a social context. By balancing those opposing forces in Wharton's later work, she comes closer to the social vision so explicitly set forth in Wharton's often overlooked occasional piece.

Even though the book offers a sensitive discussion of the two authors' work, the argument is at times somewhat diffuse, especially when Papke retreats to her metaphor as explanation. Her analysis of the individual works often outstrips the clarity of her synthesis. In addition, she accepts traditional critical judgments of genre and literary value too uncritically. For example, she deems Chopin's work to be separate from and superior to both local-color fiction and the sentimental novel without adequate acknowledgement that these categories often serve to ignore women's fiction centered on regional culture and on emotional bonds between family and friends. Moreover, these classifications have often been available to categorize and dismiss women's writing as a whole, with one or two "brilliant exceptions." Although such observations as the following are commonplace, they bear repetition: whereas earlier critics repeatedly grouped Sarah Orne Jewett and Kate Chopin, among other women writers, as local-color writers and thus minor artists, Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, say, did not suffer this literary diminution.

In her conclusion, Papke joins the latter two critics as she reminds us that "we must at last speak the unspeakable to each other and thus transform abysses of solitude into an uprising of individual response and collective responsibility" (p. 178). Suzanne Clark picks up this theme as she instructs us in the ways that some of those chasms have become more difficult to bridge in recent literary history.

Clark's Sentimental Modernism states that modernism, seemingly a gender-neutral concept, was, in fact, a construction of a largely male critical establishment which defined itself, often explicitly, by its difference from the language, plots, and intent of women's writing. Built upon a base of psychological, intellectual, and aesthetic theories propounded, for the most part, by men, this construct devalues the depictions of emotion and connection which occupy so central a place in much woman's literature, both early and contemporary. Clark pithily observes, "The horror of the sentimental helped to define the good male poet as the prostitute defined the good woman" (p. 10).

To advance her argument, Clark discusses the work of women writers who, with one exception, have too seldom received serious critical attention: anarchist Emma Goldman, poets Edna St. Vincent Millay and Louise Bogan, avant-garde author Kay Boyle, contemporary essayists and novelists Annie Dillard and Alice Walker. Indeed, Goldman's work as lecturer and essayist seldom merits literary discussion because of its "political" nature. Clark's inclusion of Goldman serves to remind us how effectively modernist criticism has retreated to aesthetic discussions from political argument and emotional appeal. Clark insists that this is indeed a modern trend as she places Goldman's work within the American literary tradition of resistance which includes Emerson and Thoreau.

To the work of all these women, so disparate in sensibility and background, Clark brings an alternate set of critical judgments. She argues that conviction and emotion are motivating forces as significant for literature as those of intellec and linguistic innovation, that a desire to change the reader's life may be a more "serious" enterprise than the wish to engage the audience's intellect or admiration. In the tradition of woman's domestic fiction, Clark forthrightly announces her intention to engage us, to instruct us, and, yes, to inspire us toward change. She seeks "to restore the sentimental to modernist literary history - with all its banality and also all its connection to subversion and ethical appeal" (p. 15). Clark demonstrates how seemingly unrelated intellectual developments, for example, the work of New Critics such as John Crowe Ransom, the theories of Sigmund Freud, and more recently the works of cultural criticism such as Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture, ignore or trivialize women's experience and literary practice.

Modernism initiates a "reversal of values" which celebrated momentary individual self-assertion over the traditional communal structures. In Clark's view, this literary movement exalts erotic fulfillment over companionship, affection, and partnership and favors avant-garde techniques over conventional language. Moreover, Clark contends that the movement toward aestheticism, experimentation, and intellectuality of modernism, in effect, relegates literature to the status of a mere leisure activity confined to the easy chair or, at its most serious, to the carrel. In contrast, Suzanne Clark, like Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs, believes that the written word as women have practiced it intends to have consequence in the workaday world.

Elizabeth Jane Harrison's Female Pastoral details the various attempts by Southern women to reclaim their native landscape through a reworking of the traditional pastoral mode. This revitalized pastoral places women's histories and connections at the fore of the regional literature. Harrison illustrates her thesis by discussing works produced by writers customarily placed within the popular craft tradition alongside those produced by writers of self-conscious art: Ellen Glasgow, Margaret Mitchell, Willa Cather, Harriette Arnow, Alice Walker, and Sherley Williams.

Harrison persuasively argues that these women, led by that female Janus of Southern literature, Ellen Glasgow, form a new and parallel regional tradition. Building on the thought of cultural critics of the South such as Lewis Simpson, critics of women's literature such as Nina Baym and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and critics of African-American literature such as Barbara Christian and Jean Yellin, Harrison describes a pastoral which shows the woman shaping a fertile, rather than an exhausted, landscape. The productive pastoral setting - farm, plantation, or rural home - as reclaimed by woman's care replaces the commemorative churchyard or the abandoned mansion as symbol for domesticated Southern nature. In contrast to the fallen Eden of their male contemporaries - the lost Southern "garden of the patriarch" as Lewis Simpson perceptively describes it - these authors, in Harrison's view, insist that this energized pastoral community is exemplary rather than nostalgic. The authors presented here eschew the search for the lost patriarch and his devastated kingdom which drives the writing of many male writers of the Southern Renaissance - William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren, to name a few notable examples.

In her conclusion, Harrison states that the pastoral impulse is no longer a vital one in the writing of white Southern women in contrast to their African-American contemporaries. Although it is true that Bobbie Ann Mason, among others, depicts an encroaching urban society, other contemporary white Southern women, Ann Patchett, for one, in her novel The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), continue to use the pastoral as Harrison broadly defines it. The female pastoral envisions an ideal community that balances individual self-realization with communal duties; I would therefore expect that this plot in all its rich variations will continue to enrich American literature.

Do these critics point to an area of agreement through the variables of race, region, and genre to find a shared woman's literary practice? Clearly such female pastorals as Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland written by Northerners parallel the plot that Harrison draws. Region is therefore not the only relevant variable, yet due consideration indicates that the pastoral appears more often in the writing of Southern women. Race as well cannot be seen as the central driving force behind this communal plot as both Harrison and Clark demonstrate through their blending of works by white and African-American women.

A significant difference of opinion on literature's function within society between the writing men and women in modern America emerges clearly. Surely it is no coincidence that the male leadership of the Southern Renaissance discussed by Harrison overlapped those at the front of the New Criticism discussed by Clark (John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, most notably). Both strains seek to reclaim the idealized social authority of the past for the male critic within the context of a rationalized modern American social order. These men write from a profound sense of displacement, a loss of privilege experienced by their class, their profession, and their gender. Therefore, we should not be surprised to find them engaged in a flight to the text from a ruined present they find bleak and a patriarchal past they consider heroic. In contrast, the women discussed immerse themselves in the emotional connections of the present and in the visionary possibilities for the future - nostalgia holds no charms for such women writers as Emma Goldman or Alice Walker or Kate Chopin.

Throughout the discussion I have paired the critical works of Suzanne Clark and Elizabeth Harrison. The reconciliation of those two critical sensibilities can be found in their portrayal of the engaged relationship of individual and social order - Mary Papke's work also focuses on this aspect in her discussion of Wharton's later work. Moreover, all three show many of the female protagonists immersing themselves in the natural world. The literary characters find themselves working in cooperation with rather than seeking domination over the landscape; as Annette Kolodny has shown, the male and female literary approaches to American nature have been radically different. The critics demand that the claims of both individual and group be given their due in fiction, but more than that, they depict these women and their female creations meeting society and the natural world with passionate engagement; the objectifying, judging male gaze finds no place in the writing they discuss - not even in the writing of those women so close to the center of American literary and social spheres as Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, and Kay Boyle. Literature in the works covered by these critics intends to implicate the audience and to move it to change.

The intention to address and to include the range of readership unites both these critics and the women they discuss. Both Clark and Harrison agree that the writing of the authors they examine intends to be inclusive, but more, they believe that criticism itself should refuse the attitude that it is the academic's own posted preserve. In keeping with that belief, both refuse to use race, genre, popular appeal, and language level to declare certain experiences as categorically unworthy of serious critical consideration. They integrate the work of African-American women into their discussions as a matter of course, judiciously balancing the claims of racial and gender experience and histories. Harrison and Clark use language accessible to the general reader as well as the literary specialist; the tricked-up lingo that so effectively dates literary criticism is, for the most part, blessedly absent in these books. Because the two critics intentionally break down divisive categories, they model in their own work the intent of the writing they discuss. The critical categories and language themselves suggest the emergence of a more inclusive and cooperative literary community.

In the last account, the critics treated in this discussion agree that a vital, significant literature originates from the vision and emotions of one human being, the author, meeting those of the other, the reader, and weaving the ties of an affecting, and "effecting," relationship.
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Author:Levy, Helen Fiddyment
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:2469
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