Manhood and the American Renaissance 
by David Leverenz.
Cornell, 372 pp., $35.75, April 1989, 0 8014 2281 7
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There is a species of literary criticism now flying high in the academy which should eventually come to roost in the Food and Drugs Administration. The FDA is that part of the United States Government charged with the labelling of products. Do they meet the minimum daily requirements of things that are good for you? Are there infectious ingredients, additives or local colourings that need to be exposed by analysis? Just the sort of thing students are being encouraged these days to ask of the literature they read. Criticism in the spirit of the FDA is intended to reduce your tolerance for golden oldies, to reveal consumer fraud going on in books that for these many years have had a reputation for supplying hard-to-get nutrients.

Illusions as to the value of revered works of literature need every so often to be dispelled, even if it means that some people swear off the canon altogether. For most others, the results aren’t likely to be so decisive or long-lasting. Like the warnings issued about cigarettes, the cautions about eggs, alcohol and chocolate, or the recent scare in the US about apples, warnings being heard about literature – that narrativity is biased toward violence, that novelistic compostion is a form of imperialism, that characters we’ve learned to trust are ideological plants – all these won’t for long dissuade the hearty reader from going back to the classics as to some plate of infamous goodies.

Meanwhile, FDA criticism will probably earn a few more adherents thanks to David Leverenz’s Manhood and the American Renaissance. It is better than most such books because, for one thing, he is at times a competent if constricted close reader, while being at heart resentful that he is required to be one at all by certain of the works he has chosen to discuss. For another, the 54 pages of notes provide an instructive review of critics and historians of gender ideology. He thereby places his arguments within on-going debates about American literature, especially on how best to situate it in relation to other writings. In this instance, the other writings are, with only a few exceptions, American, and of an historical or non-canonical kind. In discussing other critics Leverenz is not in the least combative – evidence, I take it, that he is cleansed of the competitiveness of his profession and of any infections of aggressive masculinity he may have picked up from reading Emerson or the ever-devious Hawthorne.

His contentions are that in the North-Eastern United States before the Civil War ‘the reigning ideology of manhood oriented itself toward power, not feeling’ – such dichotomies abound, alas; that the ideology took hold, less because men were afraid of women or of the feminine components in themselves – a feminist argument that has always seemed to me persuasive – than because men were afraid of being humiliated by other men in the perfervid economic enterprise of the time; and that this fear was disguised, even from those who felt it, by publically-accredited rhetorics of self-reliance. Like the new historicists he admires, Leverenz has decided that self-fashioning is animated by forces outside the individual, that these are only superficially situated in specific historical events (Like the financial crisis of 1837, when Emerson noted in his journals that ‘the land stinks of suicide’), and are to be traced instead in insidious gender formations as they move into economic arrangements and class-consciousness.

When Leverenz says that ‘manhood’ is ‘a reigning ideology’ he is momentarily simplifying his own arguments. His emphasis is not on any single idea of manhood. It is on the struggles among various factions, each of which wants to define the term, appropriate and represent it. These competitions are as ferocious as any that occur in the marketplace. The enterpreneurial males of the 1830s and 1840s posed an implicit challenge to the manhood traditionally reserved to the older class of genteel patriarch, and both factions were being challenged in turn by the independent artisans. Meanwhile, in novels, poems and essays, it was being suggested that only the ‘poet’ (he who stands, said Emerson, ‘among partial men for the complete man’) could sufficiently imagine a nation that was still in need of imagining. ‘America is a poem in our eyes,’ to quote Emerson again, and if so, who else could bring it into focus? Businessmen cannot even control the terms in which they do business. Didn’t Thoreau say he had ‘walked over each farmer’s premises’?

The quotations I’ve volunteered in the above paragraph would probably strike Leverenz as so much literary footwork. He looks to language for some combination of social brainwashing and psychological trauma. The second of these is the fault of father-figures who induce shame and resentment. For the former slave Frederick Douglass, about whom and Harriet Beecher Stowe he writes his best criticism, the father is obviously White Master, though there is also White Mistress, in whose capacity to read and write, and in her willingness to teach them both to a young slave, Douglas begins to discover the instrument both of freedom and revenge. Fear of domination for Hawthorne resides in the spectre of homosexual rape carried out by an older man – specifically, a domineering uncle-guardian named Robert Manning, whose bed and board were shared by the fledgling author before he left for Bowdoin College. (Manning also happened to be, for those who might want to make something of it, the most renowned pomologist in the United States.) For Leverenz, Emerson’s fear of humiliation presumably began even earlier, in the bullying of an exacting father when the boy was eight. Whitman’s father was, in the poet’s words, ‘manly, mean, angered, unjust’, and Melville’s was driven to suicide after failures in the market. The novelist’s rage was only in-creased by his supposed inability to mourn his father’s death, and this gets transfigured into the monomanaical vengefulness, the compulsive penis envy, and the desire to be whipped, of Captain Ahab. Only Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast and, in The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman, whose homosexual proclivities deserve more attention here, come forward as relatively standard cases of the urge to ‘be a man’. Leave it to the genteel types – William James being another and later example – to mistake manhood for the capacity to endure pre-arranged physical hardship. Their version, no doubt, of the English public school.

It will be obvious that Leverenz likes to stay close to home – as with father-fixations in one section of the United States, in a period of three or four decades, as represented in American works only. There is no attention whatsoever to the possible impingement on those works of English or Classical works wherein manhood is at issue – as in Homer, Spenser, Marlowe, the Shakespeare of Coriolanus, the Milton of Paradise Lost, Byron, Shelley, Fielding and Scott. Most of these were more widely read in pre-Civil War America than were any male American writers. With some notable exceptions early on, like F.O. Matthiessen, Marius Bewley and Leslie Fiedler, in Harold Bloom’s critical admixture of Emerson and Wilde, and in the work now being done by a few young Americanists, this sort of oversight has been par for the course of American studies, where the making of English-American connections is, it seems, suspected of diluting the obligatory ones between American literary works and domestically-produced documents at another level of accomplishment.

The bustling historicism that goes on in American studies is probably a compensation for the fact that relatively few works of great literary accomplishment were produced in America during the first half of the 19th century. While some of these are astonishing by any standards, there simply aren’t enough for a full course of study without the inclusion of other materials; and if the subject is to keep its American title, these must be home-grown items from historical archives and popular culture. The result is a stiffling parochialism exactly where there is most need for comparative studies involving other literatures of much longer duration. Principally, this has to mean literature in English, which just happens to be the language in which American literature is written. Those who refuse, as does Leverenz, to inquire into ‘the Atlantic double cross’ (to recall the title of an exceptional book by Robert Weisbuch) are not able in an effective way to speculate on a phenomenon of immense consequence to the subject addressed here. I refer to the evidence that nearly all the writing that has ever been done has predominantly been an exercise, very often a self-conscious one, of male prowess and competitiveness. This has left its mark on gender formations no matter where, or how locally, they show themselves in American culture.

Like writers of this century in some Third World countries, American writers early in the 19th century found themselves in an essentially gendered relation, as son or daughter to father, with respect to the language of the parent country. In turn, the syntax of that language had already revealed its susceptibility to male domination. All the writing produced in the pre-Civil War period in America carries trademarks from the Old World. The very idea of a new world and of the American continent was shaped, as shown in Myra Jehlen’s American Incarnation, by imported literary tropes. Images of liminality became images of frontier, and I have suggested elsewhere that the way the speech of American characters alternates between idiomatic-commoner and grandiloquent ‘over-soul’ looks for credibility to analogous manipulation wherein Shakespeare projects the double nature, human and divine, of his kings.

When Leverenz says that ‘if women writers portray manhood as patriarchy, male writers from Melville to Sam Shepherd. David Mamet and David Rabe portray manhood as rivalry for dominance,’ he is, while sticking as usual to American examples, forgetting that rivalry for dominance is very often a rivalry over patriarchal status. That is, what is being contested is the already authorised rhetoric of domination by which a man chooses to fashion himself. In pre-Civil War American literature this was significantly a rhetoric which English literature had already cast into a dramaturgy of male rivalry for patriarchal eminence. It can be heard in the speeches of Satan and, such as they are, of God in Paradise Lost, which induced Blake to say that Milton was of the Devil’s party and Emerson to say, after Blake, that ‘if I am the Devil’s child I will live then from the Devil’; it can be heard more genially in the verbal duels of Hotspur and Glendower in Henry IV, Part One, in which Prince Hal defeats both of them not only in battle but, thanks to a democratic proficiency of speech which his father has failed to master, in the minds and hearts of the English people. ‘I can drink,’ Hal boasts, ‘with any tinker in his own language.’ The rivalry for possession of the language of self-fashioning goes back to Exodus and God’s ‘I am that I am,’ a phrase that echoes from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 121 to Emerson’s ‘Experience’ and on into several poems by Stevens.

The rhetoric of manhood is inherent in the very traditions of literary production and inspiration and isn’t simply one of literature’s themes. It finds its voice in that magnification by which certain male writers come to believe in their own suzerainty. Keats, on reading Chapman’s translation, speaks of the ‘one wide expanse’ that ‘Homer ruled as his demesne’, and in the delirium of dying, Henry James, thinking most likely of the transatlantic empire he had created in his novels, signs letters, in which he grandly discusses some refurbishing of the Louvre, ‘Napoleone’, using the original Corsican spelling. George Eliot in her sardonic reference in Middlemarch to those ‘amazing gentlemen’ who perhaps find consolation ‘in the sense of a stupendous self and an insignificant world’, or Gertrude Stein in frequent comparisons between her acts of literary composition and the direction of a battle, are directly contending with traditional masculine claims to imperial sway over the literary terrain. It is an uphill struggle, still going on. The sheer difficulty of understanding Stein for long stretches is evidence, I think, that her heroic efforts to seize the language were only sporadically successful.

When criticism of American literature insulates itself, as much of it does, within the quite narrow confines of American literature and social history, it effectively short-circuits the intricate and mysterious network of connections, the echoes and reflections by which, as John Hollander demonstrates in The Figure of Echo, works of literature are flexibly bound, despite all national boundaries, one to another. Such criticism then hopes to reconnect the works to a social-economic support system wherein, on new frequencies, a few of the same echoes can be heard but without a lot of foreign interference. Almost always, there is behind all this cutting and splicing a political intent: to expose the complicity of American literature with the ideological assumptions of Western capitalism, particularly as these show luridly forth in the conquest and settlement of a continent and in the near-eradication of the people who lived there. The range of inquiry is in most cases so restricted as actually to hinder the political purpose of the whole effort. It needs far more audaciously to show – having learnt how to show – that not merely American literature but literature as an institution has, since at least the English Renaissance, been complicit with governing economic, political and social systems, even when it has seemed to oppose them.

Such complicity need not be either surprising or reprehensible, especially if you believe, as I do, that social systems are not imposed from without but are the product and proof of what human beings are and aspire to become. We are collectively responsible for the whole thing; we are not simply in it or out of it; we are of it. When Yeats says that ‘Whatever flames upon the night/Man’s own resinous heart has fed,’ the first word should mean as much as any of the others. Some of my dissatisfaction with the ideological bent of historicist/psychoanalytic critics like Leverenz is not that they are tough about literature, but that they are not even aware of the stakes involved. They aren’t nearly tough-minded enough, about the institution of literature or about ‘whatever’ is produced alongside it, including the idea of the human. They think they can clean up Western civilisation by treating the canon as if it were a water pistol. As Frank Kermode argues in a brilliant chapter on the subject in History and Value, canons are indeed ‘complicit with power’. However, since the institution of literature could conceivably exist without a canon, those who attack only the latter – the central committee, so to speak, instead of the party – incur the suspicion that, like most revolutionaries, they want only to replace some existing tyranny with a new one. ‘Those most hostile to the canon,’ as Kermode puts it, ‘only mean to occupy it as a reward of success in the struggle for power.’

This is a difficult subject, but Leverenz is in a more than necessary quandary about it. He cites one critic who asks how Hawthorne got into the canon while Susan Warner, author of Wide, Wide World didn’t make it – a fair enough question – and who attributes his elevation to the interventions of a cluster of male supporters. These include his old college buddies Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, who became the subject of a campaign biography written by Hawthorne and who also became a President of the United States. This critic points to their influential descendents in order to explain how the canonisation continues into the present century. From demurrals in the notes it is obvious that Leverenz finds this line of reasoning a bit embarrassing – which makes it all the more perplexing when, in the body of his argument, he sets out to emulate it. He there asks an equivalent question about Emerson and Sarah Hale, the author of ‘Mary had a little lamb’ and of the novel Northwood, and the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. And he comes up with a similar answer: ‘If Emerson has been canonised and Hale has not, part of the reason has to do with the constituencies they address.’ For Hale this means ‘leisured middle-class American women’ and for Emerson, ‘a new intellectual élite’. He fails to mention that the ‘élite’ included a number of these same ‘middle-class American women’, or that writers of course always do address audiences who will listen to them. Emerson earned his simply by being an immeasurably better writer than Hale.

Leverenz is uneasily aware that he needs some better explanation for their different levels of accomplishment. But he mismanages the one he comes up with, and in such a way as to prove once again how sorry is any attempt to explain the American literary canon by attributing its formation to social and historical factors which do not include the determining power of literary tradition, its images and sounds. ‘Emerson,’ he says, ‘can presume from his privileged maleness and his privileged class to reach a much greater imaginative range, beyond any constituency in sight.’ While the direction of this sentence is not at all clear, it could be read as a fumbling attempt to reach the light. That is, Leverenz might be supposed to be saying that the ‘much greater imaginative range’ shared by Emerson and his privileged male readers was licensed by literary practices inherited from such writers as I’ve already mentioned, writers whose exaltations of human consciousness and aspiration were also exaltations, for the most part, of upper-class males.

It becomes evident in the next paragraph that this is not what he had in mind, and that the phrase ‘greater range’ is to be circumscribed by the phrase ‘public influence’. Thus ‘the male writers’ greater range of voice builds on their greater access to public influence, while the women’s narration bespeaks the constraints of an audience not allowed to compete for power.’ ‘Public influence’, as here used, has, in fact, nothing to do specifically with a public’s literary dispositions in favour of one kind of writing rather than another; it could refer as easily to partialities for political candidates or for hem-lines and shirt collars. Anyone selling anything, that is, could have ‘access’ to it. Discussions of literary access must take account, as Leverenz’s kind of criticism doesn’t, of the way literary traditions and the modes of literary representation help create a canonical aura for some writers more than for others.

Once the negotiating field for admission to the canon becomes so bound by local circumstance as it is in this book, there follows the inevitable question of how a writer canonical in one period ever manages to hold onto his status in a later and very different one. What happens when the writer is put ‘beyond any constituency in sight’? We have heard a possible answer in the case of Hawthorne – he was kept in place by the efforts of the powerful off-spring of his powerful contemporaries – and while this doesn’t seem to persuade Leverenz, he manages for Emerson merely to substitute another conspiratorial party. The party came into existence, he says, with ‘the rise of the American university system’. ‘Since one of Emerson’s greatest virtues is to make intellectuals feel like liberating gods,’ he observes, ‘we return the favour by exercising our institutional power of syllabus-making and our professional power of canon-making to put him at or near the top of the American procession.’ I had always assumed that he had been helped in staying there by the recorded adulations of Nietzsche, William and Henry James, or John Dewey’s assessment that he is ‘the one citizen of the New World fit to have his name uttered in the same breath with that of Plato’. Even with this kind of support, however, his status among ‘intellectuals’, academic and other, is in no sense settled. During this decade alone he has been roughly treated by, among others, G. Bartlett Giamatti, in an address given while he was President of Yale, by John Updike in a very extended attack in the New Yorker, by Irving Howe’s unflattering lectures in The American Newness, and by the refusal even to list him among the indispensable American writers in To reclaim a legacy, William Bennett’s cultural position paper as Reagan’s Secretary of Education.

Emerson has never, in fact, been sufficiently placed: he is both everywhere in American culture and nowhere, conspicuous as platitude and otherwise invisible. With an important exception I will get to in a moment, Stanley Cavell seems to me right on target when he says in In Quest of the Ordinary that ‘I take it for granted that their thinking’ – he is referring also to Thoreau – ‘is unknown to the culture whose thinking they worked to found (I mean culturally unpossessed, unassumable among those who care for books, however possessed by shifting bands of individuals), in a way it would not be thinkable for Kant and Schiller to be unknown to the culture of Germany, or Descartes and Rousseau to France, or Locke and Hume and John Stuart Mill to England.’

Cavell is saying that regardless of Emerson’s canonical status he remains improperly or insufficiently understood. This strikes me as undeniable. It also presupposes that the situation might be corrected, in which case it will require of many other readers some of the extraordinary dedication and interpretative brilliance that have gone into Cavell’s own work on Emerson.* Even then, however, I doubt that Emerson could ever be read into American culture so as more significantly to shape its thinking. On occasions too frequent to be taken as exceptions, he is, while I am reading him, not the kind of writer whose thinking ever could be culturally assumed or possessed or made use of. His writing often has the effect, in Trilling’s phrase, of moving you beyond culture – which is something to be grateful for if, for more of the time, you want to understand why you prefer to be in it. He is best appreciated for his performances with words, for the exemplary ways in which he asks you to be in a close, expectant, quizzical relation to the language he happens to be working with. For a reader like Leverenz, on the other hand, Emerson’s language, and the language of American Renaissance writers generally, is to be read as if the range of its associations is sufficiently contained within the historical, psychological and social coordinates established around it, as by a cordon sanitaire which excludes all the luxuriant mess of roots and branches.

At three different points in his book Leverenz returns to a paragraph in Emerson’s essay ‘Self-Reliance’ that is ostensibly concerned with masculine self-fashioning. He is fixated on a sentence, really part of a sentence, at the beginning of one paragraph: ‘the nonchalance of boys, who are sure of a dinner ... is the healthy attitude of human nature.’ That is, keep your cool. In coping with this sentence, as with the entirety of ‘Experience’, to which he devotes an unfortunate chapter, Leverenz insists that Emerson’s failure to give due mention to the women in his household represents a disabling ingratitude and indifference. At one point he grumbles that to say the boys are ‘sure of a dinner’ presumes a ‘faceless mothering’; at another, that the phrasing takes for granted ‘the supportive role of women’ and at another that ‘a bold male self-reliance presumes a depersonalised female support system.’ Presumably everything would be A-OK if only he’d mentioned mother Ruth or Aunt Mary Moody or wife Lidian. To be spared such nit-picking, would that he had. But even from the point of view of his own limited and limiting thesis, Leverenz could have made better use of the sentence.

Common sense ought to suggest that when he says the boys are ‘sure of a dinner’ Emerson is not suggesting that dinner depends on the women who cook it. It depends on there being a supply of food provided by men who are competing in the marketplace for the cash needed. What then is to be made of the sentence? It does sound a bit too focused on that dinner. Why mention it at all? Emerson himself may have wondered, since he is always alert to opportunities and detours that open up thanks to casual uses and common phrasings. Keep in mind, too, that he is a philosopher of profit and loss, of how, as he says elsewhere, in an echo of King Lear, ‘nothing is got for nothing.’ Accordingly, further down the page and in the next paragraph he recalls the dinner and gets round to the cost of it and the price of the assurance it breeds. It is a cost the boys themselves, once grown, will also have to pay. ‘Society is a joint-stock company,’ he writes, ‘in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.’

While ‘nonchalance’ may be a ‘healthy attitude’, the health of the body requires that we eat, and the necessary earning of bread requires that the ‘attitude’ be surrendered. An impasse has been created without any notice taken of it; we – Emerson and the reader – simply find ourselves in it, as if edged into the perplexity. When he is most meaningful Emerson tends to be least emphatic. This is his way of indicating that it is not the job of writing to resolve the irresolvable: it is only to show us how best to get on with life, allowing for just the right degree of nonchalance. It is no celebration of manhood to discover, over the progress of two paragraphs, that its ‘healthy attitude’ is reserved not to men at all, but to boys who do not need to earn a living. The only adults so fortunately situated will appear in the novels of James, and Emerson seems to anticipate them in a parenthetical remark which Leverenz omits from his quotations: the boys ‘should disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one’.

A more adequate reader of the canonical writers Leverenz discusses must be alert to the play of voices among sentences and to the proportionate emphases due to them. Otherwise it become easy to mistake self-magnifying allusiveness for gender indentification. A reader who gets accustomed to Moby Dick as a novel cluttered with rhetorical overreaching will not be startled late in the book when Ahab says: ‘In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here ... the queenly personality lives in me and feels her royal right.’

Leverenz finds this so spectacularly convenient to his arguments about gender fixation, however, that he entitles his last and, along with the one on Emerson, least satisfactory chapter ‘Ahab’s Queenly Personality’. But it is a mistake to suppose that Ahab is here making a cross-dressed identification of himself. He is indulging, as he so often does, in the inflationary use of allusions, as is Melville in the interests of his novel. Leverenz claims to find the lines ‘startling’ and ‘strangely ambiguous’; ‘nothing,’ he says, ‘prepared me for this gender change.’

Aside from the fact that no gender change has occurred, the occurrence of allusions, which is all that is happening, has been prepared for in the novel itself, as can be learned from notes, which Leverenz himself mentions, written by Harold Beaver for the Penguin edition. Beaver pertinently identifies the ‘queenly personality’ with defiance of the black goddess Kali who figures elsewhere in the novel. Leverenz would also have been ‘prepared’ by notes supplied to an earlier printing of Moby Dick by Charles Feidelson, in which he refers us to the infidel queen of death, who puts in an appearance only three brief chapters earlier, and, more intricately, to what Ahab, closer by, calls his ‘unknown mother’. My own contribution, if it hasn’t already been made by someone else, is that the Melville who marked up Antony and Cleopatra more than any other of the Shakespeare plays might also have had in mind the Egyptian queen who liked to buckle on the sword with which the emperor defeated Brutus and Cassius, while dressing him up, as he slept, in her headdresses and mantles. Also like Ahab, and no less disastrously, she preferred to compete for empire at sea rather than on the land.

My purpose isn’t to exorcise a faulty reading of the passage by bombarding it with possible literary antecedents. It is to indicate the characteristic feebleness of a historicism in which an indifference to literary allusiveness, and an incapacity to recognise it, derive from a politicised fervour for merely social referents. Ahab’s use of the word ‘queenly’, in which Leverenz makes a wholly inordinate investment anyway, is not an example of ‘the gender conventions flaring out of his words’. It is instead an example of a flaring-out of associations by which Ahab is extending himself and Melville’s book beyond any such limited, gender indentifications. While it’s tiresomely all right to say that Ahab is ‘being spoken by the ideology of manhood that has possessed him’, it is obtusely minimising to propose that this ideology results only from some social constructs of gender. Behind these constructs is a vast literary mythology derived from the Bible, and Medieval and Renaissance literature, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton especially.

Moby Dick is a book about manhood because it is also a book about the conventions of romance. Romance is part of the cultural accumulation turned to waste with which Melville contends. I mean ‘romance’ less as a mode defined by Hawthorne in his Prefaces than as an enactment in a work Hawthorne revered perhaps even more than Melville did, The Faerie Queene. Melville read it avidly before he read Shakespeare; it permeates Mardi, the headnotes to some of his sketches, and Moby Dick. The Faerie Queene, like Moby Dick, is about male questing, male physical prowess and a taste for adventure and hardship, most of it taking place in open spaces far from home and family responsibilities. Even more closely appropriate to Moby Dick is the fact that The Faerie Queene concerns itself with the encroachments of capitalist enterprise on the ideal forms of an older, agricultural order. By the time of Melville’s America, the encroachments have become catastrophic and there is no hint that any alternative has ever existed.

When Spenser’s Guyon is exposed to the appeals of filthy lucre in the Cave of Mammon, where he is also offered Mammon’s daughter as a wife, he is able to resist the temptations, though he nearly faints from the exertions of doing so. He is sustained by a faith in ideals still evocable. No such possibilities are available to Melville. The Pequod, the ship Ahab commands, is named for an Indian tribe exterminated by Puritan settlers. Colonialism, imperialism, capital enterprise first created and now inhabit and pursue the vessel, its officers and crew. More than that, these same bequests of Western civilisation inform the literary repertoire of the book itself – the quest romance, Shakespearean imperial dramaturgy, and allegory which has come to depend on insane projections. Moby Dick can thus be read as a horrendous meditation on its own literary and cultural derivations, to which local and immediate forms of economic competitiveness, and of the gender struggles within it, are only incidental.

What Wallace Stevens says of speech in his 1944 poem ‘The Creations of Sound’ should be said of American and of any other literature:

                         speech is not dirty silence
Clarified. It is silence made still dirtier.

The murkiness of these lines is perhaps proof of what they say, which is that behind speech or words is not some generative source that awaits disclosure and explanation – there are only other words. Even the first time the words were used, they were at best mediations of reality: so that, when we in turn use these words, trope them to serve our needs, it only makes them ‘dirtier’, still less transparent to any objects beyond them. More than any other kind of writing, literature exhibits and exults in this condition. A work of literature, unlike a work of journalism, makes itself responsible for the cultural inheritance amassed in the words it uses, and it does so in order to add to that inheritance. Literature does not aspire to be clear, but to be dirtier and dirtier.

Historicist/psychoanalytic criticism, especially when conducted in the FDA frame of mind, deeply resents this fact about literature, which means that often, without quite knowing it, it is a criticism deeply resentful of literature itself. The resentment is disguised even from those who harbour it by the busy-work of trying to prove that the duplicity of novels and poems does not belong to the very nature of fiction, but is the result instead of the compromises and evasions necessitated by social and historical circumstances, or, in worst-case instances, by authorial collusion with them. It has to be granted that though any work of literature is of necessity duplicitous, it nonetheless emerges at a particular time and place, so that its duplicities will have historical implications of a local and measurable kind. No one need object, for instance, when Leverenz points to the tones of class privilege that bind narrator and reader in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and then shows, as Gillian Brown has done, that these manage all the while subversively to glorify Chloe, women in the kitchen; or when he describes similar tactics in Frederick Douglass, where stylistic gentility is meant to indicate how high he has risen, even while the story it carries proves how dangerous he can be.

When, however, duplicity or evasiveness in a work of literature does not ameliorate some historically verifiable problem, Leverenz can become very censorious indeed, and in a you-better-believe-it manner that is itself quite devious. It is distressingly evident that for him duplicity in literature is often only one of the many tactics by which male writers set out to seduce and then dominate him, thus perverting that heterosexual intimacy among chaps who want to share what he likes to call ‘real feelings’. Indeed, works of literature can for him very quickly get populated with ‘real’ instead of fictional people. He is all of a sudden like Fielding’s Partridge at a performance of Hamlet, ready to rush on stage to save Ophelia. As his notes attest, Leverenz is not alone in suffering from such delusions. He approvingly mentions two critics who allege that Rappaccini in Hawthorne’s story ‘may have raped his daughter, as his name implies’, and though he isn’t quite ready to agree with three others who contend that Coverdale in House of Seven Gables killed Zenobia, he ‘wouldn’t mind seeing him accused of a crime. At least then he might be forced out into the open.’ He can only mean forced out of the novel.

Literature has been reduced to a masked ball or some newspaper scandal. Of Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau it is said that their ‘ambiguous and contradictory interpretations ... frequently make me feel seduced into a sneaky intellectual fraternity yet simultaneously exposed and accused’. What to a naif might sound like the call to comradeship in Leaves of Grass is heard by Leverenz as a call for ‘possessive fusion’, which ‘effectively denies the basis of real intimacy in separate selves’. Though he knows it makes him sound ‘up tight’, he ‘recoils’ from Whitman’s advances. After all, he is ‘a heterosexual male’ who announces that he is one. A homosexual male might recoil, too, if, as Leverenz puts it, Whitman is ‘attacking me for trying to make sense of him’ while ‘also playing the grand seducer. Stripped of its prophetic grandiosity, his speech promises me the moon for a one-night stand.’ Blue-eyed Nathaniel, as Lawrence called Hawthorne, is almost as threatening: ‘As detectives sniff and snoop through the underbrush of his tales, he lures them into the open, only to humiliate them with their own intellectual prurience.’ Is this spirited? I suppose. Is it funny? Not very. More on the order of jocular intimacy with the great that can get just a little dispiriting when you discover they haven’t been there all along.

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Vol. 11 No. 22 · 23 November 1989

Richard Poirier’s review of Manhood and the American Renaissance (LRB, 12 October) misquotes my book so many times that his Emersonian play of mind starts to look like Jaffrey Pyncheon’s malice. He has me citing Sam Shepard as ‘Sam Shepherd’ – that’s him, not me. He says I argue that Emerson’s father bullied him ‘when the boy was eight’ – a macabre impossibility, since the father was dead by then. Another quotation looks ‘not at all clear’ and ‘fumbling’, partly because I’m raising an issue that vexes me, and partly because he changes two of the words, notably ‘presume upon’ to ‘presume from’. Later, quoting me on Ahab’s queenly personality, Poirier makes three mistakes in seven words, including an elision of ‘almost’ that lets him mock me for overlooking the infidel queen of death three chapters earlier. Yet I give her a paragraph, just a page before.

Hasty reading? Or cavalier misreading, a new post-Bloomian critical mode, to license his cheap shots? Poirier also misrepresents my book by high-lighting only my negatives. My ambivalence about the authors shows that I’m out to get them; my non-combative notes show that I’m avoiding my manhood. A double bind. Still more egregiously, he depicts me, seemingly in my own words, as an uptight heterosexual afraid of being seduced and dominated by male texts. I make such self-consciousness a mid-point in my progress toward appreciating how Whitman plays with male uprightness in Song of Myself. But Poirier has no patience with my complexities. He wants to make me one of ‘them’, the new historicists, who all look alike however much they disagree. Get to the back of the bus, he announces. Lump yourselves together with the FDA and the social historians, and leave American literature to those who can appreciate it, in all its refracted English glory.

Poirier nicely links Ahab to Cleopatra – I wish I’d thought of that – and deftly complicates a key Emerson passage. He also makes two important arguments. For him, manhood is for ever, as natural as testosterone. The only interesting issue is how writers play with their urge toward rivalrous self-display. For me, manhood is a social fiction, born of humiliation, and changing ideologically in relation to class conflicts. Secondly, for Poirier literature is intertextual, a play of voices beyond social fetters. For me, history can empower as well as constrain literary voices. Manhood and literature: not of an age but for all time, or steeped in the age they work in, like the dyer’s hand. These are real arguments. But Poirier dismisses the dyer’s hand side as ‘social brainwashing and psychic trauma’.

He says I don’t understand the stakes, implies I should have written about upscale English literary connections, insists I delight only in ideological cleansings, and twice declares I must have a deep, secret resentment of literature, like all my ilk. Others can decide whether that represents the book I wrote or Poirier’s apocalyptic vision of current critical contamination. Meanwhile, he really should have checked those quotations.

David Leverenz
Gainesville, Florida

Vol. 11 No. 23 · 7 December 1989

David Leverenz (Letters, 23 November) wastes most of his annoyance at my long and damaging review of his Manhood and the American Renaissance on a couple of small and inessential errors of quotation and spelling, none of any demonstrable importance to my criticisms of his book, which he meanwhile fails to answer. He in fact voices agreement with most of what I say against his interpretations, his methods and the new historicist practices he finds so alluring. I appreciate, as much as he does, how slow he is to anger, but just where is the beef?

Richard Poirier
New York

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