American Manscapes

Richard Poirier

  • Manhood and the American Renaissance by David Leverenz
    Cornell, 372 pp, $35.75, April 1989, ISBN 0 8014 2281 7

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.

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[*] Stanley Cavell’s The New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein was published on 19 July by the Living Batch Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico (128 pp, £15.95 and £7.95, 945953 01 1).