The Spree

Frank Kermode

  • The Feminisation of American Culture by Ann Douglas
    Papermac, 403 pp, £10.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 333 65421 8
  • Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the Twenties by Ann Douglas
    Picador, 606 pp, £20.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 330 34683 0

Ann Douglas’s The Feminisation of American Culture, first published in 1977, now appears in Britain at the same moment as its long-delayed successor, Terrible Honesty. Looking back at the earlier book, Douglas remarks that her ‘excavation and re-evaluation of American feminine 19th-century literature’ has been continued by many other historians, mostly women, who have rebelled against what she calls, in tones more civil than those of some of her successors, a literary canon consisting ‘of almost exclusively male-authored, conspicuously shaped and achieved works’. She herself merely wants to give to other books (not necessarily all by women) the same measure of attention accorded to those more celebrated achievements. In her new book she claims to have taken another emancipatory step, for she will henceforth consider examples of ‘mass’ as well as of ‘élite’ art, thus admitting into the discussion many more writers and performers, male and female, black and white.

Feminisation proved very influential, even though its estimate of many 19th-century American female authors, suffering by comparison with the great men of the period, and especially Melville, was cooler than the fashion was soon to dictate. The main argument was that women had compensated for their virtual exclusion from the daily life of a male-dominated industrial society by exploiting the extraordinary deference with which men paid them off, in the process creating a soft and euphemistic culture. Vast quantities of feminine fiction (most of it, she thinks, banal) consolidated this feminisation.

In her good concluding chapter Douglas represented Melville as presaging a revolt against this enervating fashion. Pierre is a bristlingly harsh challenge to the readers of such books, and the posthumous Billy Budd takes its place with other less literary protests against virtual matriarchy – for instance, muscular Christianity, macho college sports, Social Darwinism and Theodore Roosevelt’s big stick. Douglas is a feminist, but in an unusually moderate and judicious fashion; for example, she doesn’t hesitate to comment severely on the racism of contemporary women’s movements. Naturally she doesn’t unequivocally admire all those flamboyant male reactions against the feminine genteel, but she continues nevertheless to attribute to the era of feminisation a fundamental anti-intellectual tradition in American culture, a tradition against which the Twenties staged a powerful ethical and intellectual protest.

She doesn’t miss the opportunity of pointing out that the Melville revival (heralded by D.H. Lawrence, in his remarkable Studies in Classic American Literature) took place in that decade. It is certainly one of the weirder facts of literary and cultural history that Moby-Dick should have been almost totally ignored for over half a genteel century, almost as if a consciousness of dependence on Europe made it seem risky to assert the existence of a great indigenous novel, indeed of a great and, as Lawrence called it, a classic literature. It is one of Douglas’s achievements that she provides a credible explanation of this timidity, and describes the end of it, brought about by the revolt against matriarchy and by a remarkable though not complete coming together of mass and élite culture, of black and white, and of men and women, in the New York of the Twenties.

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