Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Scribble Scribble Scribble - Eh, Miss Alcott?

Another bit from Kiddie Lit. Louisa May Alcott wrote much more than the books she's most famous for (Little Women, Little Men, etc.). She also wrote thrillers under various pseudonyms. One of her most serious efforts, though, was A Modern Mephistopheles, published anonymously in 1877. (A later edition, published just after she died, bore her name.) The Atlantic Monthly's reviewer praised it more highly than any of Alcott's acknowledged works. Beverly Lyon Clark points out in Kiddie Lit (113):
Of course this book was not presumably for children, nor was it necessarily drawing on a genre that had made its primary appeal to females. It was also published anonymously. The reviewer thought it could only be by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian. The Atlantic was most enthusiastic, in short, when neither the book’s genre nor its author’s name was identified as feminine and when the book was not specifically addressing children.
Clark has some rather amusing information about Hawthorne fils (50).
“We are told that women – and unmarried women at that – do three-fourths of the novel-reading in the world; and that, consequently, novels must be so fashioned as to please and attract the feminine mind, and especially the junior feminine.” So declaims Julian Hawthorne in 1888, in his essay “Man-Books,” echoing his better-known father, who had famously complained in 1855 that his own novels had had to compete with those by “a d------d mob of scribbling women,” and also echoing the younger Hawthorne’s acerbic contemporary H. H. Boyesen, who indicted the nineteenth-century audience as an “Iron Madonna who strangles in her fond embrace the American novelist.” Julian anticipates “that the great American novelist, when he comes, will give us a man-book”; meanwhile he finds only one or two “man-books” in nineteenth-century American literature – W. S. Mayo’s Kaloolah and perhaps Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
"Man-books"! I wonder if what Hawthorne was looking for was something like John Preston's gay leather S/M classic Mr. Benson, a book that wouldn't be published until the second half of the twentieth century. But "man-books" sounds like porn talk to me. As David Savran wrote in Taking It Like a Man (Princeton, 1998, page 233),
Much of the discourse by leathermen stresses S/M’s remasculinizing force. Yet sometimes this process produces unexpected side effects, connecting S/M to masculinities that have, at best, problematic histories. Thus, for example, two of the contributors to Leatherfolk pointedly invoke Robert Bly’s Iron John. Referring to Bly’s description of various initiation rites, John Preston argues that “[w]hat Bly is talking about, ... the S/M world can deliver.” Mark Thompson, meanwhile, much more indebted to New Age vernacular than Preston, adopts Bly’s nomenclature of the “soft man” and presses into service both the jargon of authenticity and the metaphysics of depth to which Bly continually appeals, noting that what drives leathermen on is “a curiosity to know a deeper part of ourselves, that place where the source of our authentic power resides.” Given the historic positioning of Bly’s work and of the men’s movement, these moves strike me as being inauspicious.
Inauspicious or not, the misogyny and homosexual anxiety that characterizes so much male whining over the past couple of centuries might well be eased by a fatherly spanking from a leather daddy. If the majority of fiction readers are women, Julian, then suck it up and produce what they want; if not, Daddy's always ready to warm your pink behind. But the Atlantic reviewer's assumption that A Modern Mephistopheles must have been written by a man reminded me of something more recent.

In the late 1960s work by an exciting new science fiction writer began to appear, under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. Tiptree corresponded with other writers and fans, but stayed out of sight, which led to much speculation about Tiptree's real identity. It was known that he had worked for the US Army's photointelligence unit in World War II, had later joined the CIA, but returned to school for a doctorate in experimental psychology. Oh, Mary, how butch! It was like James Bond had begun writing science fiction. On the other hand, Tiptree wrote with sensitive attention about women, so some fans speculated that he might be female. Distinguished sf writer Robert Silverberg contributed an introduction to Tiptree's first collection of stories, in which he argued that a woman could not have written such work: "It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male." Elder Bad Boy of sf Harlan Ellison wrote of Tiptree's contribution to his Again, Dangerous Visions anthology, "[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat [for awards] this year, but Tiptree is the man." And of course, it soon emerged that Tiptree was a 61-year-old woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon.

You'd think, after all the times writers have successfully passed for the other sex, that people would have learned better than to make such claims as Silverberg made about Tiptree. In fairness, some second-wave feminists have also argued for the existence of female sentences and other specific ways that women can write that men can't. And it seems that most people, whatever they may claim, are still very invested in gender difference. It's always seemed to me that if there are real psychological, emotional, artistic differences between men and women, they'll take care of themselves.