Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors
Nina Baym (from the book Locating American Studies: The Evolution of Discipline edited by Lucy Maddox)
- The absence of female writer in the American canon.
- Female roles in literary criticism.
- The problem with American literary criticism.
Baym addresses one major question on her article “Melodramas”: Why are there no women in the American literary canon? In order to answer her own question, she clarifies that, “This paper is about literary criticism rather than American Literature (215).” In order for this article to be effective, one must accept that we read through the perspective given to us by literary criticism and theories.
Baym’s first argument is that literary theories are too controlling, so they lead to the exclusion of women from the canon. It is not as if women were not writing during the founding of the United States of America, because there was an excess of female writers during that time. The female writers were numerous enough that Nathaniel Hawthorne complained about them to his publisher. Some of the most notable works have been written by women, such as The Coquette and Uncle Tom’s Cabin; these works are not traditionally included in the canon. Baym asks, why, then, have all of the major novelists in America been men? (If one accepts the canon.)
There are two proposed answers to the former question, suggests Baym. She writes that pure bias is one reason and the other is the idea that female writers have not written works that would be considered “excellent”. Baym pursues the second option by exploring what criticisms and theories determine what makes a work “excellent”. The idea of “excellence” is merely a cultural preference. Theories come from a cultural reality that exists at the time that it is formulated; so, many American literary theories come from the idea that literature is male. The gender of literature as male dominates literary theory, and the way American culture responds to literature.
The American public did not have a system to judge American literature, since it was seeking to break from England politically and culturally. The judgment of literature was based on a scale of the Americanness of the novel, rather than constituted literary excellence. Eventually, the two ideals of Americanness and literary excellence became synonymous. This statement raises the question for Baym and our class, “Can only a handful of American works really be American (219)?” The culture of America is seeking to be defined through literature, but discrepancies between critics lie in what they personally think the American experience is.
Critics, according to Baym, traditionally see the woman as the enemy because they write trifling novels that distract readers from “excellent” novels. The novels that exist in the American tradition follow a certain myth that Baym identifies. The myth focuses on man versus wilderness. The man ventures away from society into the untamed, which is the American experience. Authors saw the American experience as inherently male, but Baym argues that the American experience can pertain to either gender. The main characteristics of the protagonist are not limited to males, because of there larger than life quality. The American protagonist is basically a myth.
Another reason that critics have excluded female writers that Baym cites is that the portrayal of women that is completely inaccurate and highly sexualized. Female characters are especially misidentified in works written by women; for example, if a female author conforms to the American myth, it is highly sexualized by critics. If the female author ignores the American myth, then she is dismissed as a minor among male authors who have succeeded in the myth (the American experience). The female writer is banned from the literary tradition. The author is the authority, and authority is a male attribute in American society, so the female set up to fail.
This site is a little funny considering our subject matter: Feminism is Evil!