|Table of Contents|
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Defining the opposition
Chapter 2. Terms of sentiment: Alcott and the transformation of romance and reality
Chapter 3. Seizing the bridle: Howells, realist polemic, and readers of romance
Chapter 4. Not by bread alone: James and the ushering of the American
Chapter 5. Prisoners of romance: Twain and the conventions of the adventure story
ROMANCES OF EXPERIENCE:
AMERICAN REALIST FICTION AND THE DEVICES OF MELODRAMA
ROBERT ADAM KOSTEN
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 1997
Copyright 1997 by
Robert A. Kosten
While in graduate school, I have been fortunate to have had the advice of two friends. Professor John Seelye was encouraging of my plans to change fields from history to English. As the chair of my dissertation committee, he provided much needed guidance so that an interesting idea for a dissertation could become an enjoyable experience in scholarship. In more ways than he realizes, he shows us all what it means to be a critic. Professor David Leverenz gave more than can rightly be expected of a secondary reader. His enthusiasm and his ideas, his insistence that the finished product hold to a rigorous analytical frame, has deeply influenced my approach to writing and to literary criticism.
My family has been equally supportive of my long stay
in graduate school. For their patience and understanding, I cannot hope to thank them enough. They were always there when I needed them.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ........................................ iii
ABSTRACT ................................................ v
1 DEFINING THE OPPOSITION .............................. 1
Notes .............................................. 17
2 TERMS OF SENTIMENT: ALCOTT AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF
ROMANCE AND REALITY ................................ 20
Notes .............................................. 60
3 SEIZING THE BRIDLE: HOWELLS, REALIST POLEMIC, AND
READERS OF ROMANCE ................................. 66
Notes .............................................. 106
4 NOT BY BREAD ALONE: JAMES AND THE USHERING OF THE
AMERICAN ........................................... 111
Notes .............................................. 148
5 PRISONERS OF ROMANCE: TWAIN AND THE CONVENTIONS OF
THE ADVENTURE STORY ................................ 154
Notes .............................................. 192
REFERENCES .............................................. 197
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ..................................... 203
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy ROMANCES OF EXPERIENCE:
AMERICAN REALIST FICTION AND THE DEVICES OF MELODRAMA By
Robert Adam Kosten
Chairman: John Seelye
Major Department: English
This study focuses on the works of Louisa May Alcott, William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Mark Twain. These authors appropriate melodramatic formulae to expose how conceptions of character and a unified self function as fictional constructions that rely on romance conventions for their legitimacy.
Chapter I positions the argument in relation to the critical literature on realism to show that the realist stance with regard to romance ironically prefigures the arguments of Richard Chase and the New Critics. Chapter 2 considers Alcott's Little Women and Work. Alcott separates her fiction from sensationalist and sentimentalist convention, while she incorporates the ethos of sentiment and romance into her narrative frame so that her readers might achieve a measure of self-knowledge.
Chapter 3 centers on Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham. Howells creates an oppositional relationship between those who defend the sentimental-romance and interpret their lives according to its conventions, and those who argue the staunch Howellsian-realist position against such practices. Ultimately, he sets himself amid these extremes to negotiate between a reader's desires for unifying fictions of character and what he imagines as an indeterminate self situated beyond those fictions.
Chapter 4, on James'sThe American, details how the character of Christopher Newman unwittingly functions according to various fictional forms deriving from Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." Through Newman, James asks his readers to face the seif-deconstructing ambiguities of perception that arise once readers separate from their personal romances, including that of a definitive national type.
The final chapter discusses mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the first novel, Twain ostensibly sets his readers above the melodramatic conventions that define the daily lives of his characters. In the second novel, he sets us squarely within those conventions. Through the character of Tom Sawyer in Huckleberry Finn,, Twain challenges his readers to resist the desire for romance-melodrama that they all share and to which they ultimately accede.
DEFINING THE OPPOSITION
The study of nineteenth-century American fiction typically concerns a rivalry between romanticism and realism, two seemingly oppositional novelistic strategies. This chapter will focus on American realists and their critics, with a special emphasis on how both groups adopt competing rhetorical stances within this literary debate. It will also outline the basic premise of this study as a way to argue its significance.
Both realist authors and literary critics wrote to
sustain the romance-realism debate, but for contradictory purposes. The realists publicly defined themselves against the romanticists and especially against those contemporary novelists who relied on the forms and conventions of romance-melodrama to cater to the tastes of their readers. The result of this realist polemic was an interesting irony: realist authors, attempting to subvert what they perceived to be the romantic disposition of their culture, appropriated the melodramatic formulas of their literary contemporaries so that readers might realize the full extent of their own investment in romance fictions. Critics, in
search of a way to characterize the American literary canon and define a unique American mode of representation, often have elevated the romanticists in consideration above other writers, thus effectively relegating realist authors to a second-class status within the literary canon.
This chapter consists of two sections. In the first, I discuss the course of literary criticism over the past thirty-five years as it relates to the romance-realism debate. Critics sometimes use this rivalry to define and defend their particular critical practice, as is especially the case with Richard Chase and his famous "romance thesis." Chase espouses the tenets of romance as basic to American literature not only to define an American school of criticism, but also to identify an exceptional national consciousness. Recent critics, including Amy Kaplan, have attempted to write outside of the debate between romance and realism as a way to question our investment in it, though with varying degrees of success.
The second section shows that realist authors invested in this same opposition in terms so that they might characterize their narratives, their readers, and themselves. William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Mark Twain, in articulating the realist position as being against the romantic one, actually operated somewhere in between the two so as to accommodate both. In their novels, they negotiate between what they perceived to be a reader's
desires for fictions of character within popular romantic forms--a way to interpret, circumscribe, and control human experience--and the realist understanding of an indeterminable self situated beyond romance conventions. Louisa May Alcott, typically thought of as a sentimentalist or as a domestic novelist, participates in this same negotiation between form and formlessness. The realist position ironically prefigures that later taken by Chase and others, for realists understood the conventions of romancemelodrama to represent an American mode of perception.
As many critics have noted, in The American Novel and
Its Tradition (1957) Richard Chase appropriates the romancerealism debate to legitimate the study of American novels as
a distinct national literary corpus.' His title is in response to F.R. Leaves' The Great Tradition, a study of the English novel from Jane Austen to Henry James. Chase argues that the "realistic" English novel represents its characters in relation to "massive unities" and "solid" institutions that absorb "all extremes, all maladjustments and contradictions into a normative view of life." The American novel, by contrast, resolves contradictions and combines extremes through melodramatic actions and pastoral idylls, what Chase calls "romances" (1,2). This AngloAmerican disjunction in form, Chase avers, necessitates the study of the American novel as an American romance.
In arguing for the "Americanness" of an American romance that distinguishes itself in relation to the realistic English novel, Chase tacitly accedes to the notion of a unique national character and perception. The American hero that Chase finds in romance-melodrama reflects his version of the one belonging to historical experience. The hero resides in a country wholly without England's massive, solid institutions. Free of such social restraints, he embarks on a mythic quest through a symbolic universe that resolves extreme contradictions, emphasizing unity. Romance-melodrama thus reflects and reconstitutes our nation's perception of itself.
Moreover, Chase's investment in the romance-realist dialectic functions politically to exalt both a national identity and a critical practice. In the first place, Chase boldly makes the case for American exceptionalism: the American experience is a unique experience, different from that of the rest of nations, and as such it is better. As part of that experience, the American romance, in its divergence from the staunch realism of English fiction, is the better form. "I am interested mainly in defining the leading characteristics of the American romance-novel," writes Chase, "that freer, more daring, more brilliant fiction that contrasts with the solid moral inclusiveness and massive equability of the English novel" (viii). Terms like "solid" and "massive" make the English realistic novel
sound slow and plodding beside the flexible, agile, "more brilliant" American romance.
Second, in his search for the "Americanness" of
romance, Chase allies the elements of this novelistic genre with the basic tenets of his New Critical practice. New Critics sometimes assert an historical approach to literary interpretation to value such qualities as symbolic unity, form, image, and meaning. Romance's brilliance, Chase implies, inheres in its dramatization of these same principles. "The freedom of romance" allows for "irony, abstraction, profundity" and for the ability "to formulate moral truths of universal validity" (x, xi). "The freedom of romance" thus combines with New Critical terminology: Chase seems to suggest that New Criticism and romance reflect the values of America itSelf.2
Having effected an alliance between romance and New
Criticism, Chase goes on to belittle the artistic qualities of the American novel of manners, which he associates with the realistic English novel. American realism is simply on the wrong side of the oppositional fence. The social novelist of manners, an American version of the realistic English novelist, is a writer "of second or third rank" in Chase's estimation. The works of Howells, Edith Wharton, and other realistic authors pale in comparison to the those of "the great writers, such as Melville, Hawthorne, or Faulkner," since the terrain of realist novels, American
culture, lacks the "settled social conditions involving contrasting classes with contrasting manners" (158, 159). In short, Chase suggests that America still lacked the social institutions necessary to accommodate the realistic novel.
Chase's characterization of America effectively restates the complaints of both nineteenth-century romanticists and nineteenth-century realists. As Michael Davitt Bell points out in his The Develo-oment of American Romance, Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, and Cooper had made similar objections to the "deficiency" of the American social landscape as a source for artistic representation and
inspiration.' Henry James, writing some sixty years after the heyday of romanticism, could still claim that America
was little more than a cultural wasteland. In a word, by incorporating their complaints into his thesis, Chase validates the claim that romance--here the thinking of romantic writers and of those who would follow them-functions as a national perception.
Chase's arguments, moreover, continue to hold a
profound influence over the perceptions of New Critics with regard to the realists. That is, New Critics writing since Chase belittle Howells and other realists, grouping them together as lesser writers who are unable to represent the real within a unifying symbolic structure, to produce novels that display good (New Critical) form. Warner Berthoff and
Jay Martin rank among those who, like Chase, devalue the works of these realist authors for their internal flaws related to "symbolic unity." 5
Long after the appearance of Chase's book, critics
holding to competing ideological positions with regard to New Criticism have invested in this same romance-realist debate to define and defend their particular critical practice. Thus they replicate Chase's strategy, one that has served to relegate realist authors to a second-class canonical status. For example, Eric Sundquist argues a
post- structuralist position within this debate.6 He quite rightly posits that realistic representations, dependent on language constructions, are simply acts of evasion that acquiesce to the subversive influences of romance. In this regard, American realism necessarily becomes a failure of mimesis. According to Sundquist, realist authors, in the attempt to represent the real, found it to be inaccessible through the act of writing and so returned to the novelistic practice of their literary forebears. The realist movement in America "did not achieve a certain and stable force . .; rather it failed case by case by refusing to renounce romance completely and by levelling the barriers of aesthetic freedom too completely" (Sundquist 8-9). Thus the rivalry between romance and realism has again served to legitimate a particular critical practice--in this case one that conceives of the real to be a language construction--
and make realists appear to be failures, little more than marginal writers.
While Chase and Sundquist engage in the debate to
assert and legitimate their particular styles of criticism, Amy Kaplan, writing thirty years after Chase, points out the fallacies inherent in the dialectical approach and offers us a way to overcome them. In The Social Construction of American Realism, she argues convincingly that Chase's assumption--"the profoundly historical thesis that, in the absence of a settled, class-bound society, Americans do not write social fiction"--influences the critical treatment of the realists (2). To situate the study of nineteenthcentury American literature within "the arena of social history," Kaplan defends realist portrayals of the commonplace. Through the practice of writing itself, Kaplan tells us, realist authors confront "the elusive process of social change" by trying to create a literary form that "imagines" and "manages" the threats of social upheaval in order to project a coherent view of society (5, 9). Thus realists "engage in an enormous act of construction to organize, re-form, and control the social world" that is seemingly beyond their capacity to do so (10). They "attempt to mediate and negotiate competing claims to social reality by making alternative realities visible while managing their explosive qualities" (11).
Kaplan's argument is original and insightful in that, perhaps unwittingly, she combines two styles of critical practice. In other words, we may see that Kaplan, a New Historicist, approaches literature with a perception reminiscent of that of the New Critics. She emphasizes that realist writers, including Howells, Wharton, and Dreiser, searched for an elusive, imaginative form to create order out of chaos. That is, they did not have a novelistic form ready made so as to appeal to the New Critics; rather, they sought to discover their own form through the practice of conceptualizing social order through the novel. Realist writers, in this regard, tend to think of literature as a symbolic act with the intent to present a coherent world view. Moreover, Kaplan's argument works to revise New Criticism in that such symbolic activity overcomes the split between social and literary structures that Chase and company sought to institutionalize as critical practice.
Nonetheless, I found Kaplan's evasion of the opposition between romance and realism in her basic argument to be disconcerting, especially since she so capably identifies it for her purposes. Realists may have focused on the social world, as she suggests. They may have tried to control social upheaval. But, at the same time, they defined their literary cause in relation to romance, thereby engaging in the romance-realist debate. One wonders how the realist mediation between "competing claims to social reality"
figures in their own positioning as writers writing within the tradition of the novel.
I have not engaged in this brief discussion of the
critical discourse concerning realism and romance to dismiss the interpretations presented here. On the contrary, I find each of these critics to be essential in articulating my own thesis. I, too, position myself according to the oppositional relationship in terms.
My argument is based on the notion that, as they began to think of themselves as participants in a literary movement, American Literary Realists wrote within the romance-realism debate, though not necessarily to ally themselves with either side. Rather, as I hope to outline here and demonstrate in the chapters that follow, realists used the oppositional relationship so that they might negotiate and mediate between its terms and thus create a political space for artistic practice and social commentary. They did not fall back on romance after having failed to represent the real, haphazardly or accidentally incorporating elements of romance into their novels. To the contrary, the authors I discuss here--Howells, Twain, James, and Alcott--deliberately borrow the stock characters and plot formulations of romance-melodrama to point out our (and their) own investment in them as a way to control the perceived disunity and indeterminacy of lived experience
that such formulations were designed to conceal. It is a matter less of belief in the romance-realist debate than a strategy to deconstruct it.
In positioning themselves with respect to the rivalry between romance and realism, these four writers seldom denounced publicly the better class of romanticists, whom they acknowledged as influential to their own novelistic practice. Alcott, as a young girl having associated with Hawthorne, and with such American transcendentalist authors as Emerson, and Thoreau, had never publicly derided them. on occasion she depicted them in her works, always
favorably.' Howells, as Richard Brodhead explains, treated Hawthorne with "a particularly virulent strain of reverential passion," Howells's typical response to the "established authors" (Brodhead 28). James as well publicly admired Hawthorne. Hawthorne's work, James writes, "was all charged with a tone" possessing "an extraordinary value in an air in which absolutely nobody else's was or has shown since any aptitude for being" (qtd. in Brodhead 26). Only Twain outwardly derided a romanticist, namely James Fenimore Cooper. But, as one critic has noted, Twain held a begrudging admiration for his self-appointed adversary, admiration at least enough to borrow the scenes and characters of Cooper's fiction.'
Instead of attacking the better class of romanticists, in their novels and in their criticism the realists under
consideration here typically wrote contrary to the authors of popular strains of sensational, sentimental, adventure, and gothic melodrama, and always for the benefit of their readers. Alcott cautioned against the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth, for she believed that they held a deleterious influence over the minds of young women readers. She even went as far as to satirize the noted sensationalist author
as Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury in Little Women.' In his criticism, Howells, too, bemoaned the damage that the "romanticistic" writer (his term for the sensationalist) inflicts on the human psyche, such a writer offering his readers the "gaudy hero and heroine" they crave.10 In his introductions to his novels, James also defined his art in opposition to the lesser forms of sensationalism."1 Twain, in denouncing the glaring inconsistencies and flaws of Cooper and in deriding Sir Walter Scott for his injurious influence on Southern society, as well wrote against melodramatic contrivances, going as far as to generate a list of nineteen rules of romance writing so that authors and readers alike would know when common sense had lost to literary devices.'
Despite their common stand against the conventions and devices of romance-melodrama, these writers incorporated them into their novels, but in an obvious way. Indeed, one interesting aspect about these authors is the quasimetafictional quality each lends to his or her novels.
Typically, their characters understand themselves as characters functioning within romance conventions that run just beyond their comprehension. For example, James, as Christopher Newman considers his place within the larger theatrics of Parisian society, notes that for his character the current reality "was too strange and too mocking to be real; it was like a page torn out of a romance, with no context in his own experience" (James 402)."
Some realist characters actively engage themselves in the formulas of romance, thus demonstrating a negotiation between romance and reality. Howells's Penelope, from Silas Lapham, consciously appropriates the heroine and plot line of a sentimental novel she has just read, all to position herself within a real context that she defines according to melodramatic convention. 14 James's Valentin as well prefers to accommodate himself to a fictional character, so that he might participate in the theatrics of French culture. Twain's Tom Sawyer is a master of romantic contrivance, showing great agility in moving from character to character within sentimental and adventure contexts.
Moreover, these four authors expose the less theatrical among their characters to out-of-character experiences, self-reflexive moments that reveal a previously unacknowledged investment in romance and that allow them to see themselves as operating between fictional and real circumstances. In this regard, we might define what is the
basic business plot of the realistic novel. Silas Lapham, for one, participates within a sordid business affair to envision himself as actor and audience, as a character within the play of business and an author who directs his role according to romantic expectations. Christopher Newman as well catches himself acting in a business theater, but also in a Gothic romance. other characters discussed in the following chapters endure this same sense of self-loss, a shared perception of the disunity, the indeterminacy, the incoherent quality of life beyond romance conventions.
As a way to negotiate between romance and the perceived indeterminacies of lived experience, the four authors ask their readers to implicate themselves as romancers. Put otherwise, readers are to acknowledge that, like the characters in realist novels, they, too, are inclined to plot their realities, to make them conform to romance conventions in order to provide them order, unity, and determinacy. Thus the authors position themselves within the romance-realist debate to define their readers as those predisposed to living out romance-melodramas. Readers, the realists seem to suggest, must be made to comprehend the existence of a reality that the conventions cannot fully contain.
One tactic common to all four authors in this regard is to introduce a romance narrative--sometimes imaginary, sometimes from historical reality--into the larger narrative
frame so as to reconstitute that frame. The effect is to make readers understand the determinacy of employment, to acknowledge that characters acting in conventional roles do so at the price of self-delusion. Thus in the middle of Silas LaT)ham Howells introduces Tears, Idle Tears,, a mock sentimental romance that redefines the mistaken courtship plot operating in the realistic narrative frame as a sentimental plot. We watch the characters conform to their roles, imitating the plot designed for them through the mock romance. We watch, in short, as they move toward the determinacy of employment while they (and we) scramble for narrativistic alternatives.
Finally, in placing themselves amid an oppositional
relationship between romance and reality, these four authors in varying degrees acknowledge themselves as romancers of experience. In a word, they are their own readers, being predisposed to romance conventions as a way to plot and control their relation to perceived realities. For example, in describing his novel, The American, as an instance in which he had "plotted arch-romance without knowing it," James tacitly characterizes himself to be like his hero, Christopher Newman, a character who unwittingly conforms to a romance of national type. Likewise, Mark Twain, a writer seldom compared to James, in nailing up his famous authorial notice in Huck Finn for all to see, ironically admits that he does not heed his own warning. He has found plots and
morals and motives in his narrative that, as a "prisoner of style," he cannot seem to escape.
The chapters that follow offer readings of specific
texts in relation to the themes I have outlined so far. As such, they operate as individual essays, without referring to their neighbors, though the cumulative effect amounts to a sustained, continuous argument.
In the second chapter, I discuss Alcott's Little Women and Work. The author separates her novels from the conventions of sensationalist and sentimentalist literature as she incorporates sentiment and romance into her narrative frame. Her motive is to show her readers that they might soften the harshness of reality through sentiment and attain a measure of self-knowledge in the process.
In the third chapter, I consider Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham. Howells creates an oppositional relationship between those who defend the sentimental-romance and interpret their lives according to its conventions, and those who argue the Howellsian position against such selfdesigning practices. Ultimately, the author stands amid these extremes to negotiate between readerly desires for self-unifying fictions of character and the perception of an indeterminate self situated beyond those fictions.
In the next chapter, I discuss James'sThe American to expose the author as one given to "plotting arch-romance" against his readers and himself. James guides us as
Christopher Newman functions according to various fictional forms, sometimes unwittingly. Through Newman, James asks that his readers face the self-deconstructing ambiguities of perception that arise once we liberate ourselves from the activity of romantic role-playing. James ultimately reveals this engagement in fictions of character as an action definitive of the national type.
The final chapter is on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.15 In the first novel, Twain ostensibly sets his readers outside of the melodramatic conventions operating within it to expose the self-fashioning ritual of his characters. In the second he sets us squarely within those conventions. Through the character of Tom Sawyer, Twain makes us want to resist the melodramatic impulses we all share and to which we ultimately accede.
In the final analysis, then, these writers understood themselves as operating within the romance-realist debate, but in a way that Chase, Sundquist, and Kaplan have overlooked, as unwitting participants in an essentially subversive campaign.
1. See Richard Chase's The American Novel and Its Tradition (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957). For commentary on Chase, see Amy Kaplan's The Social Construction of American Realism (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988) 2-3, and Donald E.
Pease's introduction to New Essays on the Rise of Silas Lapham (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991), especially pages 4-7.
2. Donald Pease, in Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Contexts (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987), places Chase's criticism in a unique context. He reads the antebellum period as an equivalent to the Cold War tensions of the post-World War II era. Both periods in history evince a need on the part of creative writers and literary critics to legitimate a coherent national ethos that distinguishes America from international competitors. See his opening chapter, "Visionary Compacts and the Cold War Consensus," 3-48.
3. Michael Davitt Bell, The Development of American Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980) 16-22.
4. See James's The Art of Fiction, and Other Essays (New York: Oxford UP, 1948).
5. Warner Berthoff, The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884-1919 (New York: Macmillan, 1965); Jay Martin, Harvests of Ehange: American Literature, 1865-1914 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967).
6. See Sundquist's introduction to American Realism: New Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982) 3-24.
7. David Sterling of Alcott's Work: A Story of Experience, for example, is based on Henry David Thoreau. I use Joy Kasson's edition of this text (New York: Penguin, 1994).
8. For a discussion of the high esteem in which Howells and James held Hawthorne see Brodhead's The School of Hawthorne (New York: Oxford UP, 1986). As for the connection between Twain and Cooper, see Twain's "The Literary offenses of James Fenimore Cooper," in How to Tell a Story, and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1900). John Seelye identifies the influences of Cooper in Twain's fiction. See Seelye's introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Penguin, 1986).
9. Alcott, Little Women (New York: Penguin, 1989) 267.
10. Howells, "Novel-Writing and Novel-Reading," reprinted in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2 Fourth Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994) 234-250.
11. See James's introduction to The American in The Art of Fiction, and other Essays.
12. Twain, "The Literary offenses of James Fenimore Cooper." See also his Life on the Mississippi (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990) for his derisive commentary on Scott.
13. James, The American (New York: Penguin, 1986).
14. Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (New York: Signet, 1963).
15. Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Penguin, 1986) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Penguin, 1986).
TERMS OF SENTIMENT:
ALCOTT AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF ROMANCE AND REALITY
In an 1872 letter to Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe defines Alcott's oeuvre as antagonistic to the sensationalist novel of her day. Stowe and many other writers firmly believed that such lurid tales of criminality and sexual promiscuity had an unhealthy influence on the innocent minds of young women readers. But Stowe considers Alcott's work to be above such literary tripe. "In my many fears for my country," writes Stowe with an almost missionary zeal, "in these days when so much seductive and dangerous literature is pushed forward, the success of your domestic works has been to me most comforting." Alcott's popularity "shows that after all our people are all right and that they love the right kind of thing" (qtd. in Saxton 305-306).*'
Alcott must have read Stowe's letter with a mixture of bemusement and profound apprehension. Before the publication of her "domestic works," she was herself a little-known writer of sensationalist blood-and-thunder stories published either anonymously or pseudonymously. That is, Alcott had previously been the author of stories both "seductive and
dangerous," a past that she preferred to conceal from the likes of Stowe. But being defined as a writer of "domestic works" had its disadvantages, too. As many critics have noted, Alcott often felt her creativity cut short and hemmed in by the conventional plots and characters of another form:
sentimental literature. Stowe's letter liberates Alcott from association with one set of conventions as it ties her
to the disadvantages of another.
This chapter shows that in Little Women and Work Alcott negotiates between sentiment and young women's commonplace experiences. Alcott maintains a careful distinction between romance as a sentimental formula and romance and sentiment as terms related to feeling and experience. Through the characters of Jo March and Christie Devon, Alcott instructs her readers to appropriate sentiment and romance as a way to perceive, interpret, and manage the everyday, to examine and embrace the passions of love and the grief of loss. But Alcott eschews the plot conventions and stock characters common to sentimental and sensational romance novels, as she understands them. In both novels discussed in this chapter, she asks her readers to resist conforming experience to romance conventions since such conformity is self-delusional and provides readers only heightened self-images that effectively disconnect them from real events. Readers should embrace commonplace living, instead, and commonplace
living should allow for sentiment and romance.
This chapter consists of three sections. In the first, I discuss briefly Alcott's perception of sensational and sentimental literature by referring to her earlier bloodand-thunder stories and to passages from Little Women and Work. Alcott reversed her position on romance conventions. By the time she began writing her domestic works, she no longer envisioned Gothic romance as a way for women to control their universe and empower themselves. Instead the Gothic formula offers only inflated melodramatic self-images that prevent contact with commonplace experience.
In the second section, I discuss Little Women,
especially the character of Jo March, whose career as a writer closely resembles that of her creator. In this text, Alcott mediates between sentiment and commonplace reality to show her readers how best to experience that reality. Jo's ultimate decision to discard sensationalist formulae in her writing is part of a larger transformation of self that occurs as a result of Beth's transfiguration, a common sentimentalist theme. The result of Jo's transformation is the production of a realistic text that portrays the commonplace experiences of young women. There are other scenarios in this novel that point to the fallacy of romance conventions and the place of sentiment in interpreting and experiencing daily reality.
In the final section, I turn to Work, a novel in which the heroine learns to resist interpreting her actions
according to novelistic formulae. Christie symbolizes the unification of sentiment and reality, home and work, and the values of work and experience, values Alcott associates with the reality of her readers.
The period in Alcott's career beginning with her
sensationalist romances and ending with the publication of her early domestic novels demonstrates an evolution in her position on the relationship between literature and women's issues. Early in her career, Alcott wrote dozens of gothic tales in which she employed the conventions and characters of romance to strike back against male domination and identify a voice of her own. Her stories typically feature femme fatales who seek revenge against and power over unsuspecting men. In her domestic fiction, Alcott argues the opposite position. She teaches her audience that by escaping novelistic formulae and embracing the commonplace they may discard the false self-image that formulaic romance provides, an action that allows for contact with the struggle of commonplace experience.
Madeleine Stern and other critics typically applaud Alcott's blood-and-thunder stories as expressions of feminine empowerment. As Stern tells us, Alcott, as an aspiring writer, was "an omnivorous reader" of Gothic literature, wherein she found the settings, characters, themes, and language for her own tales (Stern, Behind a Mask
xii). Influenced by what she read, Alcott produced psychological thrillers of heroines filled with anger, bent on revenge, and possessed by evil influences, stories that in style and character development exceed the limitations of literary convention.'
Alcott's story, "Behind a Mask: or A Woman's Power,"
reveals the author's early belief that feminine control and empowerment came through the appropriation of the gothic formula. The tale concerns a heroine, named Jean Muir, who employs her feminine wiles to get money, power, and revenge against men. A femme fatale with a mysterious background, Jean broods "over some wrong, or loss, or disappointment which had darkened all her life" that turns out to be unrequited love. Stowe aptly describes her: "Jean Muir is indeed a psychological if not a Gothic witch. Proud and passionate, mysterious and mocking, she wields a subtle spell" over all men, who are powerless to resist it (xviii). By the end of her tale she gets what she is after: a title, an estate through marriage, an empowering position over her husband. Thus by conforming to a Gothic formula, women might control human events.
While writing Gothic tales of suspense, mystery, and revenge, Alcott began composing the sentimentalistinfluenced Little Women, a change in form that feminist readers of her Gothic tales have bemoaned. Their interpretation is easily stated: in adopting a literary
form that permits her to publish under her own name and appeals to a larger audience of women readers, Alcott becomes well-known at the cost of her literary independence. Having achieved popularity among women readers desiring sentimentalism, she became unhappy as a writer pressed to meet readerly demands for novels that reinforce traditional, though disempowering social values. The sentimental formula forever silences her voice of passionate revenge against male authority figures. 6
A scene from Alcott's Work, however, shows an authorial perspective on popular romance and commonplace experience profoundly different from what previous critics have acknowledged. In her description of her heroine, Christie Devon, Alcott tells us that by breaking free of romance conventions women may experience the commonplace. As Christie learns to cope with her own feelings of unrequited love and jealousy, Alcott writes that
If she had been a regular novel heroine at this crisis,
she would have grown gray in a single night, had a
dangerous illness, gone mad, or at least taken to
pervading the house at unseasonable hours with her back
hair down and much wringing of the hands. (Work 239)
Clearly Alcott's position on romance heroines has reversed itself. For the benefit of her readersShe mocks the same conventions of character used to define Jean Muir. Given to such flights of madness, bouts of unexplained illness, and unnecessary handwringing, heroines of romance are not models of self-empowerment and liberation here. Instead, they are
creatures of a formula that provides women readers with inflated melodramatic self-images that disconnect them from the commonplace. As such, such heroines become the subject
Through her description of Christie, Alcott offers us a way to self-revelation that resists convention and embraces experience. Christie, "being only a commonplace woman . did nothing so romantic" as wring her hands and let her back hair down. Rather she "instinctively tried to sustain and comfort herself with the humble, wholesome duties and affections which seldom fail to keep heads sane and hearts safe" (Work 239, my emphasis). "Humble, wholesome duties" means domestic chores for room, board, and spending money. Thus through Christie, Alcott teaches her readers that they must learn to sublimate the characteristic emotional outpouring of the romance heroine as work in a domestic setting. Christie's "instinctive" reaction is to engage in the commonplace experiences of young women. Though such an action does not necessarily empower her, it nonetheless places her in a realistic setting wherein she may manage her own destiny.
Moreover, Alcott often tells her readers that
sentimental conventions are no better than sensational ones as ways to achieve self-knowledge and control. In Little Women, she strikes against one of the most formulaic of contemporary literatures: the overly sentimental and
moralistic children's stories in the tradition of Mary Martha Sherwood, Maria Edgeworth, and Hannah More. These popular stories feature the traditional sentimental heroine given to unnecessary and excessive self-sacrifice, a role that Jo, and young women readers, must rise above. nif [JO] had been the heroine of a moral storybook," writes Alcott, "she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket." As before, defining oneself according to literary convention, a way to control and direct experience by conforming to character, provides the opportunity for mockery.
Rather than have her protagonist commit supreme acts of self-sacrifice, Alcott explains to her readers that Jo must act like Jo to realize and negotiate her identity within her everyday surroundings. "Jo wasn't a heroine," Alcott explains. "She was only a struggling human girl, like hundreds of others." Jo's human qualities mean that "she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless or energetic, as the mood suggested" (Little Women 435). Being a "struggling human" means that Jo relinquishes the sense of control that the role of sentimental heroine might provide her. But Jo is now capable of a personal formation of identity that is in line with her own "nature." She behaves as her moods suggest, not as literary formulae would dictate.
Thus Alcott's position on romance conventions evolved into a reversal. By the time she received Stowe's letter, Alcott perceives heroines of romance as flighty, capricious, and overly dramatic characters, or as overly moralistic and pathetic. Put otherwise, she would have agreed that sensationalist (and sentimental) literature is "seductive and dangerous." It deludes young women with fantasies of empowerment through fictions of character that amount to heightened and false self-images.
But Alcott's response to romance exceeds this
understanding. A second look at the passages above reveals Alcott's emphasis on words like "work," "experience," "commonplace," "real," "human," "instinct," "common sense," "useful," "industrious," and "natural." She writes of commonplace realities and common people. Thus she understood herself as writing a form of novel entirely different from sentimental fiction, though her works take place in a domestic setting and emphasize feeling and sentiment. In short, her position resembles that of realist authors like William Dean Howells. Characters in novels should behave like real people. Their emotions and motivations should reflect our own motivations, not sensationalize and heighten them. Real people should distinguish themselves from heroes and heroines of romance to engage in commonplace struggles.
Throughout Little Women,, Alcott indicts sensational and sentimental formulae, for such formulae delude readers by providing a heightened self-image and a false sense of empowerment. As she suggests in her portrayal of Jo March, romance has this potentially deleterious effects on human perception. But Alcott does not shun romance and sentiment completely. As both Jo and the reader are to learn, romance, once stripped of formulaic constructions, offers a way to interpret and experience the passions of love and the grief associated with death.
Being sensible and realistic in her expectations of her poor daughters, Marmee establishes the novel's ideological counterposition to romance formulations. She offers her readers a combination of quasi-Utilitarianism philosophy and sentiment. As she explains to Meg, Marmee wants her daughters "'to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected, to have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married.'" Above all else she wants them "'to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send'" (97). Over and again, Marmee states her message, as if Alcott wishes that the reader take her words to heart. Marmee says to Jo:
"Have regular hours for work and play; make each
day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you
understand the worth of time by employing it well.
Then youth will be delightful, old age bring few
regrets, and life become a beautiful success, in spite
of poverty" (118).
Her words espouse a doctrine of time management that brings together utility and feeling. Time is associated with things regular and useful. Its value depends on "employing it well," a doctrine not unlike Benjamin Franklin's, but more in line with the Utilitarian view, which in part holds to the notion that all goodness is based on usefulness. Nonetheless, the experience deriving from time management is pleasant and delightful and beautiful, words associated with feeling more than utility. The commonplace and sentiment, utility and pleasantness become one.
Given that Marmee establishes the novel's prevailing ideology of work and experience combined with beauty and feeling, it is fitting then that through this same character Alcott informs her readers about the dangers of interpreting our lives according to romance conventions. Meg dreams of a life "full of all sorts of luxurious things; nice food, pretty clothes, handsome furniture, pleasant people, and heaps of money," not to mention maids and servants. This way "I never need work a bit" (142). Her position contradicts her mother's, as Marmee continually explains. Comparing the "plans" for Meg's future to those who value a life of luxury and indolence, Marmee says that "the time has come when a word may set this romantic little head and heart of yours to right, on a very serious subject" as a young
lady's coming out in society (97). Put otherwise, Meg may dream of being the belle of the ball, of playing a part in the theater of romance to control her self-image. But such desires are at odds with the seriousness of living.
Alcott represents this same opposition to romance conventions through Jo. As Alcott puts it, Jo "rather scorned romance, except in books" (142). The terms "sentiment" and "sentimental" receive equal derision. Jo encourages her sisters to accept Laurie into the Pickwick Society, for as she puts it, "'Laurie likes to write, and he'll give a tone to our contributions, and keep us from being sentimental,'', which, apparently, is altogether a bad thing (105). Much to his credit, Alcott tells us, Laurie's "contributions were excellent, being patriotic, classical, comical, or dramatic, but never sentimental." The experience is beneficial to Jo, for she regarded Laurie's works "as worthy of Bacon, Milton, or Shakespeare; and remodelled her own works with good effect, she thought" (107).
Nonetheless, Jo has romantic inclinations of her own,
inclinations that Alcott dismisses as being those of a young girl who desires to escape rather than engage in everyday experience through the heightened self-image that romance convention provides. Jo dreams of doing "something heroic or wonderful,--that won't be forgotten after I'm dead," terms that Jo associates with novels of romantic adventure
and melodrama and not with her mother's ideology of happiness attained through work and utility (143). Clearly, she needs Marmee's guidance. Jo imagines a potential romantic relationship between Meg and Laurie, who is closer to Jo's age. But Marmee quickly puts the thought to rest: "'Don't make plans, Jo; but let time and their own hearts mate your friends. We can't meddle safely in such matters, and had better not get "romantic rubbish," as you call it, into our heads, lest it spoil our friendship'" with Laurie and his family (204-205). The argument against romantic thinking goes unchallenged: take experience as it comes. In this way Marmee and Jo's opposition to the influence of romance convention come together to represent Alcott's own opposition.
Alcott does not dismiss entirely the value of romance and sentiment as ways to interpret and manage human experience. As she makes clear in her depiction of the "romance" between John Brooke and Meg, romance helps to express emotions and passions related to love. In one of the most cleverly designed chapters in Little Women, John, the four March girls, and several teenage visitors from England play a game called "Rigmarole," as part of which John begins a romantic tale of a chivalric knight to which the others in turn add their own twists. John's portion of the story is remarkably like the context of Little Women. A knight (John) looks "everywhere for a certain beautiful
face, which he had seen many times in his dreams" (Meg), and finds a "ruinous castle" in which live "several captive princesses" (the March girls). John's story comes across as sweet and sincere in its expression of love for Meg.
John having made his advance toward Meg in the context of a tale of high romance, Jo then appropriates Gothic conventions to raise her objections to the courtship. Put otherwise, she misapplies romance formulations to intervene in the affairs and passions of love. She has the knight sneeze so violently that "his head fell off." The knight is ultimately picked up by an "evil spirit" and placed "in a large tin box, where there were eleven other knights packed together without their heads, like sardines" (127, 129). But Laurie rewrites the plot to accommodate a happy ending. He puts the knight back together again so that "the princess gave him a posy" as a sign of her love and devotion (130).
Throughout John's courtship of Meg, Jo tries to
intervene and disrupt by interpreting her sister's actions according to romance conventions of character. In this way Alcott suggests that such conventions offer poor models by which to understand and cope with love and to manipulate human experience. At first, Jo does not believe that Meg is in love with John, for she does not show the signs of a romance heroine: -In novels, the girls show it by starting and blushing, fainting away, growing thin, and acting like fools.'" But Meg does not conform to the model: "'she eats
and drinks, and sleeps, like a sensible creature'', (202). Yet love does affect Meg, and when Jo learns of this, she fears her sister will become the easy victim of romance conventions. Jo, of course, is jealous of John for garnering her sister's attentions, Jo preferring that Meg not marry anyone, ever. She complains to Marmee that Meg's has "such a soft heart, it will melt like butter in the sun if any one looks sentimentally at her'" (203). As Jo tries to convince Meg that her sister's suitor is all wrong for her, she makes the comparison that -if he goes on like the rejected lovers in books, you'll give in, rather than hurt his feelings'', (227).
Meg also appropriates the role of romance heroine to heighten her self-image within the drama of the courtship, only to regret her actions. As Meg first hears of John's love for her, she initially behaves like the heroine from books: "'while I was deciding what to say,'', to what will presumably be Brooke's proposal of marriage, '"I felt like the girls in books, who have such things to do.'" She repents her sin before the more sensible Marmee: "'Forgive me, mother, I'm paid for my silliness now; I can never look him in the face again'', having made a fool of herself with her romantic behavior (208).
Again, as Meg initially rejects Brooke's advances, filling out the role of romance heroine, she readily interprets him according to character. John "was grave and
pale now, and looked decidedly more like the novel heroes whom she admired." John, however, does not conform to character type. Meg sees that "he neither slapped his forehead nor tramped about the room, as they [heroes of romance] did." John's love is real, not literary: "he just stood looking at her so wistfully, so tenderly, that she found her heart relenting in spite of her" (229). Against her own romantic inclinations to turn down the proposal and play the heroine, an action that would speak false to her love for her suitor, Meg accepts and enters into a happy and self-fulfilling marriage.
Through this wedding, Alcott teaches her readers that romance and sentiment, without unnecessary plot and character conventions, can be beneficial to us. It helps us to engage in the experience of love and devotion that is part of marriage, which Alcott defines as "the sweetest chapter in the romance of womanhood." Meg's wedding is without romance convention. It has "no ceremonious performances; everything was to be as natural and homelike as possible." Indeed, the wedding is decidedly plain and common. As Meg puts it, -I'm not a show, aunty, and no one is coming to stare at me, to criticize my dress, or count the cost of my luncheon." She will -have my little wedding just as I like it,'" absent the frills of romance.
In this scene Alcott combines Marmee's philosophy of
goodness through usefulness with sentiment. Meg follows her
little speech by handing her groom a hammer, an "unromantic tool" that symbolizes the sort of day-to-day work and industry that Marmee prescribes. As he takes the tool, John "kissed his little bride behind the folding-door, with a look that made Aunt March whisk out her pocket-handkerchief, with a sudden dew in her sharp old eyes" (250). The romance comes across with simplicity and grace, and in a form that renders the marriage and the relationship more meaningful and touching, as it appeals to Aunt March's own tastes for sentiment.
Much like the story of Meg's romance with Mr. Brooke, the story of Jo's trials and tribulations as a fledgling writer of romance-melodrama is rife with references to the genre. once again, Alcott teaches her readers that romance conventions provide only a melodramatic self-image preventing them from engaging in the beauty of human experience. Jo writes about just the sort of "regular" heroes and heroines of romance that Alcott derides, and the experience is one of self-loss and detachment from relation with reality. Jo enjoys reading romances- -"the usual labyrinth of love, mystery, and murder" (267) -and is "amused" to find that so many young readers enjoy the sensation novels of "Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury," Alcott's satiric reference to the work of sensationalist author E.D.E.N. Southworth, by which the author makes a "good living." Her sisters advise her to "'make a good, popular
book, and get as much money as you can'" (270). Jo soon writes romances to achieve similar monetary success and to make a name for herself through a unifying fictional persona: a pen-name.
But Jo finds the experience of romance authoring to be a confusing one. The initial reviews of her first novel, a "poor little romance" that after much criticism and editing was "like a picked robin," are mixed. Worse still, her critics misinterpret her intentions. As Jo says, "'Some make fun of it, some over-praise, and nearly all insist that I had a deep theory to expound.'" But Jo's intentions were different: '"I only wrote it for the pleasure and the money.. I wish I'd printed it whole, or not at all, for I do hate to be so horridly misjudged" (271). In the literary mode of romance, she loses control over her self-image.
Alcott, moreover, calls our attention to the selfdelusive influences of romance. Steeped in her blood-andthunder stories, Jo begins to lose contact with the experience of womanhood. As Alcott explains, there are occasions when Jo's "lively fancy . galloped away with her at a great pace," romance convention thus getting the best of her. Indeed, Jo's "common sense, being rather weakened by a long course of romance writing, did not come to the rescue" (324). Jo continues to delve deeply into her tales of "banditti, counts, gypsies, nuns, and duchesses," swordplay, and herring do, as she "introduced herself to
folly, sin, and misery." Jo "thought she was prospering finely," but Alcott tells us otherwise: "unconsciously, she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character." Indeed, Jo "was living in bad society, and, imaginary though it was, its influence affected her . with the darker side of life" (349). Romance convention, then, is not a way to control one's self-image, to gain fame or to establish one's identity as a writer; rather, it deludes us and prevents us from immersing ourselves in experience.
Alcott has Jo come to this same realization through the portrayal of the death of Jo's sister, Beth. In Beth, Alcott appropriates and distances herself from the
conventions of sentimentalism. From the beginning, Alcott establishes Beth as "the angel of the house," an almost tiresome sentimental metaphor that signifies goodness, virtue, and patience. Beth is "always hopeful, happy, and serene, busy with the quiet duties she loved, every one's friend, and an angel in the house, long before those who loved her most had learned to know it" (238). The sisters interpret Beth according to the same stereotype. They learn to cherish Beth "like a household saint in its shrine . for nothing could change the sweet, unselfish nature" (414). As the sentimental formula prescribes, Alcott has Beth die, much like Dickens's character of little Nell, Stowe's little Eva from Uncle Tom's Cabin and countless other "angels" in
moral storybooks featuring good (read "selfless") girls. Their deaths show others the true path to goodness on earth and in heaven.
Nonetheless, in her portrayal of Beth's death scene, Alcott clearly separates herself from sentimental excess. She spares us the pieta on the death bed, a typical sentimental episode when the angelic child preaches the final lesson of goodness and Christian charity to children who would misbehave, much as Stowe's Eva does to Topsy. As Alcott meticulously explains to her readers, "seldom, except in books, do the dying utter memorable words, see visions, or depart with beatified countenances." Indeed, such literary representations do not conform to commonplace experience: "those who have sped many parting souls know, that to most the end comes as naturally and simply as sleep." Beth "quietly drew her last [breath], with no farewell but one loving look and a little sigh" (419).
At this point, Alcott skillfully employs the
sentimental theme of transfiguration. Alcott describes Beth's death through the metaphor of the morning sunshine that "streamed in like a benediction over the placid face upon the pillow" (419). After Beth's last sigh, her spirit occasionally reemerges. Inside of Beth's room, the sisters note with sadness her belongings, and above the piano, "Beth's face, serene and smiling, as in the early days, looked down upon them, seeming to say, 'Be happy! I am
here'", (453). So given to sentiment is the scene that the reader does not know for certain whether Alcott is referring to a portrait of Beth on the wall, or a saintly presence that hovers tranquilly above her sisters. Finally, Jo enshrines her departed sister, as "Death canonized for us one saint,/Ever less human than divine,/And still we lay, with tender plaint,/Relics in this household shrine" (477478).
Through the death of Beth, Alcott teaches her readers that sentiment and feeling may combine with commonplace living to help us cope with human experience. Taking on Beth's qualities, her sereneness and patience, Jo begins her transformation. As Beth tells her on her death bed, "'You must take my place, Jo, and be everything to father and mother when I'm gone.'" Jo will be "'happier in doing that, than writing splendid books'" (418). It was not long before "Jo found herself humming the songs Beth used to hum, imitating Beth's orderly ways, and giving the little touches here and there that kept everything fresh and cosy," which was Beth's way (434).
Indeed, Beth's transfiguration helps to complete the
transformation of Jo, as the latter learns through her grief to become a writer of lived experience. Marmee asks Jo to "'write something for us, and never mind the rest of the world. '" As she writes, Alcott explains to us, "Jo never knew how it happened, but something got into that story that
went straight to the hearts of those who read it." Jo produces a story that "her family had laughed and cried over." The story is an instant success, and Marmee explains why: "'There is truth in it, Jo--that's the secret; humor and pathos make it alive . . You wrote with no thought of fame or money, and put your heart into it. '" The heart and truth, the humor and pathos that "make it alive": Jo's text unites sentiment and feeling with commonplace experience. Jo understands the source of her inspiration: "'If there is any good or truth in what I write, it isn't mine; I owe it all to you and mother, and to Beth'" (436). This episode indicates to readers, in Alcott's time and in ours, that through the experience of Beth's death Jo has finally learned her lesson. She must write stories that tell the truth, stories about everyday living, and avoid the old formula that deludes the self and prevents contact with lived experience.
In her portrayal of love affairs involving Jo, Alcott again separates herself from romantic formulations and characters. For example, Alcott defines the relationship between Laurie and Jo in the context of romance fiction so
as to dismiss the idea of marriage altogether.9 When Jo turns down Laurie's proposal, she decides to go to New York in order to "'cure him of this romantic notion'", and allow him time to recover from his "'love-lornity'" (331). But Laurie attempts to control and define his emotions by
casting Jo as a character in a melodramatic opera. His attempt, Alcott is quick to point out, fails. "As if possessed by the perverse spirit of the girl," Laurie "would only recall Jo's oddities, faults, and freaks, would only show her in the unsentimental aspects." Indeed, despite his best efforts to rewrite Jo in his mind, to use romance conventions to control and manage his feelings by heightening her image, Jo "wouldn't be put into the Opera at any price" (421).
Amy, Laurie finds, suits the operatic formula. Laurie "looked about him for another and less intractable damsel to immortalize in melody," and found in his memory a "phantom" with "golden hair" and who was "enveloped in a diaphanous cloud." She "floated airily before his mind's eye in a pleasing chaos of roses, peacocks, white ponies and blue ribbons." The description, of course, resembles Amy, though the effects are heightened to suit the operatic "tenor" of romance. Laurie "did not give the complaisant wraith any name, but he took her for his heroine, and grew quite fond of her" (421-422). The contrast between Jo and Amy in Laurie's imagination makes the distinction between what is "real"--and so filled with "oddities, faults, and freaks" that simply won't conform to romantic formulas and stock roles --and what is "romantic" and "ideal."
Alcott relies on romance to represent the sweetness of the relationship between Laurie and Amy, again attesting to
the fact that romance, once we learn to resist conforming to its formulas helps us experience real love. Alcott returns to the knight/princess theme she earlier used to characterize John and Meg's relationship. Having molded Laurie into an object of artistic pleasure, Amy says that he looks -like the effigy of a young knight asleep on his tomb'', (404). Amy again transforms Laurie into her knight, and her knight into a work of art: she "absently sketched any fancy that occurred to her--a stalwart knight on a tomb, a young man [Laurie] asleep in the grass." The picture includes "a curly-haired girl in gorgeous array, promenading down a ball-room" accompanied by "a tall gentleman." In the context of this courtship, romance becomes a more positive and artistic term. Amy's drawing depicts the faces as "a blur, accordingly to the last fashion in art, which was safe, but not altogether satisfactory" (426).
Alcott has Jo learn a different sort of lesson related to romance and art, a lesson that ultimately separates her from romance convention. Having read Amy's letter explaining the courtship, Jo "laid the rustling sheets together with a careful hand, as one might shut the covers of a lovely romance, which holds the reader fast till the end comes, and he finds himself alone in the work-a-day world again" (438). once again, Laurie's and Amy's courtship becomes the romance that, even as one about a knight and fair lady, is acceptable to Jo, and, presumably,
to Alcott. Jo, however, stands for "reality," as she finds herself, like the imagined reader, "alone in the work-a-day world again." In a sense, Jo has resigned herself to that reality.
Alcott's depiction of Professor Bhaer completes the
lesson concerning romance and sentiment that Jo must learn: the feelings associated with romance and sentiment are acceptable if they guide Jo to embrace commonplace experiences related to love. As with her other characters, Alcott uses Bhaer to represent her opposition to sensational-romance conventions. Having just met the professor, Jo attempts to heighten his image in her mind. But she quickly realizes that "while endowing her imaginary heroes with every perfection under the sun, [she] was discovering a live hero, who interested her in spite of many human imperfections" (350). Professor Bhaer is the least romantic of all the characters. As Jo explains, he is "a queer-looking man," "odd" and "sturdy," with table manners that would "'have horrified'", prim Amy, but interest Jo (334, 337). His occupation as a teacher to his nephews is "'not a very romantic story, but it interested me'" nonetheless (334).'o
Having used Bhaer to point to the delusional effects of romance convention, Alcott then redefines him to show that feelings of romance and sentiment help us to interpret human experience related to love. As he courts Jo, Bhaer asks
that she use the word "thou." Jo's response is typical of her: "'Isn't "thou" a little sentimental?' asked Jo, privately thinking it a lovely monosyllable." Bhaer sets her right with sentiment: "'Sentimental? yes; thank Gott, we Germans believe in sentiment, and keep ourselves young mit it.'" Alcott makes her point clear: "'Your English "you" is so cold say "thou," heart's dearest, it means so much to me,' pleaded Mr. Bhaer, more like a romantic student than a grave professor" (475). His words go unchallenged by Alcott, and appear to reflect her position: sentiment and romance are acceptable once liberated from the formula and kept in perspective, so that they do not interfere with one's perception of how to lead life, but give us greater access to it. In "real" romance--i.e., the relationships between men and women- -a little sentiment is desirable.
By the end of Little Women, Alcott brings together
romance and reality, sentiment and work through Jo in a way that allows her characters to experience and interpret the commonplace beyond romance conventions. The lesson is ultimately targeted at her readers. Jo marries Bhaer and, upon Jo's inheriting Plumfield, Aunt March's commodious estate, the two open a school for boys. This way, Alcott capably combines work and Marmee's doctrine of utility with the domestic setting: work and home become one, as the "separate spheres," which Ann Douglas and Jane Tompkins
agree is so common to sentimental novels, break down. Home is the workplace and the workplace is home.
In this circumstance, Professor Bhaer at last becomes the knight, though one less romantic than Laurie and John, and more like his nature: "The Professor charged up and down the green aisles like a stout Teutonic knight, with a pole for a lance, leading on the boys, who made a hook and ladder company of themselves" (487). For her part, Jo learns to love this life. As she explains to Marmee, her husband is "'getting gray and stout," and she is -growing as thin as a shadow, and am over thirty.'" Despite "'these unromantic facts, I have nothing to complain of, and never was so jolly in my life'', (490). By "unromantic facts," Jo means to compare her situation to that of sensationalist romance. Yet romance she has at last found, romance that provides the opportunity to combine work and home, reality and sentiment, and to separate the real hero from the romantic one. Love, romance, and sentiment, work, domesticity, utility, and economy: all have come together in the newly found happiness of the school, all have provided for Jo's contentment in her new life.
Alcott's Work: A Story of Experience shares with Little Women many of the same themes we have discussed. Through Christie Devon, Alcott engages us in a search for just the right combination of sentiment and human
experience. This combination is possible only when we liberate our minds from the conventions of romance.
Alcott's careful mediation between romance and reality has led critics to define Work as an artistic failure. In short, critics regard the novel as too "sentimental," the formulas and conventions of that particular genre apparently restricting Alcott's freedom of political expression. Eugenia Kaledin, for example, argues that Work "should have been a realistic novel" and "might have become a valuable social documentary written in the style of Hospital Sketches." But Alcott had "become so conditioned to writing what most people wanted to hear that she could no longer communicate her true concerns." Put otherwise, says Kaledin, "Work fails to come to terms with the actualities of wages and working conditions for women" (Kaledin 255).
Jean Fagan Yellin agrees with this assessment: Work is not real enough. She initially credits the novel as realistic: "Alcott's heroine Christie undertakes a series of experiments in an attempt to lead an authentic life." But she finds that the novel "raises questions about .. the adequacy of the sentimental novel as a vehicle" for the expression of nineteenth-century radical feminism, which is apparently what Yellin means by "authentic." It also raises questions "about Alcott's adequacy as a writer" (Yellin 527, 528) ." Moreover, Ann Douglas sees Work as "the saga of an unsuccessful search for objective, tangible self-
realization." The novel is "haunting" in its portrayal of "Christie's intermittent loneliness, her drift toward death." Still, Douglas sees "only glimpses" of "a reality whose rigidity is the product both of [Christie's} poverty and the workings of her psyche" (Douglas 60).
Other critics have been more charitable in their assessment of the novel, precisely because of its sentimental themes. Sarah Elbert, influenced by Tompkins' work, says that the novel evokes Alcott's "own life experience and the historical circumstances of womanhood in America" expressed through the formula of sentimentalism (Elbert, "Introduction," ix). For Elbert, Alcott's novel "is based upon the realities of everyday life for working women" and so succeeds, though she is not clear how sentimentalism figures in the representation of these realities (Elbert Hunger, 247).
Kathleen Lant and Angela Estes coauthor the
interpretation that reality (or the imperatives of realist fiction, for that matter) does not necessarily serve as the best standard by which to judge the value of Work. Alcott's novel, they argue, follows the literary pattern of the parable, which may indicate "possibilities, ideals, [and] direction" for women readers, but does not intend to offer any sort of "practical resolution" in real terms. Thus "the connections between parable and the sentimental novel become provocative" (Lant and Estes 251, 234).
I would suggest that the novel negotiates between the sentimental and Alcott's understanding of the everyday realities that women face. We may see this in Alcott's definition of reality in her novel, which, she finds, is entirely too uncharitable. Reality, to its credit, has the corrective capacity to point out the ridiculousness of the inflated self-image that romance conventions provide. Still, the term is typically accompanied by such words as "bitter," "hard," "cold," and "harsh," so that reality appears both lifeless and threatening to readers (see 25, 44, 48, 99, 117, 124, 144, 236).
We may see Alcott's attempt to show how reality conflicts with romances of self-perception when she describes Christie's preparation to go forth alone into the real world of the city. Alcott writes that "the girl packed her one trunk, folding away splendid hopes among her plain gowns, and filling every corner with happy fancies." Young and naive, Christie holds to "utterly impossible plans, and tender little dreams, so lovely at the time, so pathetic to remember, when contact with the hard realities of life has collapsed our bright bubbles" (15). Alcott forewarns of the "collapse" of Christie's romance, her "impossible plans" and "splendid hopes." But she defines that collapse as a necessary and inexorable part of becoming a woman in the real world. Thus Alcott suggests that Christie needs to
come into contact with reality, in this case the world outside of the home.
Moreover, the novel tries to transform reality through feeling and sentiment without giving into the novelistic formulas associated with sentimentalism. As the passage above indicates, Alcott implies that a depiction of reality is not what Work is about, for reality is simply too "harsh," "cold," and "bitter" to serve as the ultimate adjudicator of fiction's value. The passage encourages readers to begin the process of transforming "reality" to accommodate the terms of sentiment. Alcott's novel, then, is instead an attempt to redefine "real" to embrace sentiment, for sentiment provides reality the feeling it currently lacks to protect what is good about a young woman's "tender little dreams."
Nothing better illustrates Alcott's combination of
reality and sentiment than her gradual transformation of the word "work" throughout the course of her novel. As Joy Kasson points out, Alcott's novel explores "the therapeutic value of work itself," especially for women readers (Kasson xxviii). During the post-Civil war transition from an entrepreneurial to a corporate economy, with the concomitant industrial boom and modernization, women's domestic work became less associated with the "real" work of the marketplace, and more akin to leisure in the middle-class mind set. Or, if done by a servant, domestic work was
considered menial and spiritually bankrupt. Work in America has, at least since the Puritans, been identified with moral righteousness. It is considered a moral act in itself. Leisure, on the other hand, is idleness, idle hands being the Devil's playthings. "The devaluation of woman's work," writes Kasson, "particularly concerned social reformers" of the stature of Stowe and Alcott. Work in the minds of these writers was "a moral undertaking of special importance for women" (xxix).
In her novel, Alcott uses the term frequently to
negotiate between sentiment and experience and provide her readers a way to do the same. Alcott writes of Christie that "new trials and temptations beset her now, but hard work and an innocent nature kept her safe and busy" (40). The line resembles Marmee's Utilitarianism: the hard and the innocent, reality and sentiment converge through a single term so that Christie keeps "safe and busy," as any good young woman should want. Later, as Christie contemplates a change of occupation, Alcott tells us that her "year of self-denying service . rendered for pity's sake" is yet another example that "devotion is its own reward, and now, in herself, she discovered unsuspected powers" (98). Hard work and sentiment, service and feeling combine to create a deeper understanding of self and a way to confront harsh reality.
Alcott later sums up the special qualities of her
character through the term "work" in a way that combines sentiment with experience. As she writes:
There are many Christies, willing to work, yet
unable to bear the contact with coarser natures which
makes labor seem degrading, or to endure the hard
struggle for the bare necessities of life when life has
lost all that makes it beautiful. People wonder when
such as she say they can find little to do; but to
those who know nothing of the pangs of pride, the
sacrifices of feeling, the martyrdoms of youth, love,
hope, and ambition that go on under the faded cloaks of
these poor gentlewomen, who tell them to go into the
factories, or scrub the kitchens, for there is work enough for all, the most convincing answer would be,
'Try it.' (117)
Good work, then, comes with the sacrifice of feeling, terms typically associated with sentimentalism. But Alcott's language here is sentimentally charged. Words like "martyrdoms of youth, love, hope, and ambition," and the references to "the faded cloaks" and "poor gentlewoman" evoke pity and feeling in the minds of Alcott's women readership. If working women must sacrifice feeling, then women of leisure should feel for them.
In a call for feminine collectivity, Alcott uses this new understanding of "work." By the end of the novel, work becomes self-denying service to the community of women rendered for pity's sake. Christie speaks before an audience of women social reformers and women workers and serves as mediator and "interpreter" between the two groups, telling both that "I have been and mean to be a working-
woman all my life" (332). Essentially, Christie works for a second great Emancipation:
This new task seems to offer me the chance of
being among the pioneers, to do the hard work, share
the persecution, and help lay the foundation of a new
emancipation whose happy success I may never see. (334)
The final clause does carry a sentimental tone, a sense that Christie's call for hard work is noble and not without feeling. The work may still be "hard," and it may be "woman's work," but it is work that benefits all concerned.
As she modifies the terms "reality" and "work" to negotiate between sentiment and commonplace experience, Alcott places her heroine in several romantic contexts. We watch as Christie must learn to resist conforming to the conventions and formulations of romance. As she finally escapes the fictions of character that romance provides her, Christie learns the value of work and reality as Alcott has defined the terms for us."
The first romantic context involves Christie's short
career as an actress of romantic melodrama; ultimately, she learns to understand acting as beneficial to the work women are to accomplish. As Christie moves up in status in the theater to take on lead roles, she eventually plays a romantic Amazonian princess who is captured by the enemy and rescued by her warriors. In a sarcastic tone, Alcott describes the scenes:
closed with a glare of red light and a 'grand tableau,
of the martial queen standing in a bower of lances, the
rescued princess gracefully fainting in her arms, and the vanquished demon scowling fiercely under her foot, while four-and-twenty dishevelled damsels sang a song
of exultation, to the barbaric music of a tattoo on
their shields. (36-37)
But playing these sorts of roles is not the self-empowering experience Christie desires. There is a difference between playing an Amazonian princess and being one. Christie soon realizes that "'I'm not wise enough to keep steady there'" on the stage playing stock characters in romances (48).
Alcott's point is that Christie must learn to trade the stock characters of formulaic romance for real roles in the theater of everyday living. Having little talent "except that which may be developed in any girl," Christie recognizes her stint as an actress as simply "one of many experiences which were to show her own weakness and strength." Thus Alcott combines terms associated with work and reality with acting: "through effort, pain, and disappointment [acting] fit her to play a nobler part on a wider stage" (37). Christie "must return to the old ways, dull but safe, and plod along till I find my real place and work" (48). Much later in the book, Christie looks back upon her career as an actress to think that "'on the whole I'd rather be a woman than act a queen'', (206).
Alcott creates a second romantic context for Christie and her readers by offering her heroine the role of Jane Eyre. Alcott's point is that Christie must escape this romantic role to realize the value of work as a combination
of reality and sentiment. Like her literary counterpart, Christie takes the job of governess to two small children. In this new position she meets an older Philip Fletcher and the romance ensues. Alcott makes the connection clear for her readers. Christie reads Jane Eyre and, when Fletcher asks for her criticism of the novel, she states that '"I like Jane, but never can forgive her marrying that man, as I haven't much faith in the saints such sinners make.'" The idea that it is proper for the woman to make this sort of self-sacrifice, a role that resembles the sentimental heroine, Christie dismisses. She tells him that though "'many good women do "lend a hand," as you say, and it is quite Christian and amiable, I've no doubt; but I cannot think it a fair bargain'", (65).
Alcott's introduction of Jane Eyre places the reader in a position of re-reading Christie's experience as one that threatens emplotment. Put otherwise, we are to worry over Christie's fate: will she follow Jane Eyre's path to unhappiness? Will she break free of this role? Will she become the handwringing heroine of romance?
Moreover, Alcott creates an interesting tension between the Jane Eyre role and Christie's own romantic expectations to play with readerly desires for romance fictions of character. Christie is initially successful in her resistance to incorporating romantic roles in her everyday experience, but she still thinks in romantic terms.
Initially, Alcott tells us, Christie is uninterested in Fletcher, as she "troubled herself very little about him, and made no romances with him, for all her dreams were of younger, nobler lovers" (54). When Fletcher makes his intentions clearer to her, Alcott separates her heroine from that of romance:
Not possessing the sweet unconsciousness of those heroines who can live through three volumes with a burning passion before their eyes, and never see it
till the proper moment comes, and Eugene goes down upon
his knees, she soon felt sure that Mr. Fletcher found her society agreeable, and wished her to know it. (60) Christie, however, still thinks in terms of formulaic romance. When he proposes marriage, she says no, not believing Fletcher to be "the lover she had dreamed of, the brave, true man who gave her all" (67).
Alcott later uses the Jane Eyre plot to strike against the conventions of sentimentalism, a way of separating Christie from the stock romance heroine to reach her readers. Fletcher reappears, making the same offer of marriage. This time Christie's decision is more difficult for she feels compelled to follow the traditional roles for women prescribed in sentimentalist literature, which call for self-sacrifice and devotion to woman's duty, often in the extreme. As Alcott explains, the proposal forces Christie to decide between a role that belongs to the sentimental heroine and a role incorporating the values of work and utility. The proposal, says Alcott, "attracted
her, as it does all generous natures; she became enamored of self-sacrifice." Christie "almost persuaded herself that it was her duty to marry Mr. Fletcher . in order that she might dedicate her life to the service of the poorer, sadder creatures than herself" (250).
But Alcott makes clear that these are feelings that Christie must learn to control, Alcott's way of reaching those readers who harbor similar romantic expectations. The work Christie must perform is not condescension toward the poor. Rather she must work for the betterment of womankind, a kind of work that involves feeling and sentiment but does not require inhabiting the character of the romance heroine to become enamored of self-sacrifice. She may begin do this by resisting the stock character of sentimentalist novels, by rejecting Fletcher's second proposal. More the real character than the romance heroine, Christie tells Fletcher "no."
In a third and final romantic context involving Christie's love for David Sterling, Alcott once again teaches us to distance ourselves from romance and sentimental conventions of character. Like Jo's first meeting with Professor Bhaer, Christie hears of David by reputation, and hopes that he will prove to be her romantic hero. As it turns out, there was not "the faintest trace of the melancholy Jacques about him; nothing interesting, romantic, pensive, or even stern. . What a blow it was
to be sure!" Desiring that David conform to romance conventions, writes Alcott, "Christie actually felt vexed with him for disappointing her so" (175).
Through Mr. Power, Christie's minister, Alcott
clarifies Christie's problem with perception as she reveals the value of sentiment. Romance conventions have misled her: "'You are a hero-worshipper, my dear; and if people don't come up to the mark you are so disappointed that you fail to see the fine reality which remains when the pretty romance ends" (196). Indeed, Christie must resist her desire to play the heroine of romance and cast men in the role of hero, a role to which they may never measure up. As she finds out from David's example, "tender little acts do more to bind hearts together than great deeds or heroic words" (235). Alcott's phrasing carries sentimental overtones. Love is best expressed as acts both "tender" and "little," terms being feminine and gentle that are associated with feeling and sentiment.
Through David, Christie creates a balance between romance, sentiment, and heroism, on the one hand, and reality and work, on the other, a balance that reflects Alcott's message to her readers. During the Civil War, David, before enlisting in the Northern Army, handled the floral arrangements for scores of funerals for soldiers killed in battle. Alcott makes it seem as if this is his great task: "Day after day he hurried away to help Mr.
Power in the sanitary work that soon claimed all hearts and hands; and, day after day, he came home with what Christie called the 'heroic look' more plainly written on his face" (279). The heroic look takes on two meanings: the heroism of work, and the heroism that drives him to join the military.
When David decides to wear the uniform, Christie
expresses her satisfaction in terms of romance. "I've found my hero at last! Here he is, my knight without reproach or fear, going out to take his part in the grandest battle ever fought'" (283). That "battle" is the Civil War, often referred to by Alcott as "the great work." By defining work according the grand terms of romance, Alcott makes her position clear to her readers: the tone and tenor of romance are acceptable as ways to interpret and manage experience, as long as we do not conform experience to romance's plot formulas. David is a soldier and a knight, but he is not a stock hero.
Alcott defines Christie's work during the war according to the same romantic terms. During the war, Christie becomes a nurse working near the front lines. In this context, Alcott completes the acting metaphor that runs throughout the text to make her case for the value of work: "Ten years earlier Christie made her debut as an Amazon, now she had a braver part to play on a larger stage, with a nation for audience, martial music and the boom of cannon
for orchestra." As a nurse, a true heroine in the war, she is among "high-hearted women, who fought gallantly . and sang their song of exultation with bleeding hearts." Christie finds "the only honors left the women, hard work, responsibility, and the gratitude of many men," honors that involve feeling and sentiment, being a gallant nurse with a heart (297).
David dies bravely in battle, and by the end of the
novel, Christie, who now lives on her father's inheritance, becomes the example to all women of the virtues of work in her new and final occupation as teacher of Alcott's message. Christie possesses the combination of "fine instincts, gracious manners, and unblemished name of an old and honorable race" as well as "the equally valuable dower of practical values" (334). She is the romance heroine of the working world, the example of what a woman can be when they put aside romantic and sentimental fictions of character and do the heroic work of the commonplace.
1. Critics have rightly interpreted the letter as Stowe's not-so-subtle attempt to read Alcott's fiction as continuous with Stowe's sentimental tradition. See, for example, Martha Saxton, Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott (Boston: Houghton, 1977) 305-306; and, more recently, Glenn Hendler, "The Limits of Sympathy: Louisa May Alcott and the Sentimental Novel," in American Literary Histor 3 (winter 1991), 698.
Despite Stowe's insistence on the detrimental nature of the sensational novel, many modern readers have characterized Stowe herself as a sensationalist author par
excellence. As Jane Tompkins points out, Stowe's early novels, including Uncle Tom's Cabin, like sentimental novels by other writers, were given to "an absence of finely delineated characters, a lack of verisimilitude in the story line, an excessive reliance on plot, and a certain sensationalism in the events portrayed." The sensationalism was intended to evoke a response in readers and make them "think and act in a particular way." See Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford UP, 1985) xii, xi.
As Tompkins's book would indicate, sentimental
literature relates to sensationalism in its emphasis on working up the emotions of readers, and in its reliance on stock characters and plot formulae. However, the settings and themes of the two forms differ from each other. Sentimentalism takes place in a domestic setting that proves to be morally and spiritually redeeming for women, while sensationalism commonly adopts lurid, gothic settings.
In her later works, Stowe attempted to write novels that were more "realistic" in their perception, and less sentimental-sensational, less plot-driven. See her Old Town Folks (Boston: 1869). Other accounts of sensationalist literature include Frank Mott's Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York: Macmillan 1947), Helen Waite Papashvily's All the Halpipy Endings: A Study of the Domestic Novel in America, the Women Who Wrote It, the Women Who Read It, in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Harper 1956), and more recently David S. Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (New York: Knopf 1988).
Stowe's stand against sensationalism, moreover, exposes a political dimension more profound than the mere influence of formulae on public behavior. Sensationalist drama, more than any other literary form read by women, expressed sexual desire, feminine ambition, the "rebellious self," and other facets of what were commonly referred to as a "woman's power." In short, for its time, sensationalist literature was considered "liberated" from the cult of domesticity that surrounded and suppressed most middle-class women readers. It was gender rebellion, and often transgression, as escapism. By opposing sensationalist literature as "dangerous and seductive," Stowe implicitly opposes the public feminine expression of desire, ambition, and, by extension, unrestrained "power," at least as these aspects of power may be articulated through this particular literary form.
2. See Karen Halttunen's "The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott," in Feminist Studies 10 (Summer 1984): 233-254. Sarah Elbert's A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1984), Judith
Fetterley's "Little Women: Alcott's Civil War" in Feminist Studies 5 (1979), 369-83, and Madelon Bedell's introduction to Little Women (New York: Modern Library, 1983). See also Jean Yellen's "From Success to Experience: Louisa May Alcott's Work," Massachusetts Review 21 (Fall 1980) 527-539.
3. There is considerable debate over the value of sentimental literature. For Ann Douglas, in The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977), "the legacy of American Victorianism" is one in which women writers, "even as they took full advantage of the new commercial possibilities technological revolutions in printing had made possible. . exercised an enormously conservative influence in their society" in a way that served the interests of patriarchy (9). In this context, for sentimental authors "to view the victims of oppression simply as martyrs and heroines . undeniably heroic and martyred as they often were, is only to perpetuate the sentimental heresy" that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century (11). Jane Tompkins challenges Douglas's characterization of sentimentalism by defining the genre as an attempt "to redefine the social order" (Tompkins xi). The sentimental novel stands as "a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of view" as it "offers a critique of American society far more devastating than any delivered by better-known critics such as Hawthorne and Melville" (124). Sentimentalists "elaborated a myth" based on plot formulae and stock characters "that gave women the central position of power and authority in the culture" (125).
4. Until now, the critical position has not been to separate Alcott from sentimentalism and/or sensationalism, but to transform and give greater complexity to the definition of sentimentalism, and fit Alcott into the newly defined set of terms. The idea is to show how the form, rife with internal contradictions in its plot lines, may, as Glenn Hendler puts it, actually "conflict normative femininity" to "take up subject-positions that repeatedly violate . codes" of mid-century ladyhood, positions outside of the domestic setting (Hendler 686).
For Hendler, the results of Alcott's literary
experiment in Work are mixed, but ultimately redeeming for modern critics. To its discredit, the novel resolves itself to the "paradox of sympathetic politics" in that Christie's "self is defined as other-oriented, selfless, even when she purports to be speaking on behalf of herself or of women in general" (700). Despite her novel's drawbacks in this regard, Hendler explains, Alcott "successfully represents female particularity and collectivity as commensurable, if only for a moment." Thus Work shows in "its fantasy that
these characteristics" of individualism and female collectivity in a domestic setting, "seemingly contradictory in domestic ideology, can be made commensurable" (703). For Hendler, then, Work, though it may, like much of sentimental literature, wind up "resituating the female subject in the place already carved out for her," still marks a transformation in sentimentalism itself to provide for the emergence of a strong self-concept. Thus Hendler preserves Alcott's reputation as a sentimentalist who holds to feminist politics by transforming what sentimentalism means. See Hendler's "The Limits of Sympathy: Louisa May Alcott and the Sentimental Novel"
5. Stern and others have published three volumes of Alcott's sensationalist dramas. See Stern's Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995). See also Stern, Joel Myerson, and Daniel Shealy's edition of Alcott stories, Freaks of Genius: Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991) and A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (Boston: Little Brown, 1988).
Other critics who agree with Stern's assessment include Judith Fetterley and Karen Halttunen. See Fetterley's "Impersonating 'Little Women': The Radicalism of Alcott's Behind a Mask" in Women's Studies 10 (1983): 1-14. See also Halttunen's "The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott."
6. Halttunen makes this case. In "The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott," Halttunen suggests that "through the character of Jo March, Alcott performed literary penance for her greatest sins against the cult of domesticity," sins that include "her Gothic period [and] her consuming literary ambition." Essentially, Halttunen posits that Alcott desired to make personal amends for having written sensationalist stories through the production of a sentimental novel. The melodrama of Alcott's early stories, says Halttunen, served as ways to rebel against her father's repressive domesticity. Ann Douglas argues a similar position in "The Mysteries of Louisa May Alcott," Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott, Madeleine Stowe, ed. (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984) 231-239. See also Martha Saxton's biography, Louisa May, and Stern's Louisa May Alcott (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971). If we understand sentimentalism as potentially repressive, as Douglas asserts, no wonder such critics as Halttunen, Fetterley, Elbert, and Bedell find Alcott's novel as ultimately validating the masculine hegemony and as an act of heresy to Alcott's early sensational rebellion against domesticity.
7. Alcott's description of the romance heroine reminds one of the character Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have dubbed "the madwoman in the attic." See their The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979).
8. Sentimentalism appealed strongly to the emotions in order to induce women to act in socially approved ways. For example, Stowe designed little Eva's death, along with the rest of Uncle Tom's Cabin, to provoke a political response in women against the institution of slavery and against all other forms of "unChristian" behavior. Moreover, as Richard Brodhead argues, sentimentalism insists on a policing action, enforcing the norms of behavior in women that base themselves in emotions, a sacred area in nineteenth-century femininity that men could not dominate. Essentially, we might want to read Alcott as doing precisely this: the death of Beth, the passing of the angel of the house, could well be meant to instruct women in appropriate behavior, whatever that behavior entails being in the hands of the author. See Brodhead's "Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America," in Cultures of Letters (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993) 13-47.
9. Contemporary readers of the first volume longed to see Laurie marry Jo, which, of course, would have satisfied a certain romantic/sentimental desire of their own. Alcott, apparently, would have nothing of it, for that would be to cater to readerly desires for romantic archetypes, going against a major theme of the story. in case her readers missed the point, Alcott has Jo reject Laurie's proposal, and present the coinmon-sensical view through the character who best represents the novel's anti-romantic tenor: Jo herself.
10. Professor Bhaer's intolerance of romance, and his marriage to Jo, which effectively ends her career as a writer, has been met with much critical scorn. Madelon Bedell believes that Jo's marriage to "sexless, fusty middle-aged" Bhaer comes at the cost of "romance and independence," the two terms being apparently complementary. See Bedell's introduction to 'Little Women. Judith Fetterley finds Bhaer to be "the heavy authority figure necessary to offset Jo's own considerable talent and vitality. . In marrying Professor Bhaer, Jo's rebellion is neutralized," a rebellion expressed in her sensational stories. Jo thus demonstrates "once and for all that she is a good little woman who wishes for nothing more than to realize herself in the service of some superior male" (Fetterley, "Little women, 369).
Much of the blame has been directed at Alcott--Bhaer
is, after all, her character--mostly for having surrendered the passion and power of her sensational literature to turn to writing comparably sedate sentimental novels for children. As Martha Saxton suggests, the novel occurs as "a regression for Louisa as an artist and as a woman."
More recent criticism has defended Alcott on this score. In her introduction to Little Women, Elaine Showalter argues that in the novel Alcott "managed to do what she had never achieved in the sensation-stories: create vivid, credible, and enduring characters, and write about them in a memorably American and personal voice, very different from the stilted tones of the sensation-stories, or the orphic notes of her male mentors" (Showalter xxiii).
11. Yellin is unsparing in her attack against what she perceives to be the sentimental form: "In light of Alcott's example, it seems important to question whether the conventions of the sentimental novel prevented it from becoming a vehicle for serious social criticism. Could it be that it was impossible to use this popular literary form, which so effectively served the culture becoming dominant in nineteenth-century America (both by overtly expressing and covertly subverting its values), to make a serious critique of that society?" See Yellin's "From 'Success to Experience: Louisa May Alcott's Work," 538-539.
SEIZING THE BRIDLE:
HOWELLS, REALIST POLEMIC, AND READERS OF ROMANCE
In his frequent public denunciations of sensational and sentimental literature--what he defined as "romancetf-William Dean Howells typically appealed to the consciences of contemporary readers. As his numerous polemical essays on literary subjects indicate, his characterization of readers of romance was often every bit as unsparing and
derisive as his characterization of its writers.' When the romancer "flatters the passions, and exalts them above the principles," when his desire is "merely [to] tickle our prejudices and lull our judgement," then his accomplishment is only "to weaken the moral fibre," and thus render "readers indifferent to 'plodding perseverance and plain industry,' and to 'matter-of-fact poverty and commonplace
distress (Howells, Criticism and Fiction, 93) .' Readers of romance in his mind were victims of their own lack of taste and discretion. The "inferior romanticist" preyed with ease upon "people of weak and childish imagination, pleased with gross fables, fond of prodigies, heroes, heroines, portents, improbabilities, without self-knowledge,
and without the wish for it" ("Novel-Writing," 237-238).
Throughout his career, Howells' personal campaign was to rescue the novel from the unhealthy influences of the "inferior romance," to expurgate the "gaudy hero and heroine" from fiction in order to reach readers before their sensibilities have been irreparably made dull, before they might disregard altogether the promise of self-knowledge
(Criticism and Fiction 104). His ideas can hardly be deemed original, even in nineteenth-century contexts. As Michael Davitt Bell says, in his opposition to and "persistent denigration" of literary language and pretentious art, terms he used exclusively to assail the romancer, Howells merely revitalized an old "conservative ideology, derived from Common Sense 'realism'" that lauded
things "natural," "human," and "real" (Bell 34).
Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885)6 stands apart from these realist polemics as an attempt both to mediate and negotiate between romantic and realistic positions and to engage readers in issues related to self and character as part of an education in the experience of reading. To demonstrate more precisely what I mean, I have divided this chapter into two sections: the first on Penelope and the sentimentalist subplot that takes up most of the middle section of the novel, the second on the character of Silas Lapham the businessman. Each of the two sections focuses on two basic themes within the novel: first, the negotiation that takes place between romance and realism as part of
Howells' appeal to a reader's desires, and second, the anxieties related to the self-deconstructive ambiguities of perception that characters of the novel experience once separated from romantic conventions and characters.
In the first section, I attempt to demonstrate how
Lapham mediates between the romance of sentimentalism and the expectations of realism, between the passion and improbability of one genre and the meticulous attention to
"real" "human" motivations of the other.' The novel accomplishes this mainly by incorporating the formulaic plots and character-types common to "inferior romance" into a larger realist context. Moreover, this negotiation between forms provides Howells the means to engage in a profound questioning of a reader's desires for the knowability of self.
In the second section, I show that in Lapham the
business world operates as a form of romance, and that Silas Lapham. feels disposed to act in character according to the role that business theater expects him to play. While Lapham is initially content with this role, and while other characters perceive him according to the darker, unethical aspects of the business character, he ultimately decides to separate himself from the theater of business, from the fiction of character he was disposed to play, to engage in a search for self-knowledge. The question Howells asks us at the end of the novel is whether we are willing to discard
our own romantic roles and face the anxieties attendant upon this sort of examination.
Indeed, Howells borrows the character-types and plot lines common to romance--whether it be romance related to sentimentalism or to business--to ask if readers are ready to surrender the comfortable delusion of romantic fictions of character and so face the possibility of an indeterminate self that romance convention ordinarily helps readers to deny. Do readers prefer to be "childish and weak"? Or do they prefer the profound ambivalence of self-knowledge that Howellsian realism has to offer?
During the second half of the nineteenth century, sentimentalist literature enjoyed widespread popularity among young women readers, who were typically the focus of Howells' attacks against the "childish and weak." Howells, indeed, harbored deep suspicions concerning the intelligence and readerly sophistication of this particular audience. In a letter to Mark Twain, he tells of an episode while "looking up, for my new story [Silas Lapham], facts about the general lack of literature in people." When he "asked the teacher of a first-class ladies' school . how little literature a girl could carry away" upon graduation, Howells was expectantly appalled. As the teacher said, "'One who had read all the "love part" of your (my) novels, didn't know that you were an American or a contemporary,'" much
less a realist mistaken for a romancer. "'We have to fight in eight months against fifteen or twenty years, absolute ignorance of literature.'" 8
Howells' portrayal of women in his novels evinces similar doubts about them, at least in the minds of his readers. As Hamlin Garland once wrote, "All through the eighties, reading Boston was divided into two parts,--those who liked Howells and those who fought him." "The most fiercely debated question," he tells us, "was whether his heroines were true to life or whether they were caricatures." The irony is that women readers might have found the sentimental caricatures more appealing than Howells' version of "real" women. 9
Howells, I suggest, having taken these public positions with regard to women, perceived that women readers held their own suspicions of his motivations as a writer. He took to heart the instance of the young woman reader searching for the "love part." Through the character of Penelope Lapham and the mistaken courtship plot that envelopes her, Howells' Silas Lapham approaches a temporary truce, a literary rapprochement, between a realist author and an audience of women readers whose tastes were inclined to sentimentalism and other forms of "inferior romance." Long derided by literary critics as an overly contrived nuisance, the mistaken courtship plot, a well-worn formula of sentimental literature, serves within Lapham's realistic
frame as Howells' way of offering an ethical middle-ground. That is, he mediates between romance and realism to allow for the passion of love and suffering without sacrificing good common sense judgement." Moreover, Penelope's role within the sentimental subplot involves issues of readerly desires for romantic character-types. Through Penelope, Howells exposes the uncertainties of self-knowledge and feelings of disunity that such fictions of character are meant to conceal and control.
In a novel that mediates between romance and realism, the character of Penelope fittingly stands as both emerging romance heroine and realist author. Though given to eschewing sentimentalism in her search for a deeper sense of self, she unwittingly becomes a character within that novelistic form. In the first place, Howells introduces Penelope using a well-worn sentimental tactic: he conceals her name to heighten the drama that surrounds her. Irene, the lovelier but less educated and experienced of the two sisters, is named immediately, but Penelope--serious, contemplative, intellectual, darker in complexion, less given to romantic fancy, and decidedly less noticeable than her sister--is termed "the elder sister" for the opening chapters as a cryptic way of calling attention to her.
Second, "Pen" also serves as an ideal realist character and author. Given to a "self-guided search for selfimprovement," a characteristic that Howells often called for
in his readers, she possesses a unique talent for mimicry and sarcasm--,'she could make fun of nearly everything"--that
allows the real to project from her (26) ." Her mimicry, the source of the comedy, becomes, as Tom Corey describes it, "a droll medium through which things present themselves"
(93). Howells gives greater detail by describing her talk as "very unliterary, and its effect seemed hardly conscious," qualities that Howells appreciated in realist novels. Pen, moreover, is "far from epigram in her funning," as "she sketched the characters and looks of people who had interested her, and nothing seemed to have escaped her notice." As a result of this mimicry "the affair represented itself as if without her agency" (124). Her actions are testament to the possibility of "pure representation," the notion that "things represent themselves" when authors merely sketch characters that interest them and adopt unliterary talk.
Having designed Pen as an emerging romance heroine and realistic author who is certain of her sense of self-control and capable of representing experience through herself, Howells rapidly advances his mistaken courtship plot in ways that appeal to experienced readers of sentimentalism. There is a certain irony to the courtship plot: the Laphams act unintentionally "in character," according to a romance script that they do not realize is taking place. That is, they operate as stock characters from romance. Just about
every character in the novel, except Tom, assumes that Tom is pursuing Irene with the intent to marry. But Howells leaves several clues that the Laphams are simply poor readers of conventional sentimental situations. As Persis says to her husband, "if he wants Irene, he's going to find out some way of seeing her; and if he don't, all the plotting and planning in the world isn't going to make him."
Having all but forgotten Pen, and with the wrong plot in mind, the Lapham family makes some astonishingly unliterary assumptions. For example, soon after Tom and Irene's private conversation, Irene describes the evening to her sister: "We talked nearly the whole time about you! . He kept asking about you. He asked everything." Readers, of course, are to know better than the Laphams. A second example: after having spent an evening with both Lapham sisters, Tom says to himself, "'She's charming!'" (126). Which sister brings out this reaction in Tom? Howells is being deliberately ambiguous here: rather than stating that Penelope is the true object of Tom's affections, he leaves it to his readers to acknowledge the conventions of romance writing, to realize that she is emerging as a heroine of romance.
The lesson in sentimentalism for the Laphams and for Howells' readers takes on an added complexity with the introduction of a mock sentimentalist novel- -Tears, Idle Tears- -known among more discriminating Bostonian readers as
SIOP, Silly Slop, into the larger narrative frame. The mock story is pretty much the same as the realist-romantic one that has controlled the novel thus far: a man begins to court one of two daughters; everyone assumes that it is the prettier of the two; when it turns out to be the other daughter, the entire family is thrown into a state of shock; the other daughter, out of pure, unnecessary self-sacrifice, rejects her suitor; so he marries the daughter everyone assumed he wanted all along; everyone is nobly unhappy in sentimental tragedy.
The introduction of Tears, Idle Tears solidifies the
reader's position outside sentimental confines. Readers now may clearly see the misreading that have taken place: they may read back in time to detect the causal relationships between events as the result of these romantic misreading on the part of the central characters. For the characters, it is a different story: they must confront the possibility of misreading the self, of having governed their lives by the conventions of romance; they must determine whether to continue following romantic conventions and character roles, or to feel the anxiety of the indeterminate self that awaits outside romantic contexts.
Initially, it seems that Penelope, easily the most well read among the Lapham clan, is prepared to resist the temptations of sentimental character-types and engage in the realistic pursuit of self-knowledge. She reads Tears, Idle
Tears, telling Tom that "it's pretty easy to cry over a book . and that one is very natural till you come to the main point. Then the naturalness of all the rest makes that seem natural too; but I guess it's all rather forced." As Penelope says, the decision of the woman in Tears to surrender her lover out of self-sacrifice "wasn't selfsacrifice" at all. Her emotions regarding the novel are decidedly mixed: "I'm provoked with myself when I think how I cried over that book--for I did cry. It's silly-it's wicked--for anyone to do what that girl did. Why can't they let people have a chance to behave reasonably in stories" (201). Thus, Penelope is exactly the sort of self-searching reader that Howells seeks: she is willing to watch herself reading stories; she recognizes her reactions are to the "magic" of the book, to its sentimentality, and yet is "provoked with herself" at her reaction; she realizes the conventions that romance uses to make the story seem natural to readers, and catches herself in her own response to the natural, which she defines here as unreasonable.
Penelope soon opts for the conventions of romance and its fictions of character; she adopts the fiction of character that Howells has provided her all along. As Tom reveals his love to her, rather than accept his love as a mature passion, she quickly and unexpectedly casts herself in the role of the heroine of Tears, Idle Tears. Why does she do this? Mostly because romance, as she has suggested
earlier, has a nature of its own, which turns out to be beneficial to women, for it helps them control the pain and irrational desire of loving. As she says, "it was my one chance, in this whole business, to do anything heroic, and I jumped at it." Romance, then, provides Pen, as a sort of sentimental author and heroine, the opportunity to control the event through the portrayal of a sentimental character, to control the world of emotion, pain, and love and so be the heroine. Romance provides the opportunity to remake and empower the self, not so much to become the center of attention--though this is certainly what happens to Penelope--but to handle passion and desire in ways that are beneficial to her.
Her options lie somewhere between romance and realism. Pen may construct the scenes in almost anyway she likes; indeed, she is truly the author of the courtship scenes, for their direction depends entirely on her decision. She may take this mock romance to its ultimate conclusion, deny her passion for Tom and engage in maudlin, egotistical selfsacrifice. Or she may reverse the sentimental direction of the plot yet, come to her "senses" and agree to marry Tom, performing another kind of self-sacrifice.
Realistic readers among male characters are either confused by the romance plot, or become comical in their denunciation of it, a way for Howells to distance himself from his own realist polemic in order to negotiate fictional
identities between romance and realism. For the Reverend Sewell, a character many critics have assumed doubles for Howells' literary positions, the sort of "psychical suicide" that the plot of Tears, Idle Tears promotes is "wholly immoral." It is "the spectacle of a man falling upon his sword" (183)." As he explains it, love and romance of the sentimentalist sort is "the affair, commonly, of very young people, who have not yet character and experience enough" to avoid such unnecessary tragedy. But while Sewell toes the realist line, the scene carefully mocks him for his overzealousness. As Howells puts it, the minister "had apparently got upon a battle horse of his, [and] careened onward in spite of some tacit attempts of his wife to seize the bridle" (184). In other words, though Sewell's position is amply supported by Howells in his essays and novels, readers of LaT)ham are to understand Sewell's opinions as opinions, and are not to disregard completely romance and sentimentalism as utterly useless and deleterious to one's psychic health.
A reader with perhaps more fastidious tastes in
literature, Bromfield Corey does not fare much better than the Reverend. While trying to determine Tom's marital intentions in a discussion with his wife, he gives the most errantly sexist, yet interesting lines in the text: 11you women haven't risen yet . to a conception of the Bismarck idea of diplomacy. If a man praises one woman, you
still think he's in love with another" (247). The notion that women have not risen refers explicitly to their investment in romantic convention. It is women, according to Bromfield, who are to blame: they are the ones who carry romance too far; they are the ones who read human actions within the rigid confines of sentimentalist plotting. In a way, the novel agrees with him. With the exception of the Corey sisters- -they, being well-bred members of Boston's aristocracy, recognize sentimentalism as wholly lacking in artistry and morality--the women of the novel, including the Lapham women and miss Kingsbury, argue passionately for the value of sentiment in literature. But the problem for Bromfield is that his Bismarkian--i.e. realistic--ideology is useless in this context, for the plot following the sentimental-romantic formula is already in motion, and, at this point in the story, he is at a loss to understand it.
Moreover, through both Sewell and Bromfield, the two realistic readers among characters, the novel negotiates between romance and realism by considering the place of passion in literature. As Sewell suggests, passion "ought to be recognized as something natural and mortal," not deserving of the "divine honors" awarded it in sentimentalism, but nonetheless a part of life. Passion in a mature context often makes for second marriages that are better than the first: "I have known some most estimable people who had married a second time," a marriage in which
the passion is presumably more mature (184). Sewell's lines are later echoed in the character of Bromfield. In a conversation with his wife, Bromfield suggests that Penelope's decision to wait for the proper time is "not more shocking than reality. You may regard this as a second marriage . . all will go merry as a marriage bell--a second marriage bell. Why it's quite like a romance!" (247).
Through Bromfield's use of the term, "second marriage," obviously in reference to Sewell's earlier line, we may see Howells make a case for his particular romance. The courtship plot is being portrayed as more mature (like a second marriage) than other romances, like the one in the mock sentimental plot. Romance here is "not more shocking in reality," a line that places the two genres in an equal position, each informing the other. The "second marriage," more mature in its passion, more like Sewell's realistic understanding of the irrationality of love, is "quite like a romance" nonetheless. Howells skillfully combines the two genres here to produce a more sophisticated romance through realism, one that can handle issues of passion and desire without unnecessary self-sacrifice, one that can allow the "affections" to contain the "sentiment." Penelope and Tom's union will make a better marriage, a second, more realistic, and more mature marriage, than Tom and Irene could have ever hoped.
These scenes with Reverend Sewell and Bromfield Corey suggest a certain self-reflexivity that critics have not noticed. Many modern readers, as I have suggested, take for granted that Sewell functions as Howells, mouthpiece for the realist line of argumentation. But they have overlooked two possibilities: Howells' attempt to undermine Sewell's authority by representing his character as a source of comic relief; and Howells, focus on the Reverend's wife in making his comedy effective. In telling us that Mrs. Sewell attempts in vain to "seize the bridle" and contain her husband's outbursts of realistic polemic, Howells offers us a pun that reinforces the notion of a "second marriage" between romance and realism. If Sewell represents Howells representing himself, then the scene operates under the guidance of a sort of autobiographical III," a Howells writing outside of himself willing to look at his own selfrepresentation. In short, through the pun and the commentary on the maturity of a second marriage, we may see that Howells creates for himself through a woman reader like Mrs. Sewell a chance to seize his own "bridal" and effect that second marriage between his own polemic and the sentimental tastes of his audience of women.
In the debate in terms that ensues between characters over the word "natural," we may see further the ways in which Howells effectively combines realism and romance to consider issues of self and character: Penelope's
definition of natural as being in league with romance, and the Reverend Sewell's use of the term in a realist context. The Laphams bring their troubles concerning Penelope's reluctance to marry Tom to the Reverend, who suggests that the romance has actually directed Penelope away from the "natural." For Penelope to marry Tom, and thus risk upsetting her sister, would be to elicit "the economy of pain which naturally suggests itself and which would insist upon itself, if we were not all perverted by traditions which are the figment of the shallowest sentimentality" (222). The "economy of pain which naturally suggests itself" is just the sort of "common sense" that belongs to the realist novel. In a word, Penelope, to be a refined reader, must overcome the limitations of romance, its conventional plotting that deals with issues of love and passion in ways that seem natural, to understand the "nature" of the commonplace world of common sense. But Penelope holds to her claim for the naturalness of sentiment, a way of defining her role of heroine as natural.
Sewell's line is something of a critical warhorse and bears further examination with regard to my thesis. In her compelling article, "The Economy of Pain: Capitalism, Humanitarianism, and the Realistic Novel," Wai-Chee Dimock situates the line in the context of late nineteenth-century industrial capitalism to argue that moral and economic categories are in Howells, novel one and the same."
Essentially, Dimock suggests that Sewell's line creates an ethical situation in which suffering is acceptable and even beneficial when distributed and managed to accommodate an acceptable degree of humanitarianism and pursuit of economic gain. Sewell, then, invites "a self-limiting cognitive structure" for "expanded connectedness . [which] makes everyone responsible for everyone else" and a limitation to suffering and the obligations of suffering (70, 71). The line also has implications for the novelist: "in the composing of a plot, in orchestrating the destinies of his characters, distributing benefits and assigning suffering, the novelist is necessarily a practicing economist, enforcing some model of resource management" (79). The ultimate marriage between Pen and Tom therefore functions as a "symbolic equivalent" to Lapham's rapid financial ruin.
We might apply Dimock's notion of moral economy to the literary forms of sentimentalism and realism as portrayed in Lalpham, particularly if we take Sewell's derogatory reference to "the shallowest sentimentality" as one related to novelistic form. Each genre, apparently, has a "nature" of its own. Sentimentalism, according to Penelope, possesses a certain "naturalness" in its portrayal of noble suffering and self-sacrifice beyond the pale of reason that makes it seem natural. Thus, sentimentalism resists limitations to personal suffering and the expression of emotion. Realism, to borrow from Sewell's earlier polemic
at the Corey dinner party, denounces such sentimental passion as self-delusive and intellectually soft. In the end, Howells offers us a new term by which to negotiate between the two positions. The "economy of pain that naturally suggests itself" would limit obligations concerning suffering and effect a merger of literary forms, one instilling suffering in human experience and the other limiting that suffering, one expanding human relations and the other limiting those relations." In a way, again to borrow from Dimock's thesis, the "economy of pain" allows for sentimentalist suffering in a way that is appropriate to a realist frame of reference. Characters and readers alike are to find for themselves just the right combinations of the two: suffering and connectedness without liability; sentimentalism and realism.
The conclusion to the courtship plot certainly brings together the ideologies of both genres, as if Howells wants to appeal to women readers as part of a thorough consideration of issues related to character and selfknowledge. Penelope manages to script herself as romantic heroine while catering to the conclusion proffered by common sense, reason, and proper self-sacrifice, supposedly more realistic. By the time of her final confrontation with Tom, Penelope, true to her gift for mimicry, submerges herself deep into the role of romantic heroine. She admits that, as a result of the entire affair, "I don't know myself. . .
But it's right for us to part--yes it must be. It must bell (329). Like the true heroine, she tries to convince her suitor that "No, I'm not fit. Good-bye. You're quite right not to have patience any longer." One can imagine Pen with her hand, palm out, pressed against her forehead in romantic-sentimental agony.
In the middle of giving him up, Penelope changes her mind, but not her romantic character: "I can't even give you up! I shall never dare look anyone in the face again. Go, go! But take me with you! I tried to do without you! . Oh, poor Irene!" (330). The histrionic language, the exclamation points, the flip-flop in emotions: it is all there, the language of romance. In this way, Pen, as an author, resolves the situation in keeping with a romantic heroine, but with a supposedly realist-influenced conclusion related to Sewell's imagined ending to the affair as an "economy of pain." To be sure, in finding her common sense in choosing the "economy of pain" that would "naturally suggest itself" in these moments, she falls back on the role of heroine, making the scene seem more romantic, more sentimental than usual, rather than adopting the cold, common sensical way out suggested by Sewell.
Other critics have noted the novel's tendency to create a balance between literary forms, romance and realism. For example, in Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature, Alfred Habegger reveals how both "Howells and
James seized a popular woman's literary genre," namely sentimentalism, "entered deeply into the feminine aspirations it articulated, yet brought to bear on them the critical sense of reality that was at that time basically masculine" (56) As self-acknowledged cultural "sissies," both Howells and James desired to become men of letters "because it offered them an escape from both the threat of feminization and the pressures of normal masculinity" that called for a more aggressively manly persona than either of them were wont to adopt (62). Penelope, in Habegger's context, serves as Howells' "male impersonator," adopting a style of humor culturally defined as masculine that allows her creator to comment derisively on both normative masculinities and the "civilized" roles accorded to women in society. Boston society, with its repressive understanding of womanly behavior, may temporarily overcome Penelope; nonetheless she "fights back, regains her old sanity, and marries the man she wants," though her humor and pertness forces her out of high-society forever (192).
I have my doubts about Habegger's reading, mostly
because of the way that Penelope supposedly "fights back." Her decision to marry Tom, as I have suggested, comes in a highly charged sentimental context that does not make fun of sentimentalism- -certainly the genre was understood by many men as "the threat of feminization"- -but accords it a place within the larger realistic frame. Put otherwise, Penelope
is both male realist impersonator and romance heroine: her humor is both culturally masculine and a way to allow things to represent themselves "as if without her agency"; her decision to follow a romantic course of action is in keeping with nineteenth-century expectations of women readers who indulged in sentimentalist texts. Thus she does not defy nineteenth-century expectations of womanly behavior; instead, she uses the very model for that behavior, the sentimental heroine, to get what she wants.
Indeed, as I have suggested all along, Howells'
romantic subplot mediates and negotiates between the desires of woman readers for romance and those of a realist author for what is supposed as common sensical and natural. moreover, he positions his readers to notice the histrionics of romance, as readers watch the characters bear the tragedy of employment, only to liberate themselves in the end in a way that suits both romantic and realistic expectations of human experience.
In a way, Howells exposes his artifice so that readers may learn about reading. We see how romance influences and misdirects its readers, implicating both the characters in the realist novel and the characters reading it. We recognize the consequences of investing in romantic formulae, the importance of operating outside of romantic character, the necessity to break free from the plot: it all leads to a more thorough understanding of the self as
indeterminate, beyond our control, which is no understanding at all. Penelope's lines--"I don't know myself," "I'm not fit," "I can't even give you up"--demonstrate the sort of loss of self that comes with breaking from the artifice of romance plots, in this case from the plot of Tears, Idle Tears. It is her decision, however, to accommodate realist expectations of human activity by holding to a romanticsentimental role. Essentially, she eludes having to face the indeterminate self by adopting a fiction of romance character. Howells, the realist author who bears in mind the desires of his readers, seems satisfied with that compromise.
Silas Lapham is directed by a different sort of romance than that of literary sentimentalism: his is the "romance" of business and money-making, as Howells defines the term through his characters. In his pursuit of this romance, in his acceptance of a character role within it, he is not alone. As Bromfield says, 11 . there's no doubt but money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry, of our age. It's the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination"
(60). Money becomes associated with everything that a realist novelist, especially Howells, devotes his career against: greed, immorality, romance, and the imagination. And Lapham has clearly invested himself in the "romance" of
money-making. As Tom Corey says of Lapham, "Perhaps his successful strokes of business were the romance of his life,,
In regards to the business plot that surrounds Silas Lapham, his moral rise as a result of his financial fall, Howells again plays the role of mediator between realism and romance, in this case the romance related to business and money-making. I recognize that "romance" as defined through the characters of Bromfield and Tom is a loosely used term, and I do not think that Howells believes the business world to be entirely a romance fiction. Nonetheless, the use of the term signifies Howells' thoughts on business as a sort of theater in its own right in which businessmen act in character "without self-knowledge and without the wish for it," to borrow from his description of romance readers quoted above.
In this section, I would like to focus on the same two themes that dominated the first section. First, as with Howells' portrayal of sentimentalism, the romance of business that envelopes Lapham serves as the author's way to define an ethical middle-ground, in this case to negotiate between the romance of business and business charactertypes, on the one hand, and a realist position that opposes them, on the other. Second, through Lapham. Howells considers readerly desires for fictions of character. That is, Lapham. must choose between the theater of business, in
which he acts according to character without having to evaluate his actions, and the uncertainty of self-knowledge that lies beyond character-types and romance related to business. In regards to this second theme, Howells ultimately positions Lapham. outside of romance conventions for the benefit of educating his readers on the promise and potential anxiety of an indeterminate self that comes with self-reading.
In several scenes Howells demonstrates how his title character resists delving into issues related to the knowability of self so that he may act in character according to the stereotypical role of businessman within the romance of business. For example, early in the novel, Lapham., on a passenger boat, defines for Tom Corey his narrow understanding of issues related to character and self. Admitting that, when studying the faces of the passengers, "half the time I can't make any sort of guess" as to what a face reveals, he adds,
I don't suppose it was meant we should know what
was in each other's minds. It would take a man out of
his own hands. As long as he's in his own hands,
there's some hopes of his doing something with himself;
but if a fellow has been found out--even if he hasn't been found out to be so very bad--it's pretty much all
up with him. No, sir. I don't want to know people
through and through. (75)
Lapham's dialogue is patently self-evasive. In this scene, he employs a defensive strategy: he will not "read" others if they will not "read" him, and that way everyone remains
securely in their own hands, secure that neither they nor anyone will attempt to examine their own actions, whether these actions are ethical or otherwise. Thus, he defends a public persona that is an evasion of self and in this way holds to the character of the businessman.
It is this romance of the business persona, which depends on not being found out, that readers are to recognize as a fraudulent and potentially self-delusive aspect of Lapham. The narrator goes on to contradict him, as most of the people standing near Lapham "looked as if they might not only be easily but safely known" (75). The operative term is "safely," for it suggests that the narrator wants us to understand that the moment of being taken out of one's own hands, of separating oneself from the business persona, is not the terrifying experience that Lapham makes it out to be. To know others is to know the self, and to know the self "through and through," to understand the basis of one's character, is to be "found out," a risk that takes one out of his own hands, but a risk that must be taken nonetheless. Simply put, we are not to accept Lapham's game of evasion, but recognize his vulnerability, and allow ourselves to be taken out of our own hands, and have our own actions questioned and examined. This is all perfectly safe.
My reading here both complements and contradicts that of Amy Kaplan in her book, The Social Construction of
American Realism. Kaplan reads the ferry scene as an instance in which the realistic narrator "stands above it and sees through it to make it familiar and unthreatening, 'native to us all'" while Lapham "prefers to remain inscrutable to protect his private self" (Kaplan, 41). The scene, then, exemplifies her thesis that the central objective of realist authors, acting as omniscient narrators, is to bring together various disparate social classes and ethnic groups in an attempt to imagine and
control social upheaval. But the scene also, like the rest of the novel, "dominates and silences the very subject it represents," meaning that the novel is a failed attempt at healing social divisions since the characters are admittedly unknowable and unrepresentable to the narrator
While I agree that Lapham's character in this scene is self-evasive, I would add that he simply prefers to act out the part of the businessman. we should remember the context of the scene, in which Lapham is trying to instruct young Tom in the ways of the business world, the world that Tom has earlier defined as Lapham's romance. In a word, Lapham's is an argument for fictions of character as a way to evade and conceal a fragmented, indeterminate self and act according to a role within business theater without guilt. Moreover, it does not appear to me that the narrator chooses to make the scene "unthreatening" since we
understand Lapham's self-evasion. Instead, Howells asks us to delve into issues of character and self, not with the personal anxiety that both are unknowable and unrepresentable, but with the attitude that we should fear conscious self-delusion more than self-indeterminacy. The novel does not fail to represent character and self as unknowable and unrepresentable; to the contrary, it asks readers to confront the potential of unknowability, to attempt to know the self, as a countermeasure to the business persona.
In his depiction of a debate over the value of art through separate presentations of Lapham and Bromfield Corey, Howells revisits issues related to romantic fictions of character and self-knowledge. As Lapham explains to Tom Corey, if you pay an artist enough "he can afford to paint you a first-class picture; and if you don't, he can't. That's all there is of it. Why, they tell me that A. T. Stewart gave one of those French fellows sixty thousand dollars for a little seven-by-nine picture the other day"
(52). In essence, Lapham reduces art to its monetary value, issues of aesthetics meaning little to the businessman. But more to the point, Lapham does not appreciate art as a selfrevelatory experience: he does not value art in its ability to allow us to probe ourselves. Art for Lapham. is merely a status symbol for the pleasure of the businessmen like himself and A. T. Stewart, an attitude that prevents any
sort of self-examination through art from occurring and transforms art into an opportunity to maintain and sanction the businessman's persona.
Howells asks us to acknowledge that Lapham, must learn for himself the true value of art as a way to break from romances of character and begin working toward selfknowledge, really a state of recognizing one's unknowability. Indeed, in Bromfield Corey he presents a perspective contrary to Lapham's through highly ironic discourse. "It's very odd," Bromfield notes, "that some values should have this peculiarity of shrinking." While the values of "rents, stocks, [and] real estate" often "shrink abominably," "you never hear of values in a picture shrinking." He adds in jest: "Perhaps it might be argued that one should put all his values into pictures; I've got a good many of mine there" (89). "Value" in this quote can be taken as "moral currency," making absolutely valueless the business world as one that encourages avarice, wild speculation, and getting-rich-quick, as it discourages detached self-appraisal. Moreover, by referring to "values," Bromfield suggests that art never loses its importance in society as a self-revelatory experience, whereas real estate, stocks, and rents lack this "value." Bromfield bemoans the loss of self-revelation when art is reduced to its sticker price, as he acknowledges his alienation from the ethos of the Gilded Age. He may have a
goodly portion of his personal value in his own paintings, but that sort of value is worthless in the marketplace, for the marketplace does not value introspection and selfexamination.
In those rare instances when Lapham drops his
businessman's facade to reveal his character, he finds himself falling back on romance convention, a sign that he is not yet prepared for the sort of self-examination beyond romance character that Howells calls for. The dinner party scene between the Corey family and the Lapham. family exemplifies his shortcomings in this regard.
In the first place, Lapham. simply fails to understand the argument against melodramatic romance. As Bromfield, adopting a realist's line of reasoning, asserts, a work of sentimentalist literature "flatters the reader by painting the character colossal, but with his limp and stoop, so that he feels himself of their supernatural proportions" (183). The other characters, including Sewell and Charles Bellingham, agree: romance literature is self-evasive by providing a false sense of self. The commonplace, suggests Bellingham, would provide "just that light, impalpable, aerial essence which they've never got into their confounded books yet" (188). During this entire conversation, Howells expertly focuses the reader's attention on Lapham, who listens to this group of intellectuals with a mixture of reverence and utter confusion. Several times during the