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Monday, May 23, 2005

Slate gets Sentimental--but doesn't actually get it

*Note: If you'll skip to point 3, below, you realize this isn't so much a post about sentimentalism, but rather a general complaint about the current "literary" milieu. But it's also sort of about sentimentalism, so lets start there.*

So, in my dissertation I think about some representational complications emerging around questions of gender and citizenship in the antebellum United States. This means that I read a lot of so-called “sentimental” or domestic novels—that is, novels mostly written by women which place the personal development and personal influence of women at their center. This type of book is the source of a long-standing controversy in the study of American literature because no one can decide if they are “good,” if they are “good for” anything, and in general, if we (as scholars of American literature, and maybe just as Americans) should be proud or embarrassed of the fact that they were So So popular.

I was very interested, then, when Slate magazine decided to weigh in on this debate, exploring particularly the “puzzle” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The subtitle of Stephen Metcalf’s article is, "“Why has Uncle Tom's Cabin survived—and thrived?”"

I don’t really want to get into the nuances of Metcalf’s article, because it is well-written and fairly thoughtful and my main point in calling attention to it is just that I’m always sort of generally pleased when the world pays attention to the ideas I spend so much time thinking about. But let me mention a couple of things, just to get them off my mind:

1. Metcalf’s answer to his question might be paraphrased as, “because feminist scholars, in a well-meaning but mostly shoddy fashion, found sentimentalism politically useful.” And while he is right to note the political questions which animate much literary criticism of Stowe’s novel, it’s interesting to me that he seems to think it sort of intellectually suspicious to attend to a book “just because” it marked a pivotal shift in the political and literary landscape of American culture. Perhaps it would be better to…ignore it? Read about it rather than read it? Yes, surely, that would be better. What?

2. Metcalf’s secondary reading stops, for the most part, 25 years ago. So…in as much as he is providing a critical history, his is up-to-date-1988 with a vengeance. Just FYI. Plus I think it's awesome and hilarious to equate Douglas and Tompkins, because they agree on virtually nothing (when Metcalf paraphrases them, he says Douglas is great but gives only Tomkin's ideas) except that, in as much as _UTC_ was hugely popular and influential, they think it is worth investigating (see point 1, above).

3: My main point: My answer to Metcalf’s question—why do we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin—would be that we read it because it’s a really good book. It is fun to read. Every time I read it I get excited about it all over again. And this is markedly different than Metcalf’s answer, because he concludes his article by claiming that UTC is really bad—and he sites some sentences to give support to his claim.

Well. That right there is the problem with a lot of the contemporary literary world, to my mind. Because it’s silly, I think, to believe there is only one way for a book to be good. Authors are interested in different sorts of literary units—the sentence, the image, the story, etc. And I am really happy to admit that at the level of the sentence, Stowe is not so good. But what she accomplished at the level of narrative in UTC is really amazing—the novel is loooong, folks, and it is not boring for a page. Her sense of pacing, her sense of trajectory, is pitch perfect.

And I just get SO IRRITATED when the ability to tell a fucking story is left out of our evaluation of the novel form. If that’s what reviewers look for, well, no wonder so much contemporary “real” literature gets so convoluted…and just dull.

Metcalf wants us to separate “propaganda from literature,” and I think that is a mostly reasonable request, though sometimes a little difficult practically (I have lots to say about how ill-informed Metcalf’s plea is, but I’ll spare you/him because I do agree that more formal investigation would help out English department’s these days). But I wish he would think a leeetle more carefully about what counts as literature, and how he’s judging it, before he makes his claims. Otherwise, he's going to be stuck reading Annie Proulx or some such shit all day long, and then where will be be? Bored, that's where.

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