- Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton and Cather
One of Elsa Nettels’s abiding interests in narrative—from her 1977 exploration of James and Conrad to her 1988 study on Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’ America—has been a structural one. By this I mean that Nettels pursues her critical investigations by focusing carefully and meticulously upon the structural components of narrative and the ways in which they subtly shape both textual poetics and textual politics. For more than a decade now, her work has focused on the permutations of power and the cultural repercussions specific to, and inherent in, language. Her most recent book, as its title announces, explores language and gender deployment in fiction throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, considering four “major” authors and a series of novels in a chapter about utopian fictions.
Nettels’s method is to ground her literary interpretations thoroughly and convincingly within the cultural sensibility of what she calls “Victorian America.” Her opening chapter addresses how definitions of literary “style” polarized genders. For example, she deftly counterpoints male pundits of the age with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose witty The Man-Made World; or Our Androcentric Culture of 1911 bitingly critiques the gender hegemony of associating “the man with the human and the normal, the woman with the deviant and the inferior.” While this section on style summarizes admirably the major debates of the period, Nettels’s most interesting contribution is her investigation into the norms surrounding speech acts and even grammar. In the first of these brief, erudite histories, Nettels charts how the signifier “female” connoted excess in matters of speech, especially when the American male “penchant for exaggeration in both speech and writing” made it a convenient site for displacement. In another analysis she seems heroically to have sifted through numerous American and British grammars of the period to reveal instance after instance of blatant, and sometimes quite absurd, gender bias. In supplying a cultural frame that includes “grammarians, essayists, editors and arbiters of manners in Victorian America,” Nettels neatly contextualizes the discursive culture within which her four chosen novelists—Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather—reflect, produce, and represent. [End Page 989]
What writers have had to say about gender and language, and how they enact this debate in their fiction is the organizing motif of Nettels’s approach. Her chapters on Howells and James form a notable chiastic pattern. Howells, she argues, fancied himself a “heretic about women,” yet his “fiction consistently supports the conventional assumptions about gender that he repudiated in his interviews and criticism.” James, conversely, “maintains the masculine-feminine polarity to guarantee the supremacy of the male artist” in his critical writings, while in his fiction he portrays “women who surpass men in the power to initiate and control action.” These chapters especially highlight the strengths of Nettels’s exhaustive research and clear, lucid prose. Spanning novels, stories, critical essays, and letters, Nettels reveals the radical ambivalence that lies at the heart of the “realist” project with regard to gender. The breadth of critical material and textual examples she collects, particularly in her chapter on Howells, will make this book necessary reading for anyone interested in examining gender representation during this period.
However, her chapters on Wharton and Cather aren’t quite as sharply focused as their predecessors are, due in part perhaps to the even more pronounced contradiction and ambivalence both women exhibit toward female utterance and agency in their fictions. Nettels’s project here is to illuminate how such socially conservative women could also be so radically self-actualized as women writers; her approach in these chapters utilizes far more biography than in her chapters on Howells and James, and no clear pattern of interpretation emerges in her argument. Nettels’s scholarship, though, manages to provide moments of both surprise and delight. In her chapter on Cather, for instance, Nettels highlights Cather’s obsession with voice in her early opera reviews, an obsession that came to fictional fruition in Song of the Lark.