- Wounded Hearts: Masculinity, Law, and Literature in American Culture
Cross-disciplinary studies like Jennifer Travis's Wounded Hearts: Masculinity, Law, and Literature in American Culture obtained a new cachet in the 1990s and early 2000s in many English departments. Leaving behind the notion of the literary as a world somehow apart, many new graduate students felt emboldened to roam between disciplinary [End Page 610] fields, using "the logic of discursive structures" to connect high and low, popular and recondite, all the while locating culture more in the world itself than in any aesthetic. Breaking free from the bonds of a formerly insulating disciplinarity, cultural studies, at its best, did expand the range of "legitimate objects of scholarly study" for many aspiring literary critics (5). And it certainly made suggestive inquiries like Wounded Hearts possible as works of legitimate, important scholarship.
The coordinates of Travis's book are ably marked, her intervention in previous critical debates is clear, and her thesis is a powerful one. Travis examines public debates about men and emotional injury in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and aspires to show how these debates inform the literature of the era. At the most basic level, her work is made possible by pioneering critics like Lora Romero, Amy Kaplan, and others who dismantled the ideology of the separate spheres that had formerly located women, family, and emotion in the private realm and men, reason, and business in the public domain. June Howard's call to rethink sentimentality as a long and varied philosophical tradition and Glenn Hendler's linking of sentiment to masculinity have also been important to other recent accounts, my own included, of manhood in sentimental and realist literatures. Travis exchanges the slightly archaic term "sentiment" for the more modern "emotion," however, even though she too demonstrates that "the rhetoric of normative masculine citizenship in the nineteenth century . . . came to be invested in the language of injury and suffering" (17). More importantly, rather than ascribing any new value to the formerly overlooked figure of the man of feelings in postbellum America and in realist and naturalist literatures, Travis offers a critique. She contends that, far from challenging conventional accounts of romantic, rugged, or corporate patriarchal personhood, middle-class men capitalized on their psychic wounds and emotional sensitivities in order to reinforce their cultural, legal, and economic power.
This is a difficult thesis not to assent to, especially given the richness of some of the extra-literary research. Since John Locke, Travis suggests, cultural and legal discourses about injury have "taken many shapes" but have consistently been "designed to protect men against assaults to property and person" (12). In the aftermath of the Civil War, however, with many soldiers suffering from new kinds of inexplicable emotional wounds, new psychological, cultural, and legal discourses arose that specifically concerned emotional injury, and literate, professional, middle-class men used these discourses to their advantages. Similarly, according to Travis, many authors, including William Dean Howells, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Willa [End Page 611] Cather, and Edith Wharton, either cashed in on or called into question the new value being ascribed throughout the culture to male emotions.
The power of the thesis arises from Travis's command of critical and legal discourses and theories. This book is grounded in part in the law-and-literature movement that has been most ably advanced by Americanist literary critics like Wai Chee Dimock and Brook Thomas. And it is in Travis's work contextualizing literature in extra-literary materials and in literary critical conversations that her gifts as a scholar are most apparent. In the chapter titled "Emotional Equity?: William Dean Howells and the Divorce Novel," there are finely nuanced discussions of legal debates about privacy and their potential influence on Howells's A Modern Instance, of the American history of the novel as a suspect and potential harmful literary form, and of critical debates about the gendering of Howells's fiction. Also, in chapter one, Travis astutely reads the sentimentalism of much Civil War writing by...