- Feminism Without Tears
“Pluralists ‘dance’; theorists ‘storm’ or ‘march,’” writes Nina Baym in her 1984 essay “The Madwoman and Her Languages: Why I Don’t Do Feminist Literary Theory.” Setting the pragmatism and diversity of American academic feminism in the 1970s in opposition to the Franco-centric, legalistic, and increasingly misogynist work of feminist theorists in the 1980s, the article and its provocation are characteristic of Baym’s witty, no nonsense, and avowedly liberal feminist approach to American literature and culture in Feminism and American Literary History. In this collection of previously published essays, which range from her influential 1981 essay “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors” to more recent work on women’s historical writings, Baym locates herself at the very center of past and ongoing debates about the very meanings we bring to such terms as “feminism,” “American,” “literary,” and “history.”
At the time Baym began teaching and writing within the institutional spaces of the American academy in the mid-1960s, literary study meant the close reading of a selection of white male canonical texts as a source of universal meaning and self-evident aesthetic value. It was in this context that Adrienne Rich, at a 1971 session of the Modern Language Association, issued her now famous call for a revisionary feminist criticism: [End Page 399]
A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative, and how we can begin to see and name—and therefore live—afresh. 1
As a contributor to What Manner of Woman: Essays on English and American Life and Literature (1977), one of the earliest collections of feminist literary criticism, and as the author of Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America,1820–1870 (1978), one of the foundational texts in the revival of critical interest in nineteenth-century women’s writing, Baym placed herself at the forefront of a newly vocal and visible group of academic feminists that included Annette Kolodny, Mary Helen Washington, Lillian Robinson, Lillian Faderman, Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar. 2 Like the critical work of this first generation of academic feminists, several of Baym’s essays in Feminism and American Literary History are engaged in the revisionary work of analyzing both images of women and writings by women as a means of challenging conventional definitions of American women and traditional accounts of American literary history.
But while Baym was among the first to challenge the “bias” of American literary history “in favor of things male—in favor, say, of whaling ships rather than the sewing circle as a symbol of the human community,” 3 what is powerful and provocative about her revisionary work is that from the beginning she pushed beyond the what of feminist inquiry to the why, focusing her critical gaze not only on the problem of bringing women into representation but on the politics of representation itself. “My concern is with the fact that the theories controlling our reading of American literature have led to the exclusion of women authors from the canon” (3), Baym writes in her now classic essay, “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors.” The essay, which opens Feminism and American Literary History, moves beyond an analysis of the self-in-the-wilderness myth toward a genealogical critique that interrogates the mechanisms of patriarchal dominance and traditional constructions of the self, the author, the canon, literature, history, universal truth, and transcendent value. Given the antitheory polemic of several of her essays, Baym would probably object to having her work compared with Derridean deconstruction and Foucaultian genealogical critique. But her intellectually adventurous use of historical research, close reading, cultural analysis, and revisionary feminist critique [End Page...