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Cassandra's Daughters is more a quarrel with Hemingway's critics than a feminist text. Roger Whitlow contends that Hemingway's "women characters have been consistently short-changed by critics," chief among them Edmund Wilson, whose "party-line" has been adopted and perpetuated by two generations. The critics "have too often merely adopted a posture toward the women held by the male characters with whom the women are associated," and have classified the women as "sex kittens," "bitches," or "mindless love creatures."
Whitlow's readings are both interesting and thesis-ridden. He sets himself up as the first critic to read Hemingway's text, "to explore what [the] language actually says about his female characters." The book's three central chapters, "Cassandra's Daughters," "Bitches and Other Simplistic Assumptions," and "The 'Minor' Women," suggest its organization. In the first, Whitlow discusses fantasy female figures or "ideal" passive women such as Catherine Barkley (A Farewell to Arms) and Maria (For Whom the Bell Tolls). The former has been described as shallow and silly, "an adolescent daydream" (Dwight Macdonald), but Whitlow indignantly claims that Catherine's devotion to Frederic Henry is in fact "noble. It is peculiar that her devotion, her willingness to give herself, has come in for so much criticism." The author self-righteously tells us that [End Page 408] "Catherine sounds a bit too 'Total Woman' for many, certainly for many feminists," but he goes too far when he describes Maria as having "the most noble of human ethics (espoused by Socrates, by Jesus, and by the distinct minority of decent and loving men and women throughout the centuries)."
The "bitches" of the next chapter include Brett Ashley and Margot Macomber. Although it is true that many critics have accepted Hemingway's macho values without seeing their irony, Whitlow's special pleading robs the characters of their essence in exchange for a dubious nobility. Brett's behavior is justified as "non-bitchy" for three reasons: (1) she and her friends live in a "loose and disordered" milieu; (2) Brett's behavior is not cruel, merely "thoughtless"; (3) her mind has been "disordered by the impact of the war." Such rationalizations can justify anything. Everyone agrees that Brett Ashley has had a rough time and that she gives one to others. But to save her from the "party-line" critics, Whitlow reduces her to a troubled bohemian who really means no one any harm. Is Brett Ashley really such a well-meaning namby-pamby?
Other readings are similar, and although the book does correct some overly macho interpretations, it does overstate its thesis by reducing Hemingway's women to other kinds of categories. The book also seems dated. As a single instance, Whitlow states that A Farewell to Arms had "its original publication nearly fifty years ago," but the actual date was 1929. Was the book written before 1979, as it might seem? If so, where has the manuscript been all that time? And why didn't the author or his editor bring it up to date?
A more substantial study is Jayne Walker's The Making of a Modernist: Gertrude Stein from "Three Lives" to "Tender Buttons." Like other recent books on Stein—including Marianne DeKoven's A Different Language, which I reviewed last year—Walker begins with a poststructuralist perspective on the arbitrariness of the sign and all linguistic structures. Walker focuses on the first decade of Stein's career, as have other writers, including the present one. She claims that her predecessors mistakenly supposed that Stein imitated the work of the modernist painters, whereas Stein was really doing an analogous task with words and literary forms. The procession of Stein works that she treats leads to Tender Buttons, "a text that enacts the principles of fragmentation and difference and celebrates the freeplay of writing as a combinative game limited only by the systemic laws of language." The early...