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Reviewed by:
  • Incest and the Literary Imagination
  • Ellen Pollak
Incest and the Literary Imagination. Edited by Elizabeth Barnes. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. 382 pp. $59.95

Incest and the Literary Imagination contains fourteen essays (nine new pieces and five reprints or recapitulations of previously published work) treating representations of incest in Anglo-American literature from a range of historical periods and a variety of critical perspectives. The essays, which examine [End Page 104] work from the medieval to the contemporary period, employ "a variety of methodological approaches, among them psychoanalytic, cultural-historical, biographical, and queer theoretical" (3). Editor Elizabeth Barnes expresses the hope in her brief introduction to the volume that "while resisting both a monolithic approach to incest and a schematic, linear narrative of its history, [the] collection may provide something (even more) useful: a view of how the narrativizing of incest reveals the ways in which discourses of sex, gender, class, race, desire, intimacy, family, domination, love, and violence inform, and have informed, understandings of personal, political, and cultural experience" (3).

The volume is divided into four sections. Section 1: "The Royal Privilege of Incest" includes a brief survey of incest plots in medieval literature (Elizabeth Archibald) and three essays on Jacobean drama (Susan Frye on Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Frank Whigham on The Duchess of Malfi, and Lisa Hopkins on 'Tis Pity She's a Whore), all of which explore the use of incest as a figure for aristocratic privilege in the Renaissance. The second section, "The Fall of the Fathers," examines literary representations of incest in England and America in the context of debates about patriarchy generated by emergent republican ideology in the eighteenth century, with essays respectively on Dryden's plays (T. G. A. Nelson), on the relationship between incest and sympathy in the early American republic as exemplified in William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (Elizabeth Barnes), and on the simultaneously redemptive and disciplinary function of child love in nineteenth-century American temperance fiction (Karen Sanchez-Eppler). "The Silence of the Daughters" (section 3) includes exploration of Christine de Pizan's "poetics of euphemism" (Elizabeth Allen) and an analysis of Virgina Woolf's use of silences in The Voyage Out as a euphemistic strategy for representing the "unspeakable" (Jen Shelton), alongside a closely argued reading uncovering the possibility of "unspeakable" childhood sexual trauma at the heart of HD's World War II writing (Madelyn Detloff). And finally, beginning with Gillian Harkins on the disciplinary trauma of speaking about incest in Dorothy Allison's Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, section 4 ("Incest in the House of Culture") the volume concludes with essays by Minrose Gwin on the cultural spaces of incest in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Ann Cvetkovich on the place of lesbianism in therapeutic culture (with discussions of Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina and Margaret Randall's This Is About Incest), and MakoYoshikawa on the hostile critical reception of Kathryn Harrison's 1997 memoir, The Kiss. [End Page 105]

While the collection's topical or thematic focus—i.e., its organization around a single narrative trope rather than a common historical period or theoretical approach—provides an overall sense of how incest's definition and discursive role have changed over time, the essays themselves are uneven in quality and critical sophistication. The highpoint of the volume is Sanchez-Eppler's splendid long essay, "Temperance in the Bed of a Child" (reprinted from Reynolds and Rosenthal, The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature), which explores the cultural and ideological implications of gendered "tales of salvific pederasty" (177) in sentimental reformist fiction of the American temperance movement. Historically specific, theoretically astute, and a model of masterful close reading, this essay offers a compelling analysis of the ideological mechanisms whereby the figure of the eroticized child takes on the dual and paradoxical function of victim and agent of discipline both in specific texts and more broadly within nineteenth-century domestic ideology generally. Also impressive is Ann Cvetkovich's challenging exploration of the productive power of sexual trauma (reprinted from GLQ 2, 1995). Citing the historical role of psychoanalysis in the discursive production of both homosexuality...


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