College Literature 30.4 (2003) 175-177
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Sielke, Sabine. 2002. Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990. Princeton: Princeton University Press. $55.00 hc. $19.95sc. 241 pp.
In Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990, Sabine Sielke traces the rhetoric of rape in the United States through four distinct periods of literary history, stretching from antebellum seduction narratives to postbellum realism to modernist texts "and their post modern refigurations"(2002, 7). Sielke establishes that talk about rape, like talk about love, "hardly ever hits its target"(2). Instead, when the act of rape gets turned into discourse, it acquires rhetorical powers, becoming "an insistent figure for other social, political, and economic concerns and conflicts, . . . talk about rape has its history, its ideology, and its dominant narratives" which are "nationally specific"(2). It is here that Sielke's volume's greatest contribution lies: her project continuously shows how "American rape narratives are over determined by a distinct history of racial conflict and a discourse on race that itself tends to overdetermine issues of class"(2). That talk about rape is always talk about power relations is not so surprising. But the ways that in the United States the legacy of slavery has informed rhetoric about rape is rather stunning, particularly the way it haunts rape narratives and rhetoric today. Sielke contends that the rhetoric of rape in the United States is always already informed by America's primal incest scene, with its "enforced relations within the extended plantation family" (184) and the lynching of African American men.
Sielke's first chapter yokes together sexual violence in antebellum American literature and contemporary feminist discourse, tracking how the dominant feminist rhetoric of rape relies on "nineteenth century perspectives on gender and race relations"(2002, 15). Here Sielke charges that contemporary feminist thinking about rape dangerously echoes earlier rhetoric, infanticizing women in much the same way that nineteenth century rhetoric about rape did—by making all heterosexual consent for women impossible and by defining all sexuality as "the violation of women by men" (29). Through a comparison of novels of seduction and slave narratives such as Susana Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791) and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the [End Page 175] Life of a SlaveGirl (1861) and dominant rape-crisis discourse, Sielke illustrates how both examples of rape rhetoric succeed in lumping together a range of consensual and non consensual acts such as "consensual heterosexual intercourse . . . [and] acquaintance and stranger rape, as well as verbal coercion"(31).
In chapter two, Sielke shifts her focus to the turn-of-the-century obsession with masculinity, in particular "wild "images of black men represented as "bestial" and full of perverse, untamed desire. Texts like Frank Norris's McTeague and Nelson Pages' Red Rock reflect a national identity crisis and the image of the African American man as beast "ferociously invading the sacred rights of woman and endangering the home of whites" (Genovese in Sielke 2002, 34). Such a reduction of blackness to "extreme corporeality, to the literal, helps recast white womanhood in spiritual and figural terms"(37). Sielke examines the way realist rhetoric on sexual violence further sexualizes interracial encounters and suppresses /silences black on black and white on white sexual violence, ultimately upholding fictions of white supremacy. In the third chapter, Sielke demonstrates how modernist modes reveal an interrogation, for the first time, of the relationship between rape and representation, capitalizing on the "interdependence between representations of rape and the meanings the culture ascribes to real rape" (76). Modernists, Sielke notes, did not so much transform the rhetoric of rape as revise the reader's approach to that rhetoric: William Faulkner's Sanctuary for example, projects rape through images of silence, blindness, and deafness, thus metaphorizing both culture's resistance to the realities of rape and rape's resistance to representation . . . modernist fiction recognizes rape as a figure and form of representation rather than an event"(76).
In the 70s and 80s white women...