- Toward A More Perfect Union
At the end of a semester of teaching, I felt fortunate to come across David Wyatt's Secret Histories because Wyatt so clearly delights in American fiction. Gently encouraging readers to listen and to participate in the intimate relationships revealed by American writers, Wyatt is most like Leslie Fiedler, who famously calls out to readers in the assumed voice of Mark Twain's Jim to "come back to the raft agin, Huck honey" (the title of Fielder's 1948 article).
Jennifer Rae Greeson also urges readers familiar with American literature and literary tropes to anticipate intimate encounters. In Our South, Greeson uncovers an intranational consciousness at work in the United States. She shows how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century U.S. writers represent the South as "an enemy within," as she titles one of her chapters. Both Wyatt and Greeson place family romance at the center of American history. While these two writers cover different periods in American history and, for the most part, approach fictional material with different methodologies, each reflects in some way a spatial turn in American Studies. Each argument hinges on the question of how national spaces have been imagined by American writers. Greeson refers explicitly to connections among geography, literature, and social forms. Wyatt employs spatial vocabulary more sparingly and most often within his discussions of gender and race in American fiction.
Early in his wide-ranging argument, Wyatt makes the tantalizing assertion that "the history of the novel could be said, in fact, to constitute the secret history of the origin and course of love" (p. 20). He perceives twentieth-century American writers as continuing the struggle toward union that began with the nation's founding documents. Although connected by a fundamentally American preoccupation with how and to what extent disparate peoples can share one [End Page 282] national identity, the writers in Wyatt's study respond to distinct political and personal concerns. Some search for a balance between work and relationships, some struggle against the incorporation of America, and some represent war as a force that dehumanizes even as it creates new possibilities for empathy (p. xi). The chapter titles refer to familiar concepts that Wyatt groups under the umbrella term "love"—among them "Double-Consciousness," "Pioneering Women," "Performing Maleness," "The Depression," "The Postmodern," and "Slavery and Memory." These descriptive headings signal Wyatt's goals: to offer a collection of arguments that leads readers back to the books themselves and to uncover the conversations, actual or intertextual, among these seemingly disparate writers. Thankfully, we have come to a moment when there is "no longer any way to read the greatest white American novelists of the twentieth century except through the greatest black American novelist of the twentieth century" (p. 333), and our intertextual reading need not stop with William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Their interrelationship suggests to Wyatt a way of reading all of American literature.
In one of the most interesting chapters, "Love and Separateness," attentive readings link Eudora Welty, Mary McCarthy, and John Steinbeck to Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique. Citing the "decline in the power of women in the public world" after World War II, Wyatt reads Steinbeck's Cathy Trask in East of Eden as a modern woman who defies the "temptations" of an ideology of femininity (pp. 210-11). Yet he is a reluctant champion of this character because she cannot balance love and separateness. In this, she is different from Welty's prewar female characters who, like men, can run away from home. Perhaps more so than men, Welty's women tend to return, and many of these returns constitute a kind of reconciliation to the idea of what Wyatt, quoting Mary McCarthy, calls "the otherness of a separate being" (p. 192). In examining what constitutes this separateness, Wyatt briefly considers the spatial dimension of...