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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 843-844
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Milette Shamir and Jennifer Travis, eds. Boys Don't Cry? Rethinking Narratives of Masculinity and Emotion in the US. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. xiii + 288 pp.
In recent years, scholars of American literature and culture have done a lot of thinking about feeling. Much of this thinking can be traced to the revaluation of sentimental fiction—and sentimental culture more broadly—initiated in studies of nineteenth-century women novelists and more recently extended to encompass a much wider range of writings by men and women. The ramifications of sentimentalism, we have learned, extend into the twentieth century, even into the works of the most apparently antisentimental and unemotional of the male modernists. This focus on forms of feeling has proven fruitful as a way of rethinking the gendering of the canon, historicizing our understanding of reader-response, and reconceptualizing the political efficacy of literature.
Milette Shamir and Jennifer Travis's Boys Don't Cry? Rethinking Narratives of Masculinity and Emotion in the US advances the scholarly conversation about sentimentalism and related structures of feeling in several useful and important ways. The eleven-essay volume confirms the growing consensus that while emotions may be powerfully inflected by gender, men and masculinity do not exist in a purely negative relation to feeling. Its strongest essays carefully analyze the narrative forms that shape men's emotional expressions and representations. The volume begins with an informative introduction, which ably surveys current scholarship on masculinity and emotion. Evan Carton's excellent opening essay ("What Feels an American?") serves as a second introduction to the book. It concisely outlines the volume's project as demonstrating "how the gendered containment of emotion in America failed" in the nineteenth century and how feeling came to be central to the self-fashioning of Americans of both genders, while exploring the role of feeling in writers from the birth of the American nation such as Franklin and Crevecoeur. Elizabeth Barnes's essay analyzes the inescapable imbrication of sentiment and violence in narratives of familicide, centering on Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland but drawing links to contemporaneous social changes in the shape of the American family that still have repercussions in very recent newspaper narratives of family murder. Shamir's essay on sympathy and male friendship in Thoreau and Travis's analysis of the role men's emotions play in injury law and Willa Cather's fiction both provide new readings of texts in the light of the volume's emphasis on masculinity and emotions. [End Page 843]
Overall, the editors have included essays that are in productive dialogue with one another. Ryan Schneider's piece on W. E. B Du Bois's mourning of his lost son, for example, nicely follows up on Eric Haralson's related discussion of men's elegies for children, and Thomas Strychacz's essay on Hemingway's "aesthetic of emotional restraint" brings some of Carton's concerns into the twentieth century. Several of the essays on twentieth-century topics, however, seem a bit less clearly focused, and they vary considerably in both scope and quality. Tom Lutz's wide-ranging piece on 1950s male melodrama is richly suggestive in its incorporation of empirical psychological studies of emotion, but Stephen Davenport's contribution is written so as to be of interest only to those who already have extensive, detailed knowledge of Kerouac's life and works.
The two concluding essays, which promise to bring our understanding of masculinity and emotions almost to the present, present substantially different and perhaps incompatible analyses of the men's movement and other male emotional responses to third-wave feminism. Sally Robinson provides some deft readings of the metaphorics of emotion and sexuality that suffuse both pro- and antifeminist 1970s writings about "men's liberation," including books by John Irving and Leonard Michaels. In contrast to the critical textual readings offered by Robinson and other essays in the volume, Judith Newton's discussion of the Promise Keepers and the Million Man March is sweepingly and...