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  • The Library and the Wilderness:Susan Howe's Pragmatism
  • Miriam Marty Clark (bio)

Susan Howe's volumes of the 1980s and 1990s, and particularly her prose texts My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-mark, advance a forceful revisionist project, addressed to what Brian McHale has described as "misogynist literature, which is to say . . . canonical literature generally" (204). In doing so, they invite a strong critical emphasis on resistance and radical disruption consistent with a widely accepted characterization of the politics of avant-garde writing at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. "[T]hroughout her entire resourceful and difficult body of verse," McHale writes, Howe has sought "to expose, reverse, and rectify" the contradictions present "in the male canon of writing in English" (205). "Her writings," he observes, "poetry and prose alike, can be seen as a series of countermeasures against the received version of literary historiography." Ming-Qian Ma observes similarly that "Howe's poems . . . subpoena history for an investigation of its violent crime against women" (718).

At the same time, however, Howe sustains an expansive conversation with her predecessors, one marked by intellectual engagement, frank indebtedness, affection, even reverence, and not only toward those in the remote past. In an interview with Edward Foster at the end of The Birth-mark, she offers a strenuous critique of scholarship in American studies in the 1940s and 1950s, taking the Harvard scholars of her father's generation to task for their scholarly omissions, their professional biases, their [End Page 369] complicity with policies and practices that kept women from full participation in intellectual life. She offers a scathing description of Perry Miller, who was her parents' friend and frequent dinner guest.1 She knew him, she tells Foster, "[o]nly as a lecherous character who drank too much," someone who "would quickly get red-faced and then his hands would start wandering," while his silent, devoted wife "who . . . did half of his research for him" sat by. Even his appearance inspired ridicule. "[H]e always wore white socks and black shoes," Howe reports. "And the skin on his ankles, always visible above the socks, was like polished porcelain. We were all struck by it. Even my parents" (Birth-mark 160).

Foster responds to Howe's anecdote with feigned shock—"Good heavens! My idol!"—to which Howe offers a surprising and less frequently cited reply:

He should be your idol. So idols have feet of clay—in this case porcelain. I can't tell you how surprised I was to find, when I was working on Dickinson, that this man, who in real life had seemed harsh and coarse, was completely different in his written work. He was and is indispensable for any real understanding of the early history of New England, of the intellectual and religious history of America.


Howe's vigorous defense of Miller's work suggests that she understands her intellectual and scholarly inheritance—the "received version of literary historiography" (McHale 205)—as more complex and historically situated than McHale, Ma, and others suggest. The scholarly writing of the 1940s and 1950s was "elitist and sexist" (Birth-mark 161), something both Howe's lived experience and more recent scholarship in American studies make clear. But it was "honorable," "careful" (159), and "politically idealistic" in its own time (161), she tells Foster; and some of it, Miller's work in particular, "is indispensable for any real understanding" of American history. [End Page 370]

The essays in The Birth-mark are among Howe's most vigorous indictments of patriarchal American culture, a forceful refusal of its repressions and erasures and a reply to its "ugly antipathy to writers who are breaking form in any way" (177). The fact that at the end of the book, despite these clearly stated positions, and despite what Kenneth Burke might call her motives of perfection—her drive toward textual authenticity and full cultural inclusivity—Howe understands Miller's scholarship both as deeply flawed and as indispensable to an emerging knowledge of Puritan New England hints at the pragmatist sensibility implicit in her critical and aesthetic praxis.2 This philosophical pragmatism complicates critical narratives of estrangement and disruption...


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pp. 369-396
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