Strategies of Reticence. Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion by Janis P. Stout (review)
- Western American Literature
- The Western Literature Association
- Volume 26, Number 1, Spring 1991
- pp. 66-67
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66 Western American Literature the case for Texans being “blood kin to modern man” [here we might ask why, in such a recent book, “man” is still allowed to signify men and women alike], “universal” characters facing modern dilemmas. Still, Hill probably right fully makes no attempt to comment definitively upon the lasting value of McMurtry’s fiction, and the collection itself honestly acknowledges that the biggest question about McMurtry facing the literary critic is, as editor Reynolds says, “just how seriously to take his novels or his critical pronouncements.” KATE ARNESON Augustana College Strategies of Reticence. Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion. By Janis P. Stout. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1990. 228 pages, $27.50.) The coming of age of any body of criticism would seem to be a condition of flexibility: a time when the apparatus of any critical approach could itself admit others. Janis Stout, in her feminist reading of works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion, advances and applies not only current explorations into the rhetoric of reticence—and the decon struction of linguistic effects—but reasonably incorporates into her scheme a history of criticism in interpreting the work of each woman writer. The result is a balanced and open-ended assessment—reassessment—of what Stout calls “consciously or unconsciously chosen strategies for effect.” The juxtaposition of these four women writers is itself interesting and revealing. Stout establishes Austen as the fountainhead of “strategically reticent style” in the novel as we know it. Careful to indicate her selection as both personal and yet distinctive and comparable, Stout maintains Austen’s reticent style enabled her to explore a system of social decorum while using that style for feminist ends—an argument she then applies as a developing strategy in the works of Cather, Porter, and Didion. Stout lays a convincing if very brief critical groundwork for her thesis in the introduction by tracing through such critics as Wayne Booth, Ihab Hassan, Frank Kermode, and perhaps most intriguingly, J. A. Ward (American Silences), the development of a criticism of rhetorical silence which ultimately speaks to decreation/deconstruction, absence, indeterminacy, and exhaustion/silence, according to Hassan. What Stout shows, however, is that these critics have omitted the consideration of the silences of women artists: “woman speaks of and through silence out of a tradition of being silenced,” Stout argues. Doubtless, Stout could expand her basic argument and its foundations into a book. But she gracefully extrapolates from a sufficient critical bibliog raphy the primary accomplishment of each of these writers: the employing of silence or omission—“that enforced mark of the feminine”—as a stylistic strategy of subversion, the subversion of masculine power. Reviews 67 Part of the richness of this study is Stout’s demonstration of the different ways in which these four writers communicated beyond the limitations of their own particular time and proclivities. Characterizing Didion as the most aggres sive and Austen as the most ironic of the four, Stout’s individual analyses encourage the reader to rethink not only individual works and lives, but the larger meaning of style as indicative of context. Perhaps the main strength of the book is the step it takes toward explain ing the meaning of this “subversive feminist” style, an important critical foil for the overwhelming marginalizing attitude expressed by Hawthorne so early in his comment about those “damned scribbling women.” Even indirectly this book goes a long way toward accurately interpreting and assessing the mean ing, value, and purpose of women’s writing long categorized, due to the structures of gender, as “regional,” “local color,” or even, as in the case of Didion, unduly acerbic or cool. SHELLEY ARMITAGE University of Hawaii at Manoa The American Indian in American Literature. By Elizabeth I. Hanson. (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988. 128 pages.) This slim study proposes to trace the manner in which the “master writers” of American literature have envisioned the American Indian in metaphoric terms. Heavily relying on a small number of standard critical works from the 1960s and 70s treating writers like Cooper, Hawthorne, Twain...