- Feeling Hard-Boiled: Modern Sentimentalism and Frances Newman’s The Hard-Boiled Virgin
In August 1926, Frances Newman sent her publisher Horace Liveright the manuscript she declared was “the first novel in which a woman ever told the truth about how women feel” (Letter to Horace 205). In characteristic deadpan, Newman casts her literary debut as a new rendition of a classic sentimental subject, at once a response to and a departure from traditional representations of female feeling. Her provocative title, The Hard-Boiled Virgin, is similarly referential and distinctive. Appending a new slang phrase to a well-established sentimental topic, Newman’s title invokes and undermines conventional associations of femininity and emotion. The novel sustains this destabilizing dynamic. A kunstlerroman set in turn-of-the-century Atlanta, Virgin details the coming of age of an aspiring female author who masturbates to orgasm and ultimately has sex out of wedlock, all while desiring the passionate sentimental romance she never experiences. Stylistically avant-garde and structurally ambitious, Newman’s work illustrates sentimentalism’s evolution in the interwar period.
The Hard-Boiled Virgin is a paradigmatic example of what I call “modern sentimentalism,” an interwar-era literary aesthetic that reinvents the sentimental mode through experimental practices. While a growing body of criticism elaborates the sentimental dimensions of canonical modernist literature, this scholarship typically preserves sentimentalism as an outdated mode and disregards the potential creativity and originality in its aesthetic practices.1 I propose that sentimentalism underwent significant change and was [End Page 693] also a site of innovation in the interwar period.2 Recognizing this modern sentimentalism promises to enrich our understanding of modernist-era literary production, in part by challenging our inherited concepts of where and how aesthetic innovation occurred in the interwar years.3
In the first two sections of this essay, I introduce Newman, The Hard-Boiled Virgin, and modern sentimentalism. In the latter half, I discuss two growing literary interests that transform Virgin’s sentimental aesthetics: the nascent concept of hard-boiled fiction and a pervasive use of irony. As new modernist critics have reminded us, the canonized version of modernism developed in dialogue with a range of practices.4 Sentimentalism participates in this contemporaneous literary conversation in more thoroughgoing ways than we have understood.
1. Frances Newman’s Sentimental Aesthetics
Though little known today, The Hard-Boiled Virgin enjoyed five reprintings within two months of its publication, selling over 20,000 copies in the US and prompting a British edition. The novel was banned in Boston and, Newman proudly reported, “shocked” her hometown of Atlanta “almost into convulsions” (Letter to Mrs. Oscar 229). One critic called Virgin’s content “the ugly whisperings of a repressed and naughty child” and likened Newman’s prose to “the writing of defeated Europeans like Joyce and jabbering expatriates like Gertrude Stein”—comparisons that likely pleased Newman given her admiration of the influential stylists (Davidson 28).5 At the other extreme, Virgin was deemed a “shining, minor masterpiece,” and a “novelist’s novel” akin to the dramas of Henry James and Sherwood Anderson (Cabell Preface vi; Overton 222). Although she claimed to avoid reading Virgin’s reviews, Newman noted, “Apparently my book is either detested or liked a great deal. Atlanta is still raging—I’ll probably have to form a public relations department myself” (Letter to Lamar 230). This range of opinions might be attributed not just to Virgin’s evocative, if euphemistic, treatment of female sexuality and its oblique references to menstruation, birth control, venereal disease, and abortion, but also to its provocative author and her demanding style.
Newman’s signature style features esoteric allusions, elliptical syntax, repetitive diction, odd parallelisms, and generally elaborate prose. Dorothy Parker calls her “manner of writing” “so difficult and tortuous . . . that the reader is left panting and groggy with exhaustion” (93). In The Hard-Boiled Virgin, Newman flirts with stream-of-consciousness narration, approximating her protagonist’s labyrinthine currents of thought through endless qualification, [End Page 694] negation, and indirection. Each episode is a single paragraph and there is no dialogue. One typical sentence reads: “After she had sat beside him during the second act of Tristan and Isolde, she...