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Book Reviews 193 Pamela A. Boker, The Grief Taboo in American Literature: Loss and Prolonged Adolescence in Twain, Melville, and Hemingway. New York: New York University Press, 1996. Pp. xiii + 357. Pamela Baker's introduction to The Grief Taboo in American Literature promises us much more than her study delivers: a revisionist reading of classic American literature grounded in a feminist-psychoanalytic critique of traditional masculinity. Focusing on the careers and works of Herman Melville, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Boker argues that these three authors typified the masculinist ethos of American culture by exalting heroic paternal ideals constructed largely as a defensive measure against feminine identification-identification, that is, with a lost and desired mother figure. They disavowed their need to mourn, in effect, by exalting a perpetual state of adolescence, where one need neither acknowledge the mother as irrevocably lost nor accept the "real" father as flawed and mortal. Even as the texts they wrote stand as monuments to losses that afflicted them profoundly, they enshrine a taboo against grief that for Boker has shaped the "collective consciousness,, (287) of American democracy. Boker is to be commended for wanting to make masculinist texts more accessible to feminist critics by attending to the repressed "feminine" longing these texts encode. But most of the book consists of relatively orthodox psychoanalytic readings, unignited by a carefully thought out notion of feminine subjectivity that might guide any collective effort to reshape American culture along feminist lines. Baker's "revisionism" consists mainly of enrichening earlier ahistorical master theme approaches to American literature with her own ahistorical feminist variation on them. The Grief Taboo in American Literature follows a line of inquiry fruitfully employed in classic works like D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature and Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel, both of which raised provocative questions about the connection between American-ness and a neurotic masculinity. But if Lawrence and Fiedler, like Boker, were interested in the unconscious subtext of classic American literature, they were not, like her, dogmatically beholden to the reductive explanations and jargon of clinical psychoanalysis. This is not a book likely to win any converts to psychoanalytic literary criticism. When Boker claims that "Sam Clemens developed an adaptive, 194 Canadian Review of Amencan Studies Revue canadienne d'etudes americames humorous persona that was first employed in response to an early elemental disappointment with his mother's poor mirroring of him as a self objed' (97), or that ''Melville was acting out an unresolved rapprochement-phase conflict in [Moby-Dick]"(43), or that For Whom the Bell Tolls is a work of "permanent literary merit" simply because it invites "interpretation as a universal psychoanalytic narrative 11 (228), she exemplifies psychoanalytic criticism at its worst, the kind so easily ridiculed by those outside the faith. She also remains ambiguous about the therapeutic quality of Melville's, Twain's, and Hemingway's considerable artistic achievement. She clearly admires their art, and yet tediously insists that it reveals the extent to which they failed to "work through" their grief. Furthermore, she she never satisfactorily explains what this "working through" entails or how most people manage to do it (assuming that they do). Feminists who have made use of psychoanalysis over the past twenty years or so have responded to and elaborated its dialectical and deconstructive aspects, which function to destabilize rather than fortify the bourgeois masculine subject and to challenge essentialist understandings of gender. Despite the fact that, in her introduction, Boker approvingly cites the Lacanian culture critic and queer theorist Kaja Silverman, she aligns herself far more consistently with the object-relations psychoanalysis of John Bowlby and D.W. Winnicott. While she offers a critique of the masculinist mythes dominating American literature, she seems rarely to question the fundamental narrative of Oedipalization that makes a "mature masculinity"-one rooted in masculine identification with a "strong" masculine father-the pinnacle of moral and emotional development. Discussing Hemingway's story "The Three-Day Blow," for example, Boker insists that "without a secure, individuated masculine identity and a fully worked-through oedipus complex, there can be no satisfactory emotional separation from the mother/ woman" (187). She assumes that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 193-195
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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