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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.3 (1999) i-xii

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Revisiting the "Feminization" of American Culture.

Philip Gould

Our idea for this special issue of differences arises from the sense that the argument for the "feminization" of American culture was misconceived from the start. Our understanding of this problem dates immediately to the critical influence of Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture (1977), which theorized the origins of American cultural malaise in the nineteenth century's culture of sentiment which the middle- class, domestic woman supposedly oversaw. The appeal of Douglas's work was soon followed by hostile critiques that, among other things, condemned her superficial understanding of sentimentalism. By challenging many of the important premises in the debate about the gendered origins of America, as well as about sentiment itself, the essays in this special issue go well beyond the critical revisions of the 1980s and early 1990s. But first, we wish to sketch the contours of Douglas's major arguments as a way of investigating their origins. That is, we wish to take the "feminization thesis" out of isolation by placing it in historical and cultural context.

One might see Douglas's "feminization" thesis as a modernist argument about American culture that is shaped significantly by an [End Page i] emerging feminism of the 1970s. Simply put, The Feminization of American Culture locates the origins of "modern mass culture" (5) in the nineteenth century, and articulates the particularly gendered process by which this cultural change took place. Citing important social and economic developments such as the rise of modern capitalism, urbanization, and a distinctively masculine public sphere of entrepreneurial activity, Douglas argued that such changes were accompanied by (and made possible) the rise of sentimental culture. One important cultural register for this change was institutional religion. For Douglas, the early nineteenth century experienced the decay of what Dana D. Nelson calls (in her essay in this issue) orthodox Calvinism's "muscular and true intellectual culture" into the affective narcissism of liberal Unitarianism. In this way feeling became feminized and made into yet another commodity for cultural consumption. Hence American women served paradoxically as both the stewards and prisoners of sentimental culture; theoretically reduced to affect and relegated to domestic space, women oversaw the cultural role of their own social and ontological captivity, which provided the moral rationale for an increasingly economically competitive society. As many feminist critics during the 1980s and 90s noted, Douglas reserved special disdain for the complicity of American women writers in this process. Lamenting their "intellectual failure," she argued that, "[t]he domestic novelist was concerned with the isolation created by fantasy rather than the solitude imposed by moral commitment. . . . [and creates the] illusion of community through shared consumer pleasures available in a mass society" (158).

However much her early critics disavow the feminization thesis, they manage to perpetuate its gendered premises. Consider, for example, the way in which one of the most visible antagonists of Douglas's work, Jane Tompkins, tries to recover the political "seriousness" of the sentimental novel. At the outset of her chapter on Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Tompkins summarizes her goal:

The thesis I will argue . . . holds that the popular domestic novel of the nineteenth century represents a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of view; that this body of work is remarkable for its intellectual complexity, ambition, and resourcefulness; and that, in certain cases, it offers a critique of American society far more devastating than [End Page ii] any delivered by better-known critics such as Hawthorne and Melville. (124)

Tompkins's revisionist critique is grounded in feminism, new historicism, and reception theory, but it accepts Douglas's gendered premises for understanding nineteenth-century sentimentalism. It does not interrogate the category of sentiment so much as revalue it as a feminine possession. Such revisionism is founded, in other words, on the same opposition between male and female writers that underlies Douglas's work. Rather than see sentiment as a widely circulating cultural discourse in...


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