Janet Beer and Bridget Bennett (eds.)

Special Relationships: Anglo-American Affinities and Antagonisms 1854-1939

Janet Beer and Bridget Bennett (eds.) Special Relationships: Anglo-American Affinities and Antagonisms 1854-1939. Manchester: ManchesterUniversity Press, 2002. Pp. xi, 266. ISBN 0-7190-5818-X.

 

Reviewed by Nancy Mayer, Northwestern Missouri State University, in Symbiosis 7.2 (October 2003)

 

This collection of twelve essays is best regarded as a collection of hors d'oeuvres, chosen for variety and savor and with the hope of whetting one's appetite for more historically coherent and theoretically substantial book-length studies. It is not that the best of these essays are in themselves insubstantial; it's the premise for putting them together that seems thin or maybe just preliminary. The editors' introduction mentions the (pre-Iraq War, post-September 11th) Blair-Bush collaboration, Margaret Thatcher, and the two countries' history as colony and colonial power, none of which makes immediately apparent why the editors have collected together in this volume essays about literary and historical texts written from the middle of the nineteenth century through the first third of the twentieth. The authors remind us that, "This was a period in which transatlantic communication and transport were transformed, allowing for an increasing internationalisation of intellectual activity" (2). But surely there was no dearth of British influence on American thought before the mid-nineteenth century, and British interest in American writers dates back to the early days of the colonies. And why stop in the 1930s? Why, for that matter, limit the collection to texts from these two countries only, especially if, as the Introduction suggests, "In effect, the essays allow us to reconsider definitions of what constituted nationhood over the period covered by the collection" (2)? There are abundant reasons for pairing or grouping literary and cultural studies about Britain and America, but those reasons change over time, and a collection of essays clearly organized around key events or intellectual and aesthetic movements or around common or disputed theories would be more useful to a more carefully defined audience. Nevertheless, there are, as the editors promise, "thematic links" (13), and if the collection is regarded as suggestive of future studies rather than deeply engaged in a well-defined field of inquiry, there are real rewards here for a variety of readers.

Although the essays are grouped in a rough chronological order (the chronology changes depending on which primary text is the main focus), I found that the essays spoke to each other more clearly if I grouped them according to theme and function. This is not to say that I have found the hidden key to arranging this volume of essays, just that this strategy highlights for me connections between and among the essays that were latent when I first read the book in the given order.

Three of the essays trace the influence of one writer on other writers or on readers on the other side of the ocean. Two of these consider Sir Walter Scott's immense importance to nineteenth-century American writers. Susan Manning's essay on Ivanhoe and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court provides a welcome reminder of Scott's complexity and a rich analysis of Twain's obsessive return to his reductive early reading of Scott. Twain's fraught relationship to Scott is variously attributed to Bloom's anxiety of influence, Twain's unresolved personal response to the Civil War, and Twain's struggle to reconcile the romantic and rationalist strains in his own writing. This last problem is tantalizingly applicable to the infamous final scenes of Huckleberry Finn, where Tom Sawyer's appropriation of Jim's "escape" seems to re-write an ethically serious story as one of Twain's own parodies of Scott. That an extended study of Huckleberry Finn is not included in an essay on Connecticut Yankee is hardly surprising; this is one of many leads to future analysis that this essay provides. Alison Easton's essay on Waverly and Sarah Orne Jewett's The Tory Lover sheds light on both books, but especially on Jewett's nunanced use of American history to support her model of a workably ideal post Civil War community. Easton demonstrates a thorough knowledge of both American history and American literature, and a fine ear for telling phrases in the fiction of both authors. Given the immense popularity of historical fiction in early U.S. literature, these two essays demonstrate how useful—for both teaching and scholarship— the continuing study of Scott's influence in the U.S. can be.

The third essay that I would group with the two on Scott is a study of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship by Carolyn Masel. The fellowship was a group of working-class English readers that expanded throughout and after Whitman's lifetime and forged multi-generation trans-Atlantic connections among non-academic readers of Whitman's poetry and prose. It is intrinsically interesting and touching that Whitman in his lifetime found, an ocean away, a group of readers he so hoped to win over much earlier and in his own country. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the story, however, is the way that the group's charismatic leader read Whitman. For James William Wallace the poetry functioned like prophecy, leading to a religious conversion and advocacy of a brand of socialism that Whitman himself might have found insupportable (119). This raises questions not fully articulated in the essay: What happens when poetry is read as scripture or as a formula for political change, even if, perhaps especially if, the poet in question sometimes invites such readings? How does the poem itself change when read this way instead of within an aesthetic tradition? These questions are perhaps too ambitious to be addressed in a short essay that appears in a collection for readers who are not necessarily specialists in either Whitman studies or poetic theory, but they are, I think, necessary to raise and answer, I hope in future studies by this author.

A second group of essays concern themselves with intellectual, and especially literary, movements that spanned both continents. Two of them explore the lingering influence of "the Gothic" or "the female Gothic" on authors as varied as the nineteenth-century New England novelist Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard and T. S. Eliot. Unfortunately the definitions of these "modes" are vague and varied enough to make for somewhat unconvincing analysis. Anne Marie Ford sees the "female Gothic" as "a mode which expresses women's fantasies and fears" and is also unusually attentive to "class categories" (143). The emphasis on women's sexual expression seems to expand the function of Gothic elements in fiction, but it is also limiting, ending in an analysis of Jane Eyre that makes religious prudery Jane's chief motive for refusing Rochester's initial pursuit of her (and therefore ignoring the defensiveness that class requires if Jane is to retain her self respect). For Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, the effects of "the Gothic" or "Gothic elements" remain more inexplicit, and the essay itself unconvincingly links dissimilar novels, for which the authors claim dissimilar connections to Eliot: He wrote an introduction to Djuna Barne's A Handful of Dust, and the authors claim "borrowings" from and debts to Eliot's work, especially "The Wasteland," for Evelyn Waugh's Nightwood. The "Gothic elements" in Eliot's own work remain largely unspecified and unanalyzed.

In contrast, the three remaining essays on literary realism and modernism are models of clarity and treasuries of insight into specific literary texts, into the goals and motives of their authors, and into the theories and practices of transatlantic literary movements. Kate Joslin's study of modernism in the criticism of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf respects the seriousness of each author while acknowledging their inevitable limitations of vision. For example, she demonstrates that both critics "are skeptical of the ability of a writer or a critic to cross cultures, to create convincing characters or to judge literary works across the Atlantic" (208). Thus, Virginia Woolf finds Wharton and James insufficiently "American" (or non-English) in their depictions of embedded old-money American communities, and Edith Wharton dismisses Woolf and Joyce as merely fashionably provocative. Nevertheless, Joslin shows that both authors contributed to a serious conversation about the direction fiction would take in the twentieth century, not only or primarily as critics, but as novelists. It is in her original and scrupulous readings of the novels that Joslin really demonstrates the rich cross-continental dialogue of modernism.

One of the most valuable portions of Joslin's study deals with the epistemologies that inform the contrasting narrative strategies in Woolf's and Wharton's most characteristic novels (214). Lindsay Traub, writing about George Eliot's influence on Henry James, also touches upon what may be called an epistemological issue—the issue of which particular human experiences may be used to understand "the growth and transformation of consciousness itself" (174). The figure James chooses and names "the Subject" is, as she was for George Eliot, a woman. The personification of subjectivity in first representative men and then representative women is a topic that would reach back to early British and American Romanticism and would be well worth a volume of its own. Kate Fullbrook's engaging essay on Gertrude Stein and Alfred North Whitehead traverses some of this territory, looking back towards Coleridge, Emerson, and Matthew Arnold, on to William and Henry James, and then to Picasso, Whitehead, and Stein and modernity as well as modernism. Like the other two essays, this one concerns itself with serious questions of epistemology and representation.

The four remaining essays are linked in that they focus on social issues as presented by creative writers and/ or social reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Together these essays emphasize sometimes counter-intuitive connections and the antagonisms between social movements. There are connections between movements that are now fiercely opposed and competition between movements that seem governed by similar principles. Judie Newman recounts Harriet Beecher Stowe's surprising whitewash of the oppression that accompanied the Highland Clearances. Newman's essay demonstrates not only Stowe's shortsightedness but also her strategic response to what seemed to her a move to appropriate chattel slavery by equating "the fate of the slave with the fate of the inhabitant of a semi-feudal rural estate under aristocratic 'guardianship'" (32). The similarities between the two experiences exacerbate the danger. Newman suggests that Stowe led the way in the realization that all such parallels risk obliterating the consequences of particular injustices done to specific groups of people.

R.J. Ellis considers related issues of race and rural labor within the early African American novel Our Nig. Comparing Harriet Wilson's story of a free African American farm worker to Elizabeth Gaskell's depiction of the rural working class in England, Ellis attributes Wilson's stark and sympathetic account to the absence of the "hostile attitude towards working women" (69) that Gaskell's middle class perspective encouraged and to Wilson's complete lack of investment in a pastoral tradition that served to soften the brutal realities of rural labor. Without minimizing the importance of race in Wilson's novel, Ellis also illuminates the novel's importance to a social history of rural labor that transcends national boundaries. Like Newman and Ellis, Bridget Bennett argues for the inclusion of multiple traditions, especially the spiritual practices of American slaves and American Indians, in transatlantic nineteenth-century spiritualism. She also outlines a secondary thesis about the importance of travel and technology to the development of international spiritualism. Although it seems laudable and necessary to recognize the complex ethnic roots of American spiritualism, the other connections seem tenuous, at least in the space this short essay allowed.

Finally, Janet Beer and Ann Heilmann reveal sometimes discomfiting connections between the turn-of-the-century authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman's and Sarah Grand's "American and British social purity feminisms" (180) and branches of the eugenics movement that focused, more or less benignly, on the eradication of venereal disease and, more troublingly, on a state-enforced model of "hygenic" sexual selection. Beer and Heilmann's essay is a timely reminder of the impossibility of another sort of purity, the ideological variety, within even the most focused social movements.

In general, then, Special Relationships, as may be expected in a generous collection of a essays by a wide variety of authors writing to fulfill varying purposes, offers a great deal to intrigue, some work that feels unfinished or under-developed, and some work that deeply satisfies. Taken as a whole, its variety offers more promise than depth, more a hint of future avenues of inquiry than a resonant interchange on any one of the important themes and topics it offers up in bite-sized servings.

 

© Symbiosis, 2003

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