Fall 1997, Volume 14.3
The Frontiers of Western Writing: Women's Narratives
and the Rhetoric of Western Expansion, Reviewed by Sally Bishop Shigley
The Liminal Novel, Studies in the Francophone-African Novel as Bildungsroman, Reviewed by Mark Bell
The Peregrine Reader, Reviewed by Neal W. Kramer
Mark Twain & William James: Crafting a Free Self, Reviewed by Richard H. Cracroft
The Frontiers of Western Writing: Women's Narratives and the Rhetoric of Western Expansion by Brigitte Georgi-Findlay. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996, 349 pp. , $45.00 (cloth), $19.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Sally Bishop Shigley, Department of English, Weber Sate University
The cover of Brigitte Georgi-Findlay's book provides a perfect synecdoche for the rest of the book. On it, we see a black and white photograph of a woman dressed in traditional nineteenth-century garb: long-sleeved cotton blouse and full long skirt with her hair tucked primly up with pins. Set against the sky-blue cover and the phrase "westward expansion" highlighted in red, this woman could appear as the demure, stereotypical "angel of the hearth"--could is the operative word here. The woman portrayed on the cover of this impressive volume does not fit this type, Georgi-Findlay will argue, primarily because she has a pen and paper in hand, and she is writing. Despite poses of weakness, innocence, or naiveté this fine book will illustrate, the authors of women's narratives of western expansion both shaped and subtly resisted the male rhetoric and writings of the time.
Divided into three parts of about one hundred pages each, Georgi-Findlay first introduces the varied works that make up the "male" narrative of the American west and then suggests how women's texts written early in the nineteenth century offer voices that comment on and, in some cases, subtly revise the tradition. For example, novelist Caroline Kirkland, in the novel New Home, deflates romantic accounts of the journey west by writing of a tiresome night under the dubious care of a drunken innkeeper instead of the heated battles with savages and narrow escapes from raging rivers that punctuate male expansionist narratives. Women, Georgi-Findlay will argue, are not merely rejecting a monomythic idea of westward expansionism. Instead, through writing about home and travel and gardens, they are using wit and a personal, rather than cultural, authority to appropriate already conquered frontiers for their own, often idealized, domestic uses. Georgi-Findlay explores this idea most clearly in her discussion of Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes (1844). In this important volume, Fuller resists describing nature as untouched or virginal, and therefore in need of conquering; instead she emphasizes the possibility of beauty and majesty in a peopled landscape, creating what Georgi-Findlay deems a "(non) representation of the scenery [which] is consciously nonappropriative, nonviolent, and non-erotic" (46).
In part two of the book, Georgi-Findlay continues this discussion tracing women's narratives from 1860-1890 through the stories of Army wives and their perspectives on the Indian Wars. Although meticulously researched, this section, like parts of others, suffers from a somewhat plodding prose style that sacrifices readability to the listing of facts. Army wives, Georgi-Findlay carefully points out, restricted their narratives to domestic details and routines to prove themselves "appropriate," decent women unlike the other less virtuous women who followed the Army. The only doubts or criticisms presented in these narratives are self-doubts or self-mockery by new wives unfamiliar with domestic duties or military protocol.
In part three, Georgi-Findlay details the writings of female missionaries and reformers as important influences in the West. This latter section raises some fascinating questions—namely, how Victorian women juggled the responsibility for the souls and salvation of their families and all of the white people around them, along with their role as the philanthropic arm of the Indian reform movement. Although gentler than the warlike "reform" their male counterparts practiced with the Native Americans, Georgi-Findlay argues that women such as novelist Margaret Carrington and diarist Frances Marie Antoinette Poe were nevertheless given important responsibilities to Anglicize, Christianize, and otherwise change Indian ways. In doing so, they were forced to confront the brutality of American progress and the shattered myth of the "noble" red man.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is its ecumenical approach to primary texts. Georgi-Findlay uses private letters, public documents, diaries, fiction, and memoirs to construct a rich quilt of women's narratives. Through these various pieces, she shows that despite their necessary poses to the contrary, women's voices make up an essential and often insistent chorus interrogating the rhetoric of western expansionism and providing an important and long-ignored historical perspective.
The Liminal Novel, Studies in the Francophone-African Novel as Bildungsroman by Wangari wa Nyatetu-Waigwa. New York: Peter Lang, 1996, 134 pp., $32.95 (cloth).
Reviewed by Mark Bell, Department of French and Italian, Brigham Young University
In this study Wangari wa Nyatetu-Waigwa sets out to apply the concept of liminality, as articulated by Victor Turner, to the work of three francophone-African authors: Mongo Beti, Camara Laye, and Hamidou Kane. Turner proposed the term liminality to describe the "threshold" phase within rites of passage in traditional cultures. In this phase, the subject has been dispossessed of all symbols related to status, rank or role position and is ready to embark on a new existence of communitas, a new-found solidarity and fellowship with the other initiation comrades. The notion of the "liminal" event is combined in The Liminal Novel with well-established genre theory to account for certain features in the literary projection of three different post-colonial experiences. This combination of "liminality" and genre theory complements the work of David Mickelsen who already in 1986 sought to classify several African texts as apprenticeship novels.
Translations into English of three "classics" of francophone-African literature form the basis of the study: l'Aventure ambigüe, l'Enfant noir, and Mission terminée. One might question the use of translated texts, instead of the originals, for scholarly treatment. While the decision in favor of translations inhibits the critic's facility to carry out close analysis of the quotations, it makes the entire study more accessible to colleagues and readers who may not be able to read French.
Those of us who publish on francophone writers often find ourselves in a dilemma. First, in imagining our audience, we find it necessary to bring these authors' work out of obscurity and must therefore resort to an unaccustomed amount of overview and plot summary--from which wa Nyatetu-Waigwa's book is not exempt. At the same time we wish to use the theoretical tools that have become commonplace for writers who enjoy canonical status. In the case of an already well-known author, we are used to being able quickly to focus on the relevant details of the primary text. Wa Nyatetu-Waigwa accomplishes these seemingly paradoxical tasks as expeditiously as might be possible.
In perusing the bibliography, I saw that in addition to Turner's The Forest of symbols, wa Nyatetu-Waigwa employs a number of other theoretical texts from the Western cultural tradition. You'll encounter such household names as Stephen Ausband, Joseph Campbell, Richard Terdiman and Tzvetan Todorov. The body of the text itself makes frequent allusions to Freud and even Judaeo-Christian notions. A still unresolved question remains. To what extent is it advisable or desirable to map Western paradigms onto non-Western cultural artifacts? That wa Nyatetu-Waigwa is an insider makes this move more credible than is often the case. Additionally, Turner, whose thought informs most of the book, grounded his ideas in careful study of the Ndembu of Zambia. This grounding makes the application of his theories perhaps even more appropriate to analysis of African literature than to Western literature.
Wa Nyatetu-Waigwa has chosen three male authors for her study. Although liminality in the specific form intended by Turner might not pertain quite as directly to the work of African women authors, clearly the idea would help to elucidate certain elements in the works of, say, Aminata Sow Fall and Mariama Bâ. In their writings, women are certainly involved in Bildung and in threshold experiences no less striking than those of Samba in l'Aventure ambigüe.
This problem is addressed indirectly in the chapter entitled "In the Father's Image?" Wa Nyatetu-Waigwa here lays out a critique of African patriarchy through reference to the three novels. But there is only a hint both in the novels and in her study at relationships with the mother. This hint is expressed more forthrightly on wa Nyatetu-Waigwa's dedication page in her book. It will be interesting, perhaps in her future publications, to read equally eloquent and insightful perspectives on the liminal place in the African woman's journey.
Fittingly, the final chapter's title is an intertextual reference to Jack Kerouac's On the Road. From the passivity and mere potentiality inherent in the liminal phase of cultural and individual development, wa Nyatetu-Waigwa demonstrates how these three novels cautiously suggest forward movement and perhaps a safe arrival.
Contrary to many postcolonial studies, this investigation of African culture and of the African literary hero who is often torn between conflicting forces contains not the slightest insinuation of patronizing or of academic opportunism. It is written with care, the genuine concern of an insider with solid insight. Wa Nyatetu-Waigwa's inquiry also expresses a fragile, realistic hope for the African continent and its peoples. Perhaps this kind of careful scholarship and teaching of African and other francophone literature may not be as trendy as some would like, but it will serve to make francophone studies more than just a passing fad, transforming it into a serious, permanent field.
The Peregrine Reader edited by Mikel Vause and Carl Porter. Layton, UT: Gibbs-Smith, 1997, 346 pp., $29.95 (cloth), $19.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Neal W. Kramer, Assistant Dean of General Education and Honors, Brigham Young University
Over the past decade, students from across the country have participated in the National Undergraduate Literature Conference sponsored by Weber State University. In addition to reading and responding to their own literary critical essays, poetry, and fiction, these students have had the extraordinary opportunity to meet and learn from many of America's most respected writers. The Peregrine Reader is a collection of these authors' short stories, poems, and essays presented at the conference. While its origins alone make this anthology worth reading, the breadth and uniform excellence of the selections make it a valuable introduction to contemporary American literature. Readers already familiar with the authors represented in the book will be delighted to discover so much good work under a single cover, while those less familiar with the current American literary scene will find The Peregrine Reader to be a solid introduction to many of today's best and most-awarded writers.
The Reader itself has two related purposes. The first is to present actual works of literature (fiction and poetry) by writers of proven quality. Stories and poems by E. L. Doctorow, John Barth, John Edgar Wideman, Raymond Carver, Carolyn Forche, Maxine Kumin, Catherine Bowman, and Tess Gallagher, among many others, more than fulfill that goal. Secondly, the Reader presents essays about reading and writing. Many of these essays were composed specifically for the Conference and appear in print here for the first time. Their inclusion is a highlight of the anthology.
In the introduction, Mikel Vause, co-editor, addresses the role of reading and writing in contemporary society. Referring to comments by Ray Bradbury, Vause suggests that our civilization faces a significant crisis of literacy. One infers from his concern a deeper worry that people are losing, if ever developing, the critical thinking skills necessary to engage and evaluate the mass of information that confronts us daily. In the absence of a culture that values careful critical reading, all of us will become ever more subject to wily manipulators who prefer easy popularity to genuine depth of thought.
Part of the power of literature stems from its presentation of the conflicts inherent in personal and family life, as well as its encouragement to think seriously about how such conflicts may be resolved. The Reader is noteworthy for its inclusion of so many works deliberately focused on modern family life in all of its manifestations. Perhaps the most inventive and compelling of the short stories is John Edgar Wideman's "newborn thrown in trash and dies" (328333). Inspired by an all-too-typical newspaper account of a mini-tragedy in America's inner cities, the story presents a first-person narrative of what an abandoned and dying newborn child might say to us if it had a voice.
Heart-rending and soul-provoking, the story reminds us of the compelling value of all human life, but also of the bitter hopelessness of big city poverty and isolation. A single sentence, spoken longingly by the newborn narrator, encapsulates the pathos and the tragedy Wideman so skillfully portrays: "Since my portion's less than a day, less than those insects called ephemera receive, born one morning dead the next, and I can't squeeze a complete life cycle as they do into the time allotted, I wish today were Christmas" (331).
The Peregrine Reader is a fine tribute to the National Undergraduate Literature Conference. But more than that, it is also a strong reminder of the qualities of good writing and the joys of good reading. Literary art does invite us to think more carefully about what it means to be truly human(e). It invites us to look beneath the veneer of popular style to discover the truthful foundation of more meaningful living. The writers of fiction and poetry in this Reader are to be commended for reminding us, yet again, that this is so.
Mark Twain & William James: Crafting a Free Self by Jason Gary Horn. Columbia, MO: U of Missouri P, 1996, 189 pp., $34.95 (cloth).
Reviewed by Richard H. Cracroft, Department of English, Brigham Young University
Reading Jason Gary Horn's analysis of Mark Twain, William James, and the impact of their shared interest in psychic phenomena not only unsettles some once settled notions about Twain's despairing state of mind in the last two decades of his life, but suggests that there is more going on "between heaven and earth," at least in regard to Twain's much maligned Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and his unfinished No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, than we had dreamed possible in Twain's philosophy.
Horn offers persuasive evidence that these two works are Twain's late and hopeful affirmations of the possibility of freedom and agency amidst the demands of cosmic determinism, conditioning, or, as he called it, "Training." In his late-blooming friendship with pioneer psychologist William James, begun in 1892 and lasting through the rest of their lives, Twain found affirmation and support for what Horn calls Twain's "long-standing belief in a
divided self" and his growing interest in the layers of human consciousness and associated psychic phenomena. Horn carefully establishes that Twain read, annotated, or was familiar with James's important works: The Principles of Psychology (1890), Psychology: The Briefer Course (1892), and The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902),resulting in a shift in Twain's increasingly dark, deterministic thinking, so that Twain, "as he matured, would actually dwell more upon intuition's faith in an inner power" (19) than upon the claims of determinism.
Following the discussion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Horn sees as "an opening view into Tawin's concept of a divided self" (30), Horn makes his most notable contribution to Twain studies in his groundbreaking analysis of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896) and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. In Joan of Arc Twain overcomes "his own deterministic forebodings" to model, in Joan, a Self that is potentially free to act and to exert will. In an explication which enriches our understanding of this neglected historical novel, Horn shows how Joan frees her Self through her ultimate appropriation of and submission to "the will of the divine other" (152) to become an existential hero who embodies Twain's and James's faith in "the power of subliminal thought to carry us further than conscious deliberations," out to the "fringe," there to become part of that "stream of thought" or experience that "floats just beyond our current ideas." Joan's submission to subliminal Selves dramatizes for Twain "those vital forces lying latent within each individual"our "untried capacities for creative and independent thought" (104). Through Joan, Twain arguescontrary to his generally deterministic viewsfor "an independent center or axis of creativity and freedom within each person" (104), and he views Joan's "voices" as an essentially "religious effort to free the divine within" (105).
In examining No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger under this light of Jamesian psychology, Horn's findings are similarly elucidating. In No. 44, however, Horn shows that Twain's task is not so much one "of enacting one's freedom, or even defining it, but of imagining a world in which that freedom can exist" (105). As Horn demonstrates, No. 44 is Twain's culminating exploration of the free and divine inner selves, as well as his struggle to resolve the clash between human freedom and cosmic determinism. In No. 44 as in Joan of Arc, as Horn argues, Twain draws both his readers and his heroes into "transformative encounters with the subliminal other" (144) and suggests that human freedom can be found amidst the complex forces of cosmic determinism.
In context with Twain's other late writings, however, this fictional outcropping of existential freedom from an apparently larger vein of dark determinism, while valuable in illuminating Joan of Arc and No. 44, remains puzzling and inconsistently anomalous.