“Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors” by Nina Baym

24Dec04

In this piece, Baym criticizes literary theorists for excluding female authors from the canon. Because of the United States’ split from Britain, the earliest American literary critics had no criteria by which to judge American literature—relying on British standards would have been traitorous. Thus, critics had to judge literature based on its “Americanness.” Literature of America should reflect the experience of America and, thus, the ultimate subject of the work must be America as a nation. This definition has two consequences, according to Baym: 1) stories about universal experiences are excluded and 2) detailed portrayals of some aspect of American life are also excluded.

Eventually “the essential quality of America comes to reside in its unsettled wilderness and the opportunities that such a wilderness offers to the individual as the medium on which he may inscribe, unhindered, his own destiny and his own nature.” This concept of Americanness is the ultimate perpetrator of the exclusion of women from the canon. Within novels that explore this “unsettled wilderness” women are often portrayed as the enemy. Women are the socializing forces that prevent the (male) main character from exploring this wilderness and creating his own destiny. While the evil encroaching force of society is feminized, the wilderness is feminized as well, but as compliant and supportive rather than destructive (as society is portrayed).

Essentially, Baym claims that critics have defined Americanness to represent the male psyche.

I found Baym’s argument mildly interesting, but a little too essentialist for my taste. There was too much of “men write this way and women would never do that.” Until the very last paragraph of her article, she seems to ignore the fact that male writers who have contradicted the “Americanness” concept as defined by literary critics and are also often excluded from the canon.

How do the American women usually included in the canon—Anne Bradstreet, Sarah Kemble Knight, and Emily Dickinson—clear the hurdles which this narrowly defined concept of Americanness has erected?

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