As this blog has likely illustrated, I generally find the intersections of AmericanStudies and literary scholarship to be extremely productive, illuminating both works of literature and broader national, historical, and cultural narratives and identities. But the combination is not without its frustrating effects, and to me one of the most annoying—and potentially damaging—is the vein of AmericanStudies scholarship which seeks to categorize works of literature as either resisting/subverting or supporting/upholding traditional social hierarchies and divisions. As Exhibits A and B for that trend I would submit Walter Benn Michaels’ books on naturalism and modernism, in which Michaels argues (respectively) that naturalist novels contributed to the rise of corporate Gilded Age America and that modernist poets and writers participated in their era’s nativism (those are perhaps over-simplifications of Michaels’ main arguments, but I believe they are generally accurate to his ideas).
Certainly it’s possible for a work of literature to serve a direct political or social purpose—I made a case in my first published article for Gone with the Wind (1936), or at least its Reconstruction-set second half, as doing precisely that, as echoing and extending to a much wider audience some of the most mythologized and divisive narratives about Reconstruction and race in America—but to my mind the vast majority of literary texts cannot be boiled down to such overt agendas or goals. That’s even true—in fact, I would argue that it’s especially true—when the texts in question are dealing directly with complex social issues and realities; certainly in those cases we can and should try to understand how a text represents and constructs those issues, and through them what we can learn about the historical and cultural contexts and conversations to which a text connects and which it can help shape and change, but the answers to those questions are rarely going to boil down to a single position or perspective. A particularly rich and complex case study in the relationship between literary texts and social controversies and changes is presented by three and a quarter (or so) novels that comprise the bulk of a brief but unique and very interesting sub-genre of American fiction, the “woman doctor novel”: William Dean Howells’ Dr. Breen’s Practice (1881), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ Dr. Zay (1882), Sarah Orne Jewett’s A Country Doctor (1884), and the character of Dr. Mary Prance in Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886).
The close proximity of these texts’ publications to one another indicates a couple of relevant things: they were all responding to a particular and significant trend, the entrance of women into professions like medicine in meaningful numbers (as related to the rise of women’s colleges in the period, among other connected trends); and they were at least implicitly and sometimes explicitly in conversation with each other (James’s Dr. Prance seems to be a direct response to Jewett’s protagonist, Dr. Nan Prince). Both of those connections can serve as strong starting points for analyses of the novels that go beyond their individual characters and themes and seek to understand their communal relationships and historical and cultural contexts and meanings. Yet having worked at length with Jewett’s novel in a chapter of my first book, and having just finished teaching James’s novel, I can testify that both of those are far too dense and layered to be reducible to a single point about the issue of women in the medical profession; scholars have sometimes tried to reduce Jewett’s novel to precisely such a point, to a pro-woman doctor pamphlet or the like, but I tried in my analysis of it to engage with the significantly more complex histories, identities, and perspectives through which Jewett portrays her protagonist’s heritage and future, life and career.
Far from rendering novels like these meaningless in broader social or cultural conversations, I think such an understanding of their complexities and layers makes them far more valuable; partly that’s because it forces us to analyze them with equal complexity, a far more challenging and enriching task than simply finding and arguing for a particular point, but partly it’s because they can thus serve as reflections of and contributions to the rich and multi-vocal national conversations over social issues and changes related to gender, work, class, education, and many other factors. And those conversations, like the novels themselves, are as relevant to our own moment as they were to theirs. More tomorrow, on two young women who, in very different ways, humanize two very international and political films.
PS. Four links to start with:
1) The full text of Howells’ novel: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3364/3364-h/3364-h.htm
2) The full text of Phelps’: http://www.public.coe.edu/~theller/soj/u-rel/zay.html
3) The full text of Jewett’s: http://www.readbookonline.net/title/8869/
4) OPEN: What’s your take on the relationship between literature and social questions?
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