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Saturday, October 31, 2020

October 31-November 1, 2020: Robin Field’s Guest Post on Toni Morrison & The Rape Novel

[Robin Field is Professor of English at King’s College in Pennsylvania and a longtime friend of AmericanStudier. This post is linked to her recently published, awesome book Writing the Survivor: The Rape Novel in Late Twentieth-Century American Fiction, and it originally appeared on the Liverpool University Press blog this past week.]

“Quiet as it’s kept”: How The Bluest Eye Inaugurated a New Genre of Fiction 50 Years Ago

The Bluest Eye was released on October 29, 1970. Toni Morrison’s masterful first novel received accolades in Kirkus Review, which called the book a “quiet chronicle of garrotted innocence.” Morrison’s novel about three little Black girls was “perhaps the least likely, least commercially viable story one could tell at the time,” according to Hilton Als in The New Yorker. As Morrison’s literary star rose, The Bluest Eye was recognized for its nuanced depiction of racism and the fetishization of white beauty standards. The novel is now often taught in high schools and universities; but with its popularity comes criticism. The novel appeared on the American Library Association’s “Top 10 Most Challenged Books” list as recently as 2014 for content deemed too graphic for impressionable young people—for Morrison’s novel depicts the rape of a Black girl by her father, the birth and death of her baby, and her fall into madness.

Morrison’s first novel also inaugurates a new genre of American fiction called the rape novel, which I describe in Writing the Survivor: The Rape Novel in Late Twentieth-Century American Fiction. Before 1970, most depictions of rape in American fiction offered the perspective of the perpetrator enjoying the violence and pain he forced upon a woman. The rape novel instead portrays rape as a violent crime enacting physical and psychological damage upon the victim-survivor. By focusing upon the person harmed, rather than the perpetrator of the violence, the rape novel challenges long-standing misconceptions about rape and disallows a voyeuristic gaze that turns sexual violence into pornographic titillation.

One notorious example of this pornographic voyeurism appears in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), where the Black father Jim Trueblood salaciously describes raping his daughter to a transfixed white man. In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes back against “the male ‘glamour of shame’ rape is (or once was) routinely given” (215). Pecola, the eleven-year-old raped by her father Cholly, is driven mad by her father’s assaults and her mother’s refusal to believe what happened. Morrison demonstrates the predominant understandings of rape in the 1970s that blaming the victim for her trauma is easier than trying to understand it. This attitude is epitomized by the reaction of Pecola’s community, as the adults say, “[Pecola] carry some of the blame” and “How come she didn’t fight him?” (189). Such reactions, coming so quickly on the heels of the rape scene that leaves a young girl unconscious on the kitchen floor, underscore how the trauma of rape can be compounded by the callousness of others.  

As a rape novel, The Bluest Eye replaces the pornographic titillation seen in novels such as Invisible Man with the pain of the violated victim-survivor. Yet Morrison, like other authors in the mid-twentieth century, still uses the perspective of the rapist, Cholly, during the scene of the assault. Morrison later recognized the problematics of omitting Pecola’s consciousness, writing in the Afterword of the 1993 edition that the novel does not “handle effectively the silence at its center: the voice that is Pecola’s ‘unbeing.’ It should have had a shape—like the emptiness left by a boom or a cry” (215). Like Maxine Hong Kingston, who portrays another voiceless rape victim in The Woman Warrior (1976), Morrison focuses upon the community’s reaction to the rape. “[T]he victim,” writes Morrison, “does not have the vocabulary to understand the violation or its context.” (214)

The words and the contexts come in the 1980s, when the first-person perspective of the rape victim speaks from the pages of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) and Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989). Through reading the harrowing details of sexual violence, readers in the 1980s learned to resist rape myths and support victim-survivors through their processes of physical and psychological recovery. In the 1990s, stories of incest—such as Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1992) and Sapphire’s Push (1996)—implemented complex narrative strategies mimicking certain aspects of traumatic memories. In the twenty-first century, with compassion and understanding for female victim-survivors fully established on the page, the rape novel begins telling the stories of the men and boys who have been raped.

 Morrison’s The Bluest Eye begins with the words, “Quiet as it’s kept…” (5). Certainly in 1970, the victim-survivor’s story of rape and incest was rarely told with compassion and honesty. Fifty years later, the rape novel as a genre has created community through shared stories and urged social change through education and activism. Today, this activism appears off the page as survivors of all genders have spoken out against perpetrators of sexual violence. Tarana Burke’s phrase “Me Too” has created a community of victim-survivors and an activist movement, about which she recently tweeted “every one that cares about the lives of survivors and wants to bring an end to sexual violence can #acttoo.” Quiet no longer, thanks to the revolutionary words of Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye.

[Election series starts Monday,


October 31-November 1, 2020: October 2020 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

October 5: Recent Reads: How Much of These Hills is Gold: A series on favorite recent reads kicks off with necessary darknesses, literary legacies, and the optimism of recovery and resistance.

October 6: Recent Reads: The Yellow House: The series continues with three books I’d put in conversation with Sarah Broom’s stunning multi-generational family memoir.

October 7: Recent Reads: Washington Black and The Water Dancer: Two recent historical novels that blur the boundaries between realism and the fantastic, as the series reads on.

October 8: Recent Reads: Civil War Scholarship: Three great public scholarly books that reflect the breadth and depth of current Civil War histories.

October 9: Recent Reads: Susie King Taylor’s Memoir: The series concludes with one of my favorite primary source discoveries for my forthcoming patriotism book.

October 10-11: Crowd-sourced Recent Reads: Another great crowd-sourced post, with a ton of recommendations to keep you reading well into 2021 (should we make it there).

October 12: Confederate Memory: Lee and Longstreet: On the anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s death, a series on Confederate memory starts with the evolution of my views on two generals.

October 13: Confederate Memory: James D. Lynch’s Poetry: The series continues with three poems that illustrate the late 19th century evolution of Confederate memory.

October 14: Confederate Memory: Henry Adams and Henry James: The parallel but not identical Confederate vet protagonists of two 1880s novels, as the series rolls on.

October 15: Confederate Memory: The Shaaras: The benefits and drawbacks of bestselling historical novels about the Civil War.

October 16: Confederate Memory: Flags, Statues, and Names: Why the current debates and changes are long overdue, and why we need to go further still.

October 17-18: Confederate Memory: Adam Domby’s The False Cause: The series concludes with an appreciation of a recent public scholarly book on Confederate memory.

October 19: UN Histories: The League of Nations: For the UN’s 75th anniversary, a series kicks off with how and why the UN’s predecessor failed, and how it succeeded nonetheless.

October 20: UN Histories: World War II: The series continues with why it’s important, and challenging, to remember the UN’s wartime origins.

October 21: UN Histories: Muir Woods: A potent symbolic expression of memory and community, as the series rolls on.

October 22: UN Histories: Secretary Generals: What three representative UN leaders tell us about the organization and its evolving histories.

October 23: UN Histories: Peacekeeping: The series concludes with what we can learn from longstanding and more recent peacekeeping missions.

October 24-25: The World in 2020: A special post on two ways to analyze our global 21st century moment, and the challenge that lies beyond both of them.

October 26: AmericanSpooking: Scary Stories: My annual Halloween series starts with the limitations and possibilities of scary stories.

October 27: AmericanSpooking: Five Frights: The series continues with five of the scariest works in American literary history.

October 28: AmericanSpooking: American Horror Stories: Whether America can have home-grown horror and where we might find it, as the series scares on.

October 29: AmericanSpooking: Last House on the Left: The pioneering horror film that’s more disturbing in what it makes us cheer for than how it makes us scream.

October 30: AmericanSpooking: The Wendigo: The series concludes with the supernatural legend that also offers cross-cultural commentaries.

Special Guest Post goes live in a few hours,


PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, October 30, 2020

October 30, 2020: AmericanSpooking: The Wendigo

[This week’s series is, well, obvious. Your thoughts on American scary stories—real or fictional, artistic or historical, fun or horrifying, and anything else you can think of—will as always be anything but frightening. Boo!]
On the supernatural legend that also offers cultural and cross-cultural commentaries.
I’m not sure what kind of collection it was—whether it was an anthology of folk tales, of scary stories, of cultural myths and legends, of Americana—but I do know that only one story from it impacted this young AmericanStudier enough to stick with me nearly three decades later: an account of a party of hunters in rural Canada encountering the demon known as the Wendigo. I can even remember the way I felt inside when my Dad read the lines about the rising and howling wind, which at least in this version of the tale signaled the imminent arrival of—or perhaps even contained—the creature. Let’s just say that, unlike the boy who left home to find out about the shivers, from then on I knew exactly what that condition felt like, and didn’t need to venture outside of the pages of that very scary story to do so.
So I’m here to tell you that the Wendigo is, first and foremost, a deeply effective scary story. But the creature and story, across their many versions, also offer complex and compelling lenses into American cultures, on two distinct and equally meaningful levels. For one thing, apparently Wendigo stories can be found in the belief systems and communal myths of numerous Algonquin-speaking native tribes across both the United States and Canada, including the Ojibwe, the Cree, the Naskapi, and others. While those tribes share a basic language system, they are as culturally and socially distinct as they are geographically widespread—and yet they share closely parallel images and accounts of these cannibalistic demons of the woods. While we have to be careful about how we read such potentially but ambiguously symbolic shared mythic figures—Joseph Campbell-like, sweeping structuralist pronouncements being largely discredited these days—there seems to be no question that the Wendigo represents a part of the collective identity and perspective of these tribes.
But as they have evolved, Wendigo stories have also come to represent something else, and perhaps even more telling: tales of the perils of cross-cultural exploration and exploitation. That is, in many of the last century’s Wendigo tales, including both the Blackwood one linked above and the one that I remember from my childhood, those being threatened or destroyed by the creature tend to be non-native hunters, often if not always venturing into native territories, encroaching on previously protected or sacred spaces, or otherwise seeking to make their mark on a land not quite their own. Weird Tales such as Blackwood’s often highlight the dangers posed by an sort of spiritual boundary-crossing, so this particular trend is certainly not unique; but in these cases, I’m arguing, the boundaries being crossed are not only spiritual but also, and perhaps more importantly, cultural. Which is to say, while the Wendigo has always been cannibalistic, the particular identity of those upon whom he feasts has significantly, and symbolically, shifted over time.
October Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other scary stories you’d highlight?