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Dear Friends,

On Austen-l and Janeites, we've had a revealing thread on an article Emily Auerbach published in an online journal on Twain's well-known strong distaste for Austen.  I was not surprised to find the man on Austen-l and Janeites who repeatedly writes on Austen in such a way as to make the texts reflect  a masculine sexuality and place them in a context of famous male texts took up Auerbach's argument delightedly:  Twain was only teasing, and really loved Austen, read her continually (!)  It's a piece of special pleading in line with her anti-political (which means conservative) book, In Search of Jane Austen:  she positions herself with those who trivialize the strong dislike some males manifest to books  by Austen and aspects of her image (spinster, very intelligent, ironic, dry):  sometimes insecure sexually, but more often variously bored, threatened and irritated, resentful of texts which seem to stand for all that in women's culture seeks to control their sexual impulses to put them at the service of women's needs and a nuanced ethical morality and mannered way of life.

Reading just Twain's comments in the jotted notes (ferreting them out of Auerbach's piece) beyond the frank hatred sent to Howells one see he dislikes Austen.   Twain sees how awful are the awful characters but he also dislikes the good characters; from the texts quoted by Auerbach he plainly doesn't like S&S. He can't stand its central heroine, Elinor for example. It's a dark book and you might think he could swallow it but it's too woman-cented and the sex kept too under control for him: the woman's point of view is central to the book, how exploited and vulnerable & the masculinity reshaped so we have sensitive aimiable "worthy" men.

Auerbach calls the piece an article she's quoting from but to me the notes read like the kind of thing a person writes in a commonplace book. Writers keep commonplace books. Perhaps Howells was trying to persuade Twain to give Austen a chance; Howells admired Austen and may be said to have writen Austen-, and James-like books American style.

The Howells argument is a red herring too.  Howells and Twain were good friends and Howells would not misunderstand Twain. It's a long complicated friendship but to take the most famous example, when Twain got so drunk on one social occasion and made a fool out of himself, and was condemned by others, Howells understood the man had been mortified and disliked the snobbery and felt very uncomfortable around it. Hence his overreaction in drinking too much. The scene is written up by Howells in The Rise of Silas Lapham. Twain could have been teasing Howells but in context these are harsh, shrill condemnations and they resemble D. H. Lawrence's diatribes.

In her book In Search of Jane Austen Auerbach shows a disposition to be against "policitized" criticism which is a stalking horse phrase for assuring readers they will find a conventional establishment point of view as to morality. In this article she in effect shows she is someone not at all concerned with feminism or women readers or men's approaches to women's books -- the sort of scathing reviews we've seen of the recent unsexy Emma by Sandy Welch, a return to a woman's film adaptation of Austen -- I would like to compare it with Fay Weldon's myself and will eventually.

I see this essay as part of Auerbach's antipolitical agenda. Her book is good but she's never ever heard of feminism.  She trivializes: "grumbling."  How quaint he is, and how we should laugh.  She's not at all bothered by men who won't watch Emma Thompson but prefer action movies. She doesn't give the inferences of all this. It's worse than special pleading; it has a reverse agenda against candor and truth about how men regard women's art. I'm not saying men should not like action-adventure films nor have to like costume dramas and film adaptations.

This is a significant agenda she presents -- and hurts women writers and women's art. The sexual distaste here not just by Twain but the two men who write more softly whom she quotes in her conclusions is at the core of why in situations where 90% of the editors and publishers are men, hardly anything by women gets published, why women's movies are regularly dissed.  That's what's important about what they write and also this special pleading. The kind of reaction to the recent Emma 2009 (read Gill, a British journalist) comes out of the same gut reaction. This new Emma represents a return to the unsexualized feminine take on Austen of the 1970s and early 1980 mini-series on BBC.  The two actors playing Mr Knightley and Mr Elton (Jonny Lee Miller and Blake Ritson respectively) were Edmund Bertram in the last two MPS (1999, 2007): they have no wet shirt moments, are not presented doing super-explicit masculine acts (like chopping wood, shooting animals, playing male games indoors); they are neither macho male in type nor sensual-sensibility types; the women in the series are dressed in a 2009 return to Hugh Thompson type illustrations. Fussy.  From the over-the-top hostile reactions to this Emma, we see Twain's point of view is common.  His frankness is not, that's all.

But he was not writing for publication we should remember but to a trusted friend candidly.

The attitude of Auerbach is shared by other women who want to get into print.  All four big awards to women this year went to women whose books eschew all women's issues; Mantel's Wolf Hall has a male narrator who is deeply conservative sexually and there is no critique of that at all. This is how Helen Vendler made her career; she persists in erasing as worthless hundreds of years of great poetry by women. By writing this way Auerbach cannot hurt her career :)

Another angle here that makes me write is this way of trivializing and reversing Twain's (and Lawrence and Nabokov) feeds into the sexing up of Austen by commercial and other people.  It erases the real reasons for some virulent dislike one comes across of Austen repeatedly and so leaves the way for claiming Austen is sexy and wow men can and do read and like her.  So she's okay.

Of Twain's works I like best myself his Life on the Mississippi, a great American book of the land and culture.  I also like some of his short stories, especially the gem "Journalism in Tennessee," not enough reprinted.  Huckleberry Finn is an American masterpiece but I've had experience with black students deeply hurt by it so I no longer teach it.  He would not be grateful for such an article about himself. He'd probably make fun of it though from what angle I leave others to imagine.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 29th, 2009 01:46 pm (UTC)
Not an Online Journal
"On Austen-l and Janeites, we've had a revealing thread on an article Emily Auerbach published in an online journal on Twain's well-known strong distaste for Austen."

VQR is not "an online journal." We are an 85-year-old quarterly magazine that happens to have a website.

-Waldo Jaquith, VQR
Oct. 29th, 2009 03:06 pm (UTC)
Yes it's Virginia Quarterly Review. That makes no difference to my reading of the article. E.M.
Oct. 30th, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)
Fascinating! I've read Auerbach's book, including this article, and I had to say I wasn't that convinced by her argument.

I'm a bit confused about what a specifically “male” or “female” sexuality are. And why “anti-political” means “conservative” - wouldn't that mean more “anti-subversive”? And interestingly, though as someone of a more reactionary political bent, I have a more socially constructive/reinforcing view of Austen's novels, this blogger does as well, despite being definitely not reactionary in her politics. And despite my general sympathy for such politics as Auerbach may possess or read into Austen, I find most of her book a) irritatingly simplistic, and b) not very well-argued. If I wanted to find a serious critical analysis of Austen as a reactionary or socially reinforcing author, I'd rather read Butler or Duckworth, who are a whole lot more careful in their readings, I think.

Though I think some of the negativity in response to both Austen (it's come out in reviews of all the new adaptations) is complex, involving: a) contempt of the “mainstream” for the “cult” or “fan group” of Janeites; b) the ever-present misogyny of our culture; c) the anti-intellectualism of our culture.

Since I found out about Twain's comments on Austen, I've rather hated him. Not to mention his affinity for cruel humor, as I find cruelty distasteful rather than funny. We shall see what I think of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court when I have to read it for school.
Oct. 31st, 2009 05:11 am (UTC)
In response
Dear Ian,

It seems to me male sexuality is different from female: the way sex is looked at is partly the result of biology and partly experience and both are different: to be brief, biologically, males stress penetration and genital sex as a center and women have a more wholistic view; women can't rape men and men can rape women (and men too). As to experience, the society constructs so much we do differently. And all this is reflected in books. Thoughtful people can overcome this by imagination, but Twain was not one of them.

I take an apolitical text to be conservative because it accept the status quo implicitly. It's the default setting. The point of deconstruction was to show how literature had for ages except for occasional groups of poltical radicals been pro-establishment. I know the blogger and would say she's very conservative and it has helped her career too -- as well as who she was born to and her connections (she dines with bankers :) )

I did like a good deal of _In Search of Austen_ after the initial opening hectoring chapter. I liked her exegeses of the books once I got into each chapter, especially the one on _MP_.

You could say what I am identifying here is misogyny, but as you say the misogyny is often there and general. This is specific, a specific response to a specific text so I'm identifying it, connecting it to professed tastes and suggesting it is part of what leads to so many fewer women's texts being respected, lasting, and so few women getting into positions of power in the arts. A gut distaste on the part of males for a certain kind of female art is what we are talking about -- now I've made a kind of reverse formulation of my header.

Nov. 2nd, 2009 03:51 am (UTC)
I can see what you're saying about male sexuality - though I tend to lean more heavily on the constructed end of the scale, and view the biological one on more of a spectrum, but I do think you have a point. I think, however, that to say women can't rape men is rather dangerous - I agree that it's much, much less common, but to deny the existence of female rape (of both men and women) is very dangerous.

I also take your point about the default position being conservative. However, I think Ms. Nussanbaum would be more than a little offended if you called her conservative (and I'm not sure what dining with bankers has to do with being conservative) - and as someone whe most definitely self-identifies as a conservative, I would not call her in any way one.

And I actually have been thinking a bit about the reaction to the whole Pride and Prejudice and Zombies thing - and I think there are connections. Austen is, I think, a somewhat marginalized member of the canon for two reasons: a) female; b) popular. So there's misogyny and elitism at work saying that it's okay to do things to her work that it's not okay to do with "serious male" (like Twain - though I've found a Zombie version of Huck Finn recently) author.
Oct. 31st, 2009 01:12 pm (UTC)
Howells and Twain -- a complicated relationship
Another aspect of this: I thought of another aspect of Twain and Howell's relationship: not only did Howells write in a way that links his novels to Jane Austen; he's a sort of Henry James in easier style. James and Twain are very far apart in attitude, style, world-view, and type of book. Howells was friends with both (not easy to do): partly it was in their interest to keep his friendship as he was also an influential editor of important journals of the day. He got to choose what would be printed and what not, what was reviewed and what not, and I remember his choices (understandably) would irritate Twain. So there's a professional and different kind of personal (meaning not just about their friendship but what Howells was willing to publish and what he pushed) level of meaning going on in Twain's frank attack.

I have taught Twain a number of times (his short stories are frequently anthologized nowadays) and myself (unusual for this) assigned novels by Howells to classes several times (_A Modern Instance_ about a divorce; A new Hazard of Fortunes, about a strike in NYC in the 1890s; the Rise of Silas Lapham, which has a character who is partly modelled on Twain at its center) and we had a Howells season on Trollope19thCStudies (the new name of this list) for three months once and I read a good biography; Howells began as a travel writer and wrote a campaign biography for Lincoln; he was a socialist and had a nervous breakdown early on). James I love -- now he did not appreciate Twain nor Twain him (like H. G. Wells making fun), but that's another story.

Nov. 1st, 2009 11:26 am (UTC)
More on debate
Over on Janeites, I've continued debating this and someone objected that Twain was not an anti-feminist and said she didn't understand how this kind of article "feeds" into the sexing up of Jane Austen's work. So here are answers to these two new objections

I didn't say Twain was antifeminist: my argument is his repugnance at the kind of book Austen writes is the same sort of response that underlies rejection by many men of certain kinds of women's books and arts. These come down to several areas: it includes subjective fiction, fiction interested in nuances of domestic life, the whole genre of costume drama and film adaptations (which are associated with women). But in the case of Twain's remark it is anger at sexual control and manners intended to keep men behaving towards women in a non-abrasive subdued way. It's been argued (and I agree) that we find in Austen's and other books of her era redefinition of masculinity which is anti-macho male; one of the strong places for this is in her hero type.

Now this can be used by anti-feminists. That's so and anyone who wants to bring an end to ideals of civility and courtesy and sexual control of men such as a we see in Austen.

On why I think this "feeds" into the sexualization of Austen. The resentment of the Twain types is precisely in the area of sex. As they see this fiction or type of fiction, he-men sensual males are not wanted. So to trivialize Twain and say he didn't mean it helps those who want to sex up Austen -- as they do in the 1990s film because it dismisses the male response as unreal or grumbling or ironic -- they don't really mean it is a particulary useful ploy. It denies the idea that Austen is not sexy or laughs at Twain as "grumbling" for saying it's not quite sexy enough, and so leads the way to gradually sexing her up.


Edited at 2009-11-01 11:41 am (UTC)
Nov. 2nd, 2009 12:42 pm (UTC)
Ian, women don't have a penis. Men are not biologically rapable. A woman in power can hire men to beat, torture, humiliate and kill men; she can't rape a man. I don't think it's dangerous to say this at all; in fact, women are vulnerable and their very sexuality open to abuse because of the way they are literally constructed (not to forget the state of pregnancy which makes her weak and childbirth which endangers her life).

I don't know that the blogger would be bothered. She has a fine position and from the people round her table you can see she would probably not worry about what I've written. Her blog justifies her conservatism at its close candidly.

I agree that there is an implication afloat it's okay to do what you want to Austen's romances; it's made explicit by her fans (it's exulted in at the snarky Austenblog).

Nov. 2nd, 2009 03:37 pm (UTC)
I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.
Nov. 4th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
Okay. I'll just rejoin with this by Jenny Diski, a brave and cogent column in the 30th anniversary issue of the LRB:


She takes on and deals with every exculpatory argument put forward by the Polanski- and movie-life promoters, and then relates it all to personal experience.

See also my other blog:


And from the great new anthology, Poems from the Women's Movement:

Rape Poem

by Marge Piercy

There is no difference between being raped
and being pushed down a flight of cement steps
except that the wounds also bleed inside.

There is no difference between being raped
and being run over by a truck
except that afterward men ask if you enjoyed it.

There is no difference between being raped
and being bit on the ankle by a rattlesnake
except that people ask if your skirt was short
and why you were out alone anyhow.

There is no difference between being raped
and going head first through a windshield
except that afterward you are afraid
not of cars
but half the human race.

The rapist is your boyfriend's brother.
He sits beside you in the movies eating popcorn.
Rape fattens on the fantasies of the normal male
like a maggot in garbage.

Fear of rape is a cold wind blowing
all of the time on a woman's hunched back.
Never to stroll alone on a sand road through pine woods,
never to climb a trail across a bald
without that aluminum in the mouth
when I see a man climbing toward me.

Never to open the door to a knock
without that razor just grazing the throat.
The fear of the dark side of hedges,
the back seat of the car, the empty house
rattling keys like a snake's warning.
The fear of the smiling man
in whose pocket is a knife.
The fear of the serious man
in whose fist is locked hatred

All it takes to cast a rapist to be able to see your body
as a jackhammer, as blowtorch, as adding-machine-gun.
All it takes is hating that body
own, your self, your muscle that softens to flab.

All it takes is to push what you hate,
what you fear onto the soft alien flesh.
To bucket out invincible as a tank
armored with treads without senses
possess and punish in one act,
rip up pleasure, to murder those who dare
live in the leafy flesh open to love.

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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