YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 10, 2012

Androgyny, with an aside on Edna Ferber

Kleo, by Kremena Ivanova

“Receptiveness is a rare and massive power, like fortitude; and this state of mind now gave Deronda’s face its utmost expression of calm benignant force—“  [Ch.24,  Daniel Deronda, 1876, by George Eliot, nom de plume for Marianne Evans]

I read a lot, but rarely does a sentence such as George Eliot’s stick in my mind as a life lesson. I’m not sure we mean the same thing by “fortitude” (its religious meaning is to soldier on as vessels of God’s will), but if she means a kind of courage and honor that women usually attribute to men, then I am with her in her suggestion of androgyny. For every artistic person must combine the qualities often assigned either to men (fortitude) or to women (receptiveness).

In reading and teaching the literature of the past, militantly gay academics, journalists, and critics, have detected closeted gays in 19th century literature. We were not there, so cannot evaluate such annexations to the (male) gay project, but in the case of Herman Melville, it is possible that he was simply androgynous, blending the receptiveness and fortitude recommended by George Eliot. Melville’s British admirer, James Thomson (“B.V.”), was thinking of Eliot when Thomson wrote his famously pessimistic poem “The City of Dreadful Night”: the Queen who ruled this godless, desperate place, was none other than Eliot! See my essay https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/, where I quote an interchange between Thomson and Eliot, also from his poetry. For misogynistic images linking Gorgon, vagina dentata, and androgynes as Pierrot figures, see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/assorted-degenerates/.

In the past month or so, I have been reading some of the major novels of a 20th century successor to George Eliot, the famed best-selling author Edna Ferber (1885-1968) who, unlike George Eliot, never shacked up with a man (Eliot’s love was Goethe biographer George Henry Lewes, 1817-1878). Indeed, Ferber’s spinsterhood is in doubt among some younger critics, who deduce that she must have been a lesbian. But in the case of Ferber, it is crucial to go back to her texts and to her autobiography in order to evaluate her status as a feminist and antiracist avant la lettre.

I have read in this order, Showboat (1926), Giant (1952), So Big (1924), and her first autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure (1938), also Ferber (1978),  a semi-debunking biography by her great niece Julie Goldsmith Gilbert, who reveals her as a closet racist, and a mother- and-sister-hater, as well as a probable lover of several men. In the 1938 autobiography, though she has been writing as a regionalist and a friend to the “common man”, she suddenly comes out as an indignant ueber-Jew, furious with Hitler for Kristallnacht. And yet, she rejects her father, the small businessman (of Eastern Europe extraction and owner of a dry-goods store) in favor of her German Jewish ancestry through mother, which is ever so much more aristocratic in their tastes. Her most appalling villain is a New England Puritan (with all the Hebraic characteristics assigned to them), “Parthy”—Magnolia’s penny-pinching mother in Showboat.

It happens that aristocratic women in Europe were not only educated, but were influential behind the scenes, if we are to believe the 19th Century novels of Benjamin Disraeli, who glorifies and adores them (see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/04/disraelis-captive-queens/) . Similarly, in Ferber, her female heroines are remarkably persevering, outspoken, and progressive in all their social views; they are autodidacts like herself; they also are not great beauties. But most remarkably, they conquer their hidebound conservative antagonists with wit, compassion, endurance, and the power of their arguments, i.e., they are admitted to boy’s clubs to take off the rough edges. Would that all outspoken women were so persuasive, or all plain women so beloved by men.

In real life, Ferber adopted all the traits of the traditional woman eager to please various establishments: she had a nose job, was a fashion plate, threw herself into home decoration, gourmet food, and grand dinner parties; but most importantly, ingratiated herself with the leading WASP progressives and assimilated Jewish businessmen-artists (such as “Dicky” Rogers or his half-Jewish collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II, whose lyrics could not be more traditional in the subordination of women to men). As an aesthete and a moralist, Ferber lived out the European tradition of the aristocratic woman who pulls the strings behind the scenes. Or was she the puppet of social forces and inner drives that she had yet to master? (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/.)

On the illustration: the two white lines on the right of the image are probably damage to the post card I scanned, advertising a student art show at El Camino College.

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