Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction and the US Welfare State

January 8, 2009

When Bronson Alcott took his children off to a commune with instructions not to eat meat or wear animal products, the little Alcotts, freezing on a diet of apples while wearing politically correct linen in a New England winter, might well have welcomed the intervention of a social worker. Louisa nevertheless went on to produce the tear-jerkingly sentimental Little Women, as well as the no-punches-pulled satire Transcendental Wild Oats. Bronson, however, pales beside Wendell Ryder, the protagonist of Djuna Barnes' Ryder (1928), loosely based on Barnes' father, Wald, an ardent polygamist, and admirer of Henry Thoreau, free love and aeronautics. While Wendell's aged mother writes sentimental begging letters to support them in comfort, Wendell occupies the moral high ground of reform, successfully facing down social workers and the school board to maintain himself in polygamous idleness. In the novel, Barnes indicates continuity between mid-19th-century models of utopian experiment and reform and turn-of-the-century reform measures that the Ryders resist.

In Susan Edmunds' reading (the keynote of a thought-provoking study that is a must-read for anyone with serious literary interests in the home-market-state nexus), Ryder exemplifies how modernist fiction calls into question the sentimental project that maternalist reformers embedded in the founding propositions of the US welfare state. Rather as today, "hard-working families" are the mythical beneficiaries of government largesse, maternalism extended domestic ideals into public life, establishing social controls over the home by setting up a common model of (white) family life. The mother's begging letters use the same discursive strategies employed by progressive reformers, highlighting faultless widows and orphans, stay-at-home mothers and childhood innocence.

Instead, modernist novels embrace grotesque modes of representation to denaturalise the sentimental. Thus Edna Ferber's eugenicist American Beauty (1931) challenges the nativist understanding of the home as a crucial site for turning Southern and Eastern European immigrants into white Americans. In contrast, in American Beauty, a decayed New England family is rejuvenated through the combined efforts of vigorous Poles and the European members of a travelling "freak" show, who form an alternative elective family, superior in economic, childrearing and culinary skills. With her kindly bearded face flushed above her homely apron, Bonita the Bearded Lady cooks up a storm.

Edmunds offers convincing and original readings of Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), delineating the ambivalent results of the reformist emphasis on African-American respectability, and the ways in which middle-class domestic norms police a population denied the resources to uphold those norms; Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio (written in 1932 and 1974) which shows how sentimental values, downclassed by the literary avant-garde, were promptly imposed on the working class; Nathanael West's 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust (sentimental melodrama and the new consumer culture); and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood (1952), which parodies the welfare state's secular project of social amelioration.

Throughout the book, the argument is meticulously historicised, linking literary texts to welfare and social security policies, children's clinics, home-instruction manuals, sterilisation laws, civil rights, progressivism and the New Deal. It is a simply stunning book, expanding and critiquing Michael Szalay and Sean McCann's re-evaluations of the relation of literature to the New Deal and the welfare state. Only one reservation occurs: the focus is entirely American and no account is taken of recent arguments by Daniel T. Rogers for the shared evolution of the welfare state in Europe and the US. Readers would also do well to read Edmunds in tandem with Bruce Robbins' Upward Mobility and the Common Good, which appeared shortly before her own book, and which offers a penetrating Gramscian analysis of how sympathetic feeling can provide a means of resistance to the state.

Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out

Edited by Emily Monosson

Cornell University Press, 232pp, £12.50

ISBN 9780801446641

Published 1 June 2008

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