Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Ralph Waldo, do shut up

Tyler Cowen writes, "Emerson did not care for Jane Austen," quoting his notebooks:
I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched & narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the stories I have read, “Persuasion”, and “Pride & Prejudice”, is marriageableness; all that interests any character introduced is still this one, has he or she money to marry with, & conditions conforming? ‘Tis “the nympholepsy of a fond despair”, say rather, of an English boarding-house. Suicide is more respectable.
But "marriageableness" was the "one problem" for women in English society. Marrying well was the only way to attain a modicum of power. To my mind her stories are about women of agency maneuvering within this very limiting environment to the best of their ability (see also Gone with the Wind).

In Google Reader, Matt Walker commented, "his statement actually sounds pretty feminist, no?" Eh, no. This is the same line of thinking that leads men to trash books by women not on the grounds that they are written by women but because the content is silly and womanly (to quote V.S. Naipual, "feminine tosh"). Oh, if only women would stick to writing about important man issues, we'd have no problem with them dabbling in the finer arts.

Anyway, where's the wit in Emerson? Unless he was joking about that whole transparent eyeball thing.

By the way, I've never read Austen, but feel compelled to defend her against nitwit arguments anyway.

34 comments:

  1. my boyfriend is going to be studying economics under tyler cowen at george mason, but he says cowen is not his particular favorite thinker. after reading this, i'm pretty glad.

    ReplyDelete
  2. oops. i guess it's emerson i'm after, not cowen. a misread.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Well I think Victorian anti-Austen attitudes were just generally related to her ultimately very cynical attitude to human nature. Austen would probably have been irritating to Serious People like Emerson. I prefer, e.g., Auden on Austen as "shocking" ("Letter to Lord Byron"):

    "You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
    Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
    It makes me most uncomfortable to see
    An English spinster of middle class
    Describe the amorous effect of "brass",
    Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
    The economic basis of society."

    Or Terry Castle on Austen as "filthy":

    "The books taught that “[n]othing was sacred…even the grandest and most imposing monuments might be defaced. We were all rolling around in the muck.” She dove in to join her already filthy teachers—Austen, Pope, Swift."

    (And you really should read Austen!)

    ReplyDelete
  4. here's my other comment, for the record:

    "well, he seems to be saying that all her characters care about is marriage and wealth, right? it's similiar to feminist complaints about Sex and the City. he's saying that austen is playing into the conservative patriarchal system. the implication is that he would prefer books about more independent women."

    this is just my hunch as to what the quote means, and i admit i don't know really anything about austen or emerson.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Matt kinda hit it on the nose.

    Emerson's wit, his humor, is very deadpan, very dark. People miss it like they miss it in Melville. It's important to point out he's more commenting on the Englishnessof Austen's characters, not the female sex.

    One eyeball thru which to view Emerson is as a 19th-century George Carlin. Carlin's a straight, white male who still told it straight, especially toward the end of his life.

    Emerson was all about the individual. And he also said, "The individual is always mistaken."

    ReplyDelete
  6. She's not "playing to the conservative patriarchal system" just because she writes about it. I don't see her novels (on a plot level) as celebrating the system, just exposing it.

    Women really didn't have the option of being "more independent."

    ReplyDelete
  7. Carrie, I like Tyler Cowen!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sarang, if she's so shocking I just might!

    ReplyDelete
  9. There's certainly a long history of people criticizing Austen both for her making it clear that the social is consciously constructed by people and also for thinking that paying attention to the daily financial and gender maneuvering of the British aristocratic and middle classes is a worthy subject for literature. Her work goes against the grain both of the 18th and 19th century desire for literature to explore the lofty, as well as being a wild offense to all romantics (large and small r), visionaries, revolutionaries and individualists--most of whom, though not all, are men.

    Emerson, of course, in his deeply American dislike of Europe, would have had that further reason also for rejecting Austen--since the U.S. comes into being as at least partly a rejection of European aristocracy and urbanity of manner, Austen would have represented pretty much everything un-American.

    But the literature of manners and the literature of visionary others seldom get along that well--although it's often women writers like Djuna Barnes and Jean Rhys who explore intersections between those modes. Mark Twain did too, though he often came down on the side of "lighting out for the territories." And it's interesting also to think about more consciously Marxist criticism re this issue--there's more interest in the novel of manners as an analysis of social relations that need to be altered. In that context, Austen would be important "as far as she goes" without actually going far enough.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "She's not "playing to the conservative patriarchal system" just because she writes about it. I don't see her novels (on a plot level) as celebrating the system, just exposing it."

    I also suspect that this is the case (based on the movie adaptations I've seen, which I mostly enjoy). I just want to reiterate that I wasn't saying anything about Austen, but about Emerson's quote on Austen.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I've personally always been bored to tears by the lofty. God and nature, ho hum.

    I did read that Twain didn't like her either, but the same source said Twain didn't like anybody.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Yeah, the problem with reading Austen is that I've already seen all the movies.

    ReplyDelete
  13. There's always Northanger Abbey (which is quite good) or is that a movie too?

    ReplyDelete
  14. If it is, I haven't seen it. Is it supposed to be good?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Masterpiece Theater did all of them in one season a few years ago.

    ReplyDelete
  16. The book? Yes, I remember liking it, it's a send-up of the late 18th cent. Gothic horror book craze. Silly deb ends up in haunted castle where various anticlimactic things happen.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Even if you've seen all the movies, you should definitely read the books, which are funny and smart enough to make it worth it, even if the plots will seem familiar. And I second Sarang's vote for Northanger Abbey--it's satire/parody, but it makes a strong argument about the importance of reading, and learning to read both books and social situations closely and accurately.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thanks for adding your vote, K! I'll add it to my list.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I'm bored by the lofty too, and feel split on whether ideas about God are interesting. But of course being bored by nature is why human beings have polluted the shit out of the place.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I think God must be bored by me.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I don'y love reading Austen--Jane Eyre is more :"fun" for me etc--but I do think she is a genius, and I am not using this in the colloquial sense.

    ReplyDelete
  22. The colloquial sense! I like that.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Wow driving on ten about an hour before El Paso and then driving through was the most emotionally intense drive of my life: I could not stop thinking about the border (how one side is bright with electricity, the other seemingly much less so), Juarez and violence done to women "there"; almost sobbing going sixty is weird as I--this happened more than once--had to stop due to feeling that wld be too dangerous. This may be irrelevant to Austen, but surely not: capital (a big important subject) has, I'm guessing, a grotesque amount to do with what has been happening; yes, JA's women aren't poor, but her focus on money amazingly reveals that hand (it is odd tho how I don't recall descriptions of bank notes); who owns the factories where many--all-of these women are working? Mexicans in some very distant part of the country? Mexican companies which are subsidiaries of multinationals? Too, JA totally anticipates A Room Of One's Own; ok that's debatable but it does seem at-least not absurd.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I realize my prior note makes it sound like I repeatedly got off the highway when what I mean is I repeatedly had to make myself not continue when sobs started. I wonder if my driving response is not all that rare.

    Ok and really there's a big tall bright is it a lonestar or a hyper-erect waterlilly off of ten that rather irks me. I need to spend time just across the border (not drinking etc, but looking as carefully as I can): I find it disturbing that my response has occured at age 29, when none o' this shit is new. Of course I've mused in abstract distanced ways before, but the visceral experience seems belated.

    Please tell me I'm not making it up remembering you citing El Paso on this blog!

    ReplyDelete
  25. Yes, I'm from El Paso! There's a big star inscribed in lights on the mountain there, which you can see from I-10 when driving through downtown EP. Is that what you're talking about? They used to only light it up around Christmas, but now it burns year round, which my parents always grumble about because it's not "special" anymore.

    ReplyDelete
  26. No this was on a tall metal base; and I think now it must be a flower. But by that point I had driven over 6oo miles so it is entirely possible I should not be deemed a reliable viewer. I realize anything short of 750 or so isn't gnarly.

    ReplyDelete
  27. If you want to go after Naipaul, I wholeheartedly support you, but trying to peg Emerson on the same board is futile.

    You've admitted you've never read Austen, yet you feel compelled to defend her. You've seen the movies. Cool. But those are 20th- & 21st-century translations in the first place, already filtered to appeal to contemporary notions. They are not the source.

    You've never read Emerson, it seems, and you've willfully misread the excerpt you posted. Emerson writes: "all that interests any character introduced is still this one, has he or she money to marry with, & conditions conforming?"

    "All that interests any character." "He or she." He's damning the idea that marriage is the ideal and only way. He's going after women for buying into it and men for being complicit in keeping women in the position where they must marry in order to simply live. In this, he would be perfectly aligned with the 21st-century view you have of Austen . . . which perhaps grew because men like Emerson and women like his friends and admirers Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott planted the seed notion that marriage has been -- and is still -- used to make women feel dependent.

    When you do sit down to read Emerson's Essays (I recommend the Library of American paperback edition with the foreword by Douglas Crase wherein he talks about some of the perceived or preconceived "straight white man" and other issues a contemporary reader might encounter), I offer this up again: read him with the same tone as a comedian like George Carlin or Bill Hicks. Remember that he's trying to convert a largely straight white male Christian audience to his radical notions of the universe. There's this assumption that, well, he's a straight white male (so not Christian though!), that he's a prisoner to the beliefs of his time, when it's actually Emerson's thought that allows you to think that way, and sparked Thoreau, Whitman, Fuller, the Alcotts, and so many more.

    There is very much a deadpan Yankee humor in Emerson. So dead it's sometimes still, & often very dark. I encounter it daily, amongst others, as well as myself, so maybe that's why I'm more attuned to it. That last sentence from Emerson: "Suicide is more respectable." Both dark in humor but speaks to his principles: live free or die.

    ReplyDelete
  28. It was a lot easier for men to reject conventions in the 1800s than it was for women. I'm glad that women throughout the ages didn't all commit suicide en masse in protest.

    ReplyDelete
  29. It was a lot easier for landowning men to reject conventions, or do anything. Even if I was alive back then, I wouldn't be considered

    So Emerson would agree, as do I. And he'd welcome that fact. And if you still weren't satisfied, he wrote, after all, "The individual is always mistaken." Meaning: if every angle of every single word, thought, deed, etc. Emerson poured forth was perfect and right, well, there'd be no need for anyone else. But clearly there was a need. In his specific case, there was Thoreau to put action to his words, Whitman to add the body to his mind, Fuller to tell it from the woman's point of view.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Although I think I get what's meant, this freaks me out: "the woman's point of view"; this term seems to make a singularity, an icon, out of a plurality.

    It seems perhaps relevant that Austen was not married--yah?

    Great writers--nod to Emmerson--are very capable of not getting some other great works; Woolf regarding Joyce etc; Tolstoy regarding Shakespeare etc...

    I am not positive but I think C Bronte may have dissed Austen.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Goethe hated Shakespeare as well, I believe.

    ReplyDelete
  32. I love "hating" artists! For this reason, perhaps, I adore William Logan reviews! HARSH reviews are so much fun to read--I think!

    ReplyDelete
  33. You should track down Lidian Emerson's "Transcendental Bible" where she makes fun of her husband and Thoreau, etc. Emerson himself loved it. Here's an excerpt:

    "Loathe and shun the sick. They are in bad taste, and may untune us for writing the poem floating through our mind."

    http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/ideas/lydiasbible.html

    ReplyDelete
  34. Heh: "Never confess a fault. You should not have committed it and who cares whether you are sorry?"

    WORDS TO LIVE BY

    ReplyDelete