The Woman We Don’t Want to Be: Anti-heroines in American Women’s Modernisms
Lorelei of Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes(1925) has a baby because “a kid that looks like any rich father is as good as money in the bank.” In Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country (1913), Undine uses her child as a pawn in divorce negotiations. Angela of Jessie Redmon Fauset’s 1928 novel Plum Bunabandons her sister so her boyfriend won’t guess she’s black; and in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (also 1928), Helga frustrates and alienates everyone she loves. These are despicable women, unworthy of our sympathies. Yet in American women’s modernisms, they are subject not just to gleeful mockery and sanction, but to furtive pity, uncomfortable recognition, even envy. Each age calls for its own bogeys; and the anti-heroine was, I contend, the perfect instantiation of American modernity’s fears, foibles, and, crucially, desires. She tells of fragmented selfhood and a “lost generation” of sorts—what Dorothy Parker called “a ladies auxiliary of the legion of the damned.”
Of course, the “lost generation” of young men has long served as a standard-bearer for American modernist literature. A rebuke to the American mythology of the self-made man, the modernist anti-hero personifies the existential dread and powerlessness endemic to a rapidly contracting sphere for modern masculinity. Hemingway’s Jake Barnes is literally impotent; Eliot’s Prufrock is metaphorically so, wondering, while “the women come and go,” if he even dares “to eat a peach,” much less to enjoy what the peach might represent. They are victims, who cannot forge complete selves in the face of a fragmented existence. When we emphasize the anti-hero, we tell a story of U.S. modernisms as characteristic literary responses to two brutal world wars, the devaluation of masculine labor, and a generalized masculine disenchantment. But what of feminine disenchantment? The anti-heroine, I suggest, proclaims not just modernity’s contractions, but its rapidly expanding possibilities: the new opportunities it offered for things like travel, communication, sex and sexuality, even love.
Briefly put, this project asks what happens to our story of American Modernisms when we take seriously its wealth of wrong women. Femininity gone awry, this figure, whom I call “the Woman We Don’t Want to Be,” delimits the parameters of the systems that create her and into which she feeds. In recovering women’s writing from the period, feminist scholars have for obvious reasons tended to value feminist texts. This focus is imminently reasonable, yet it operates to the detriment of the Woman We Don’t Want to Be. A bad feminist agent, she either fails to attain self-fulfillment, much less empowerment, or succeeds by buying into and profiting off of patriarchal, racist systems. And in reproducing her, her authors also reproduce, to varying degrees, the racist and sexist ideologies by which she is judged. These texts therefore don’t fit into the existing feminist schema by which scholars have recovered and framed women’s writing. If this figure fits poorly into these rubrics, however, I argue that she nonetheless perfectly reflects the period’s hesitancy towards feminist ideas. In addition, then, to providing a new story of American literary modernisms, this project also offers a literary history of “feminism’s awkward age,” a term I take from a 1925 Harper’s Monthly column. American modernity, I show, coincided with a particularly awkward moment in the progression of American feminist thinking.
Gertrude Stein claimed, bombastically but not entirely without reason, that her story “Melanctha” (1909) constituted “the first definite step away from nineteenth century and into the twentieth century in literature.” In Chapter 1, I argue alongside Stein that “Melanctha” inaugurated a tradition of affective and ethical ambivalence towards female protagonists. Stein makes her readers uncertain about how we should feel about and judge Melanctha; and the narration plays within that uncertainty, suggesting nineteenth century ethical schemata but granting them no explanatory power. In Chapter 2, I argue that Nella Larsen takes this one step further in Quicksand(1928), refusing to grant even the premise of an inviolate self. This chapter explores what happens when the self disintegrates into modernity’s flux, paying particular attention to what I call Helga’s “wrong feeling.” Chapter 3 then shows the uses to which an unstable self may be put, reading Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country through the lens of passing (1913). Wharton’s protagonist Undine, I argue, empties her identity out, reflecting others’ desires back to them in a wildly successful effort to enrich herself. I end, in Chapter 4, with an analysis of what happens when we reinsert the unstable self into a moral universe. Like Stein, Jessie Redmon Fauset operated from but not within nineteenth century ethical schemata. Instead of reintegrating her protagonist into racial respectability and normative heterofuturity, Plum Bun (1928) adapts the parameters of the moral universe to the compromised self. My afterword examines this figure’s afterlife at the dawn of American feminism’s second wave, suggesting how an account of the Woman We Don’t Want to Be might not just revise our understanding of American modernisms, but also trouble our current periodization of American literary history.
Introduction. (includes a section on Anita Loos’ and Dorothy Parker’s Blondes)
1. An Ethical Ambivalence: Gertrude Stein’s “Complex, Desiring” Melanctha
2. “All Helga Ever Does is Run Away”: Nella Larsen’s Quicksand
3. Undine’s “Flexible Soul”: Speculations in Identity in Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country
4. Identity, Desire and the Double in Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral
Conclusion. 1963: The Woman We Don’t Want to Be at the Cusp of the Second Wave
Note: If you would like to see a visual representation of some of my sources and thinking about this project (or if you saw me present on this topic and want to review the slides), you can check them out here: