16 jun. 2011

The Gilbert-Gubar Hypothesis

Gilbert* and Gubar, in The War of the Words, argue that modernism arises out of a "battle of the sexes" and the growing prominence of women writers in the late 19th century. This has never seemed very plausible to me. The entire modernist movement, with all its linguistic experimentation, arose out of a desire to contest the growing power of women in the literary sphere? This does not seem plausible to me as a historical explanation. In the first place, you cannot attribute to a single cause a phenomenon that is overdetermined, that has multiple causes. If gender antagonism is one source of modernism, then we could discuss its relative importance. For example, it is true that some, but by no means all, modernists saw their writing as explicitly masculinist. Of course, only the male ones did that.

Secondly, the G&G hypothesis does not seem applicable to any modernism other than the Anglo-American kind. For example, could we explain Pessoa, or Cafavy, or Proust, as modernists threatened by the specter of female creativity? How exactly is this supposed to work? And it is also in the Anglo-American context where the most significant female modernists appeared: Barnes, Stein, Moore, H.D., Sitwell, Richardson, Woolf, Loy. These writers, as a group, seem more significant to me that Champourcin, Méndez, Chacel, etc... I could make a case for Zambrano, but I cannot see Rosa Chacel in the same category as H.D. or Virginia Woolf. So in a national literature in which women were already prominent, there were also more significant women modernists. The 19th century novel in Britain has the Brontes, George Eliot, and Austen. The most significant novelist in the 20th century in England is Woolf.

Of course, G&G usually write as though English and American literature were the entire enchilada. Their subtitle doesn't even include the word "English." It's just The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. I wish I could get away with something like that. Write a book called Twentieth Century Poetry and include only writers in Spanish and Catalan!
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*I took courses from Elliot and Sandra Gilbert as an undergraduate. Both excellent professors. Elliot died prematurely at age 60 due to botched medical care. I have never met Susan Gubar, but obviously the Gilbert and Gubar books have had a huge impact, despite the criticisms mounted on various front against various facets of their work.

3 comentarios:

Clarissa dijo...

How about the brilliant and incredibly productive Russian modernism (the Silver Age of Russian Literature)? There was not a single female writer of note in the XIXth century Russia. Modernism is the first instance when female writers in Russian become known and valued.

Andrew Shields dijo...

It was Hawthorne (not really a modernist) who complained about "the damned mob of scribbling women," so there's a problem with chronology in the G&G thesis, too.

Jonathan dijo...

I think though that they begin in 19th century and trace the war between the sexes through a long period of time, so these earlier examples do not contradict their hypothesis. Which is not to say I accept it.