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Thursday, March 08, 2007


Andrew Morabito

I agree with your general sentiment, Jerry, but I recall some of the details differently. Sorry to be a stickler, but though Mattie's intention was to go to college and become a writer, it was never implied that her collegiate studies would be in creative writing, it was said that she would study literature. And I don't understand either how Donnelly misrepresented the English curriculum at the turn of the century. Disregarding the major works which Emily Baxter gave to Mattie outside of school, the only thing I remember them studying in school was Paradise Lost. And I don't find it hard to believe that a fictional and very heroic, free-thinking female teacher in the early 1900's with students who devour text the way Mattie and Weaver do wouldn't teach Paradise Lost or whatever else was included that I can't recall.


I didn't mean to get into a discussion about individual historical inaccuracies, because that is not the point of my discussion. I hope that we all understand that I am saying that these are not significant toour understanding of the novel, because the novel is more a refelction of the cultural and social conditions that created it than the ones it means to represent.

A few points, though. Yes, Paradise Lost is a part of their high school curriculum. I am not referring so much to her high school curriculum. By this time, students who were reading English literature would have been reading fairly contemporary writers (Dickens, Tennyson, perhaps even Hawthorne). She may even have had an opportunity to read Dracula (which she refers to on one occasion) if she was sneaky about it (and we find out later how sneaky she is when it comes to "devouring texts," as Andrew says).
But to your point that she is not going to school to become a writer, I would disagree. Look, for example, at the passage in which Miss Baxter tries to convince her father to allow her to attend Barnard:

"She could be a writer, sir. A real one. A good one."
"She's already a writer. She writes stories and poems in them notebooks of hers all the time."
"But she needs the challenge of a real college curriculum, and the guidance of talented teachers, to improve. She needs exposure to emerging voices, to criticism and theory. She needs to be around people who can nurture her talent and development." (166)

While it sounds to me like this is describing a curriculum that developes creative writers, I would like to note some incongruities between Miss Baxter's characterization of academia and some of the realities of the traditional, elitist English department at the turn of the 20th century. A talent emerging in the academy in 1906 might have been Wordsworth or Byron. One did not study nineteenth century literature like Miss Baxter is alluding to at this time. If one could read it on their own, it was not suitible material for serious intellectual inquiry. In Englishc, one read Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, maybe Pope. One did not read novels or contemporary poetry. The only criticism she would have been exposed to at this time would have been historical and moral in nature, like Aristotle. She probably would have learned more about craft by reading magazines that reviewed new literature than she would have from her gifted teachers. There was no nurturing of talents by sensitive professionals. The academy at this time was built on rigor alone, not guiding an emerging talent. Recall also that she doesn't like Paradise Lost. She is craving the kind of realism she writes (see 61), which was absolutely unavailable for serious study. The characteristics of education at this time are not totally accurate. There was no place for the avat-garde in this setting. It isn't so much that she couldn't attend college, or write avant-garde works upon completion of her studies, but that she would not have been exposed to contemporary poetics by attending college, as is suggested.
But again, that is aside from the point. I want to emphasize that this novel does not teach history. Historical novels have never been both historically accurate and interesting. We get an impression of the times, an impression of the severe limitations placed on the individual (especially African-American, female, rural, poor--which makes the main characters so compelling). We do not get, nor should we expect, a replication of the times. But it does make us question where we are now. Have those limitations been totally broken down? Do we recognize and acknowledge the individual and the expression of the individual? Again, I would advance the thesis that this is a novel about twenty first century anxieties. I almost hate posting this, because I am not attacking the premise of this novel. I would reiterate my point that great historical novels from Cooper's Last of the Mohicans to Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain are not about historical events, but a historiographic continuity that reveals itself through a representation of the past. I would put this novel in that category.

Joe Fox

Jerry I see now what you are driving at a little better. I think for the sake of argument that Miss Baxter (Wilcox) is a type that is so radical and visionary for her time period (she is portrayed as a Wollestonecraft or a Friedan in this novel), that she represents a kind of wild card, with regard to narrative latitude. A woman like this, could be molding young Mattie into any kind of writer or women under the sun, and giving her just about anything at all to read.

This very particular crafting of Miss Baxter's character is crucial to our sense of the narrative precisely because the trajectory that Donnelly chooses for Mattie is so "anachronistic" to her historical context. I think Donnelly does want to make this novel as much a story of a poor young woman with a strong voice and talent of the modern era, as it is one of a girl of the turn of the 20th century. In fact, I think Mattie is modeled a little more closely on Donnelly herself than the author chose to admit the other day. The question is, does this make the novel more timeless? To me it seems to be forcing the issue a little too much. It is almost as if she wanted to make a believable historical fiction, but couldn't bare to compromise her original vision of her protagonists, so she inserted Miss Wildcard Wilcox.

You could really make a similar argument for the representation of Weaver, the amazing support he gets from his own community, his close friendship with a white girl who is engaged to a young prominent White man, Royal, who exhibits many of the stereotypes that Mattie is trying to be free from (except of course racism)but still defends Weaver as if they were brothers etc. If "the North woods" are so backward and socially stifling that Mattie can barely breath, why is her hometown such a bastion of racial equality and democratic morality. Why paint the three "loggers" as such dangerous outsiders, rather than as an element of their own community that would invariably rise up against a righteous and proud Black voice like Weaver's? It would almost have worked better for me if the Loomis boys had burned down the house, or some other characters that we had grown to trust. Did I mention that I really loved this novel too?


I agree with Joe to an extent. The community represented here is more progressive in certain ways, especially in the treatment of Weaver. Remember, the two dramatic instances where Weaver was threatened because of his racial difference came through encounters with those who do not belong to their community. The roles of women, however, are deeply prescribed. Transgressions of "normal" gendered behavior are systematically disrupted by the community (i.e., the removal of Emily Baxter).
I find it curious that her stories are so local (following, incidently, a literary convention of the era that has become known as local color--Sarah Orne Jewett is a good example), and yet it seems like she has to repudiate that locality to become an artist of meaning and purpose. What do we make of that?

Andrew Morabito

Yeah, I agree with you on that last point, Jerry, and I actually just posted a new topic on that. I was thinking the same thing, that Mattie has to sell-out everything she stands for in order to even have a chance at legitimizing herself as a writer.

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