Friday, February 27, 2009

Literature without children

The novel entitled Lolita is “the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita,” says Humbert Humbert, concluding the novel. Next week I begin teaching it. Even before I begin, I am in despair. Although most of the students are likely at least to purchase the book and haul it to class, the number of those who attempt much more will be vanishingly small. I am under no illusion that reading is anything but a minority pursuit or that a minority of a minority read as if they lives depend upon it. But I am not really talking about reading. I am talking about something that precedes reading—a dim recognition if not respect for the fact that books do not merely furnish a room, but sink piers until they rest on bedrock for the foundations of a civilization.

“Unlike animals,” writes the pseudonymous Asia Times essayist Spengler, “human beings require more than progeny: they require progeny who remember them.” This is the basis of culture: man makes and draws and writes and shapes and builds to “overcome mortality,” creating a “dialogue among generations that links the dead with the yet unborn.” If the young are unwilling even to pick up the artifacts of their culture, or only go through the motions of doing so, they are accepting that they will be defined by the physical limits of their lives, and nothing more. No wonder so many of them will soon begin to poison their bodies with alcohol and drugs, if they have not already done so. Oblivion is the only alternative they can imagine to a life without meaning or transcendence.

But I don’t blame them. As Pierre Ryckmans observes, most people would never read at all if they were not told about it first. I blame those who have told the young about books and reading—their miserable teachers, and many of the writers themselves.

I belong to a generation of critics and professors who have small interest and less understanding of books, except in as far as they can be made to serve as something else—an occasion for a little sex chat, a gavel for bringing to order a meeting of the Central Committee, a level and theodolite for defining the limits of their lives, or a map to where the foundations lie so they can seek to destroy them.

Even worse are the writers themselves. Only recently, after the birth of four children in five-and-a-half years, as I sit exhausted and happy from changing diapers, winding up toys, cooking dinner, pulling pajama tops over fine-haired heads, reading bedtime stories, and picking clothes off the floor and turning off lights, have I begun to appreciate how very little of ordinary life—family life—gets into American writing. Daisy Buchanan’s entire life seems arranged to relieve her of the burdens of motherhood, while Brett Ashley decides courageously that she is “not going to be one of these bitches that ruins children.” In no way does this distinguish her from most women in American fiction. Outside of My Ántonia, I cannot think of a single American novel that celebrates a woman’s sexuality by acknowledging the deepest fulfillment of it—in childbirth. The contrast with the Hebrew bible, in which barrenness is a curse that lifts women to greatness in asking God’s help to overcome it, could not be more striking. Dolores Haze’s is not the only voice missing from the concord of children at play. American literature is a low-fertility-rate literature.

Never before had I been struck by how small a commitment American writers had made to the future—through children. Upon reflection, I wondered how many of them even bothered to raise families of their own. For a representative selection of American writers, I turned to the contents of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, the volume covering 1914–1945. Here are the number of children for each writer in chronological order:

Edgar Lee Masters, 3
Edwin Arlington Robinson, 0
Willa Cather, 0
Gertrude Stein, 0
Robert Frost, 6
Susan Glaspell, 0
Sherwood Anderson, 3
Carl Sandburg, 3
Wallace Stevens, 1
Mina Loy, 3
William Carlos Williams, 3
Ezra Pound, 2
Hilda Doolittle, 1
Marianne Moore, 0
Raymond Chandler, 0
T. S. Eliot, 0
Eugene O’Neill, 3
Claude McKay, 1
Katherine Anne Porter, 0
Zora Neale Hurston, 0
Nella Larsen, 0
Edna St. Vincent Millay, 0
E. E. Cummings, 1
Jean Toomer, 0
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1
John Dos Passos, 1
William Faulkner, 2
Hart Crane, 0
Ernest Hemingway, 4
Thomas Wolfe, 0
Sterling Brown, 1
Langston Hughes, 0
Kay Boyle, 6
John Steinbeck, 2
Countee Cullen, 0
Richard Wright, 2
Carlos Bulosan, 0

Forty-nine children born of thirty-seven writers—a child-to-writer ratio of 1.32, the fertility rate of a former Soviet Bloc country. By comparison, the total fertility rate in the U.S. in 1945, the last year of before the baby boom, was 2.49.

Why should I be surprised that my students are unable to recognize themselves in the mirror of the literary achievements which compose their American inheritance? The Sound and the Fury—told by an idiot, full of incestuous desire and suicide. The Grapes of Wrath—no future, no past, and too many people without either. An American Tragedy—thwarted desire, murder, or maybe not, prison, execution. Native Son—more murder, more prison. Sister Carrie, Appointment in Samarra—more thwarted desire, more suicide, with a little futility thrown in for good measure. After a while, a young man or woman of decent upbringing and normal impulses would not be crazy to conclude that this is a literature of a people in irreversible decline. That this is not true about the American people, but is true about its literature, says more about our books than our students.

14 comments:

elberry said...

i am reminded of what Heloise said to Abelard, when he wanted to marry her, i can't recall exactly but it's something like "how can you study while children are running about screaming?" - more eloquent, though.

The Language Prodigy said...

There is only one book that I can think of from a modern-day writer that talks about motherhood as an integral part of the character's life, as opposed to an impediment or an accident. It's "Unless" from Carol Shields.

Novalis said...

There is obviously no evolutionary imperative stronger than having children, and societies naturally celebrate family life.

Yet the latter may be a massive act of collective rationalization. A great deal of psychological research suggests that people are most stressed and least happy while raising children, particularly when they are very young and then again when they are teenagers. In these studies happiness shoots up after the kids leave home.

It may not be a pleasant state of affairs, but is it any wonder that people do not turn to literature for more diapers and tantrums?

May you be the exception.

D. G. Myers said...

A great deal of psychological research suggests that people are most stressed and least happy while raising children, particularly when they are very young and then again when they are teenagers. In these studies happiness shoots up after the kids leave home.

I am aware of this research, and am skeptical of it. Usually “happiness” is entirely a matter of self-definition on the part of the research subject. If he says he is unhappy, well, then he is listed as unhappy. We need better metrics, or fewer self-absorbed people.

D. G. Myers said...

Gotta find a copy of Shields’s Unless. Another example, from an earlier generation, is Janet Lewis’s Against a Darkening Sky. And of course there is Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows.

I have also found the fatherhood passages in John Williams’s Stoner incredibly moving.

Tim D. (rdavis1@uwf.edu) said...

Your comment throws me off stride."Why should I be surprised that my students are unable to recognize themselves in the mirror of the literary achievements which compose their American inheritance?" In fact, I do not know that we have students read literature for purposes of having those students recognize themselves in whatever they read. If that were the goal, then my syllabus for freshmen this semester is rather flawed (Oedipus the King, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hedda Gabler, O'Connor's Wise Blood, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a handful of short stories (with a bias toward Carver, O'Connor, Borges, and other 20th century masters), and an eclectic mix of poetry (with my own partiality permitting me to place a heavy emphasis on Keats, Hopkins, and Dickinson). I have no illusions about transforming students into enthusiastic readers of literature. Instead, perhaps because I have become more than a little cynical over the years in the university classroom (perhaps you, too, are cynical), I settle instead for presenting them with a smorgasbord of readings (rather than mirrors). Who knows? A handful of students may actually discover for themselves (in spite of my enthusiastic urging) that literature has an ineffable power that can entertain, enlighten, and help them in their lives. In any event, like Beckett's characters in Waiting for Godot, we simpy go on because we have no choice. Literature is a wonderful companion along the way.

D. G. Myers said...

The line is Oakeshott’s.

What Oakeshott means is that a student must re-think himself, recognize himself as other than he is at the moment, to become fully human. Not that he should see himself again as if for the first time. Rather, he should see a man he might possibly be.

martha m said...

If these well-brought-up young people don't read novels because they object to the subjects of madness, prison and violent death, one wonders why they seem so fond of television.

Anonymous said...

"I cannot think of a single American novel that celebrates a woman’s sexuality by acknowledging the deepest fulfillment of it—in childbirth."

I can't get past this comment and the assumptions within it. It roots women in their biology to the exclusion of their hearts and minds. Likely the reason that you don't see it reflected in modern and contemporary literature is that this idea simply doesn't strike many women as true (whether they write or not.)

Feelings about children and parenting are far more likely to be complex. Some women writers who have children who explore those complexities in their work--Alice Munro and Jayne Anne Phillips, for example.

And I should point out here that I'm a doting mom of a five year old. Did having my daughter dramatically change and enrich my life? Yes. Is she my favorite person in the world? Yes. Was having her the deepest fulfillment of my sexuality? No. Would I write about her as if she were in a story? I hope not; I hope I could capture the nuances of having and raising a child better than that.

Norm said...

Did you arrive at your conclusions before or after your 'research.' You may be right, but I have a feeling that more than a little confirmation bias played a role in the post and the conclusions you reached.

D. G. Myers said...

It roots women in their biology to the exclusion of their hearts and minds.

I can’t get past the assumptions behind this claim—as if sexuality, fulfillment, and childbirth were exclusively biological events with no cultural meaning whatever.

It is true that female sexuality has been uncoupled from childbirth for a couple of generations now; and it is also true that some women (though not all) do not find it true to say that the deepest fulfillment of female sexuality is in childbirth; but it is not obviously true that these facts have made very many women very happy.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Read Willa Cather and Janet Lewis.

Becca the Promo Mami said...

The great thing about (classic? whatever that means) literature is that it's generally universal in its themes.

I, a 22-year old Black female, can see myself as much in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston as I can in the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both capture and document experiences that are so undeniably HUMAN that you'd have to be completely closed-off for them not to resonate with you.

That's a helluvan inheritance if you ask me.

litlove said...

I'm currently researching a book on motherhood and creativity and it is clear that for most women artists prior to the end of the twentieth century, having children was a tremendous compromise on their work. Some produced better work post childbirth (Mary Wollstonecraft, although the birth of her second child killed her), some struggled on and abandoned themselves to obscurity (Stella Bowen), and only a few, notably genre writers, managed to keep up an enviable production despite it (Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Jacqueline Wilson). The solution in contemporary times has been for mothers to write about motherhood, tying biological and artistic creativity together. But it remains hard to think big thoughts and turn your attention to the problems of the world, when the minutiae of domesticity is (still) so overwhelming.

Anonymous said...

"I cannot think of a single American novel that celebrates a woman’s sexuality by acknowledging the deepest fulfillment of it—in childbirth."

I too must object to this statement for implying that childless women have somehow failed to achieve the "deepest fulfillment" of womanhood. Really, this is the type of attitude that women have been struggling against for years. The gift of the post-feminist era has been the right to define fulfilled womanhood as one wishes.

I also reject the subtler implication (in your later comment) that the uncoupling of sex from reproduction has not contributed to female happiness; countries in which access to contraception is very limited are not exactly known for their happy women.

Otherwise, fantastic article. The low reproductive rate of esteemed writers is surprising, especially given the current evolutionary psychological theories regarding the supposed reproductive advantage of artistic talent.