In a salty and unsparing examination of her vampire romances, Mario the Epicurean gives Stephanie Meyer her due (“Twelve-year-old girls could do worse than Twilight. They could also do better—try Wuthering Heights, for Christ’s sake!”). The Meyer phenomenon is “nothing new,” he concludes, and not worth getting worked up over.
Along the way, he mentions my “effective dismissal” of Nina Baym’s theory that the “basic American story” melodramatizes the plight of men “beset” by women who seek to constrict and destroy them. In an interesting addendum to my refutation, Mario argues that Baym was seeking to distance herself from a feminism that, by elevating “great female achievement or exceptionality,” implicitly downgrades motherhood. Since mothers are women, Baym insisted that “gender is only the ground of the analysis,” and she had to locate—or to invent, in my view—the source of hostility to the feminine and maternal in American novels by men, since she was not about to blame it upon feminism.
Mario is having none of it. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again,” he declares, throwing down a gauntlet: “there are good reasons to be hostile to mothers.” After criticizing the concept of the mother in Freudian psychoanalysis, Mario lowers the boom:
Elsewhere on this blog, I have praised novels by women—Cather’s My Ántonia and Cynthia Ozick’s two-part novella The Shawl—in which motherhood is represented as a moral category. In Cather, a country is deﬁned by its mothers, who stay on and “maintain it as a home to which the exiles can return.” They are, in short, the source of patriotism. In Ozick, meanwhile, they are “the source of consciousness, of conscience, the ground of being. . . .” The words are Ozick’s. It is the mother who remembers the past, the fond moments that subside, the terrible losses that remain, and memory is “the ground of being.” Thus the mother is the basis of culture.
One of the best novels ever written about a mother is Janet Lewis’s wonderful Against a Darkening Sky (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1943). It is the story of Mary Perrault, a young woman originally from Scotland, who came to the town of South Encina in California’s Santa Clara valley, married a warm and unpretentious man who earns his living as a gardener and breeder of rabbits, and raises four children with him. As the novel opens, the two oldest—seventeen-year-old Melanie and two-years-younger Duncan—are emerging from adolescence; or, as Mario might say, they are about to seek their success at individuation.
Her mother approves of Melanie’s eagerness for independence, but she is also worried about “the heartaches and loneliness” by which youth “arrives at self-sufficiency.” Coming home from the beach with her boyfriend one afternoon, Melanie sprawls on the sofa in front of him. Appalled by her manners, Mary is more brusque than she means to be, because she is unsure whether to interfere. After the boy has gone home, she scolds Melanie for exposing “quite so much of yourself.” Melanie accuses her of being as bad as the old Italian woman in the neighborhood who “thinks I’m going straight to Sodom and Gomorrah because I don’t have sleeves in my dresses.” Mary wishes she hadn’t interfered. And besides, Melanie is “no city child.” She knows the facts of life:
One day Melanie comes home to find the house deserted. The stillness makes her more acutely aware of things she had always taken for granted. She studies her mother’s wedding portrait, when Mary was hardly older than she:
As for Duncan. His mother also makes just one effort to educate him, but it is decisive. When her son puts on his jacket one evening to go with a friend to watch the lynching of two murderers, Mary announces that she will not have it. “I’ll not have you joining any gang of speakeasy drunks to help kill any man, no matter how bad he is,” she says. “And break the law, whatever little law there is left unbroken in this country.” Duncan protests that he and his friend are not going to kill anybody: “We’re just going to see the fun. You said yourself they ought to be lynched.” Mrs Perrault flies up at him:
I could heap up other examples: May Welland in The Age of Innocence, who raises her son Dallas to believe, as his father does not, that marriage and family are rooted in a deeper passion than turbulent desire; Genya Schearl in Call It Sleep, who defends her beloved son David from his father’s brutal authority; Bigger Thomas’s mother in Native Son, whose inconsolable wretchedness in her son’s jail cell stands in stark and dignified contrast to the voluble authority of the men who file in to counsel and hector him; or Ellen Fairchild in Delta Wedding, who influences her children by remaining an outsider to their Jim Crow ways.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: American literature does not give good reasons to be hostile to mothers, because it does not give many mothers at all. Every now and then, however, you will stumble upon a book that reminds you that mothers represent the ordinary successes in life, including the success of being an individual. Without them no individuality is even possible—at least if Janet Lewis, and a very few of her peers, are to be trusted.