Commentary Magazine


A Turning of the Critical Tide?

A major strategy in the current assault on the integrity of art from within the literary world has been the denial of the possibility of transcendence. Any claim that a writer can speak beyond his particular historical circumstances to describe the human experience as lived by all men is considered spurious. What has been seen as the universal truth of literature, we are told, is nothing more than the disguised or unexamined assumptions of the ruling class, sex, and race.

In no way have those making such accusations actually proved them. Do blacks, for example, find unrecognizable the mournful despair of the Trojan people at the death of Hector? Are women incapable of appreciating the restless dissatisfaction that drives Ishmael to join a whaling expedition? Is it beyond the capacity of a person born into the working class to fathom the overreaching ambitions of Macbeth? Of course not—in fact, such suggestions are truly “racist,” “sexist,” and “classist.”

Yet the notion that all literature is ideological has enabled its purveyors to clear the way for their own authentically political approaches, entirely relieved of the burden of aesthetic justification. A whole academic/intellectual industry is now thriving on the infusion of politics into literature, much as some people claim whole industries thrive on the manufacture of chemicals that pollute the environment and contaminate the food supply.

Since it seems impossible to make the regnant literary power brokers admit that Shakespeare can be meaningful to anyone other than white males, perhaps the question can be explored profitably from the other end. What is the response nowadays to literature that is openly ideological and how powerful a hold does ideologically based literature have on our cultural life? The careers of Alice Walker and Marge Piercy, both of whom are explicitly political writers, and whose latest novels—Miss Walker’s third, The Temple of My Familiar,1 and Miss Piercy’s tenth, Summer Peoplef2—were published last spring, conveniently lend themselves to an exploration of these questions.

Alice Walker writes as a militant black and an equally militant feminist, while Marge Piercy’s novels practically seem to have been produced on commission from some invisible authority on the Left. Unlike such novels as Henry James’s The Bostonians or Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, which use politics as a backdrop or a political movement as a subject for fictional exploration, the fiction of Miss Walker and even more that of Miss Piercy is the continuation of politics by other means, often a chance to accomplish in art what their favorite movements have failed thus far to achieve in life.

As one critic has written rather grandiloquently of Marge Piercy: “Her real genre is didactic and visionary allegory, . . . she wants her novels ‘to be of use’ “(the title of one of her books of poetry). In Small Changes (1974), for example, this critic continues, Miss Piercy “concentrates upon the creation of a new sexuality and a new psychology, which will permeate and bind a broad, genuine equality.” And another critic has noted that Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976) “at times seems to be floating straight to Heaven. The book tries to make itself into a parable—more than a mere novel.”

In looking over the critical reception these two writers have been accorded over the years, we find that the political propagandizing they both do has rarely stood in the way of the accolades they have generally received.

To be sure, some critics apparently see no conflict between the political and the aesthetic dimensions and therefore have no obstacle to overcome in singing the praises of these writers. Thus, according to one reviewer, Marge Piercy, in Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970)—summarized by this reviewer as “the story of some not too distant time in which a small army of youth, drawn together by mutual feelings of alienation and hostility toward an oppressive, demoralized System, declare themselves a nation apart”—gives “fabulous substance to the essential Myth of the Movement.”

Yet with a rare exception like John Updike (for whom Dance the Eagle to Sleep “fails as a novel of ideas” because “the government becomes one of those almost omnipotent syndicates of evil that Superman did battle with”), even reviewers who recognize that there is a conflict between the aesthetic and the political have tended to insist that Miss Piercy “doesn’t allow ideology to overpower the thrust of her narrative,” or that her “fierce energy as a novelist redeems the rhetoric.”

Indeed, even critics who fully perceive and object to the programmatic quality of Miss Piercy’s politics have usually still managed a general endorsement. “The men are monsterized,” said a reviewer of Small Changes. “Women are made to seem happier without [them].Children raised in communes are more emotionally secure. Lesbian love is more satisfying than heterosexual love. The end is a propagandist’s one rather than a novelist’s.” Nevertheless, this same reviewer pronounced the novel “engrossing,” “absorbing,” and “fun.”

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Alice Walker, too, has been the beneficiary of this kind of apologia. In particular, several reviewers of her celebrated The Color Purple (1982) acknowledged that men in that novel “are generally pathetic, weak, and stupid, when they are not heartlessly cruel, and the white race is universally bumbling and inept,” but these flaws did not prevent them from declaring it “an American novel of permanent importance.”

Of all the positive reviewers of The Color Purple, Robert Towers in the New York Review of Books was probably the most sweeping in his analysis of the book’s failures. About its sexual politics, he had no illusions:

The bonding of oppressed women is obviously a major concern of the novel. . . . Though capable of murderous jealousy, the women on the whole support each other warmly and band together against the common enemy: man. The humor, heroism, and endurance of the women are constantly extolled—and contrasted with the foolishness, selfishness, and, often, the sheer brutality of the male sex. One is hard put to find, either in Meridian or The Color Purple, a male character presented in really positive terms; in the latter novel only the few white characters (of both sexes) are depicted as negatively as the black men.

Furthermore, Towers noted “certain improbabilities”: it was unlikely that Celie, the poorly educated main character, “would have applied the word ‘amazon’ to a group of feisty sisters.” (There are other such infelicities in the text.) Nor was Towers convinced by the TV miniseries touch in which Celie, in the 1930’s, finds “fulfillment in designing and making pants for women.”

Going on to detail even “more serious faults” in The Color Purple “than its possible [sic] feminist bias,” Towers wrote:

Alice Walker still has a lot to learn about plotting and structuring what is clearly intended to be a realistic novel. The revelations involving the fate of Celie’s lost babies and the identity of her real father seem crudely contrived—the stuff of melodrama or fairy tales.

Moreover, Towers felt that the

extended account of Nettie’s experience in Africa [conveyed in her letters to Celie] . . . lacks authenticity . . . because Walker has failed to endow Nettie with her own distinctive voice. . . . The failure to find an interesting idiom for a major figure like Nettie is especially damaging in an epistolary novel, which is at best a difficult genre for a 20th-century writer.

In the end, however, Towers undercut his own astute judgment. All these “inadequacies” were, he said, “relatively insignificant.”

For Towers, and for many other critics as well, the redemptive quality of The Color Purple was the voice of Celie herself, rendered in a thick, pungent, juicy black dialect as she writes the letters to God and her sister that constitute much of the book. In Celie’s letters, Alice Walker, said Towers, had transformed

a subliterate dialect into a medium of remarkable expressiveness, color, and poignancy. . . . I can think of no other novelist who has so successfully tapped the poetic resources of [black English].

One cannot help thinking that the reason critics managed to applaud The Color Purple in the teeth of so many flaws was itself political—the necessity to welcome the voice of a poor black woman, and a lesbian at that, into the mainstream of contemporary literature. As Miss Walker herself has put it, “Not enough credit has been given to the black woman who has been oppressed beyond recognition.”

The response to The Color Purple, then, can well be seen as a kind of literary affirmative action. Indeed, this novel has become a staple of literature courses around the country and one professor at Pennsylvania State University hazarded a guess that it may be assigned more often in college courses than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined. (At Kenyon College one semester it was read in three different courses in three different departments.) It is worth noting, too, that the novel is assigned not only in literature courses but sometimes in sociology and history courses as well, as a depiction of black life.

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With all this critical reverence and affection, one might have thought that Alice Walker’s reputation was unassailable, and yet the reception of her latest novel, The Temple of My Familiar, has been quite stringent. Largely through the character of Lissie, a woman who has been incarnated hundreds of times, Miss Walker tells, in one critic’s exasperated enumeration,

not only the history of Africa [but] also the history of the world, the transmigration of souls, the violence done by white civilization to black, man’s cruelty to man, man’s cruelty to woman, woman’s cruelty to woman (before she freed herself of man), man’s cruelty to animals, and man’s cruelty to the whole round globe.

Critics have complained about Miss Walker’s “ideological tendentiousness”—”sweeping race and gender overgeneralizations, oversimplified indictments of colonialism, genocidal conspiracy theories, the implication that mankind taught animals to kill”—as well as her “smug,” even “hateful” “self-righteous assurance,” and her “ineffable egotism.”

Critics are beginning, moreover, to ask questions about her use of history (“Is it, for instance, true that the white colonial powers driven out of Africa have tried to undermine the liberated countries by flooding them with pornography?”). Even a critic willing to admit that history “is by and large a story made up by white males” cannot manage the distance to Miss Walker’s inversion of male-dominated, Eurocentric culture (“In Alice Walker’s counter-myth, Africa is the cradle of true religion and civilization, and man a funny, misbegotten creature with no breasts and an elongated clitoris”). In short, this critic has remarked: “There are certain brute realities that cannot be willfully ignored. Africa has a past that neither the white male historian nor Miss Walker can simply invent.”

Alice Walker’s inability to create plot and structure effectively is also beginning to provoke, as is the forced quality of her happily-ever-after endings and reconciliations:

No doubt the world would be a better place if, like [the main characters] Fanny and Suwelo, we could live in bird-shaped houses and devote ourselves to breadmaking and massage and generally adopt Fanny’s mother’s gospel: “We are all of us in heaven already!”

“I think for white men in particular, it would be hard not to ridicule” The Temple of My Familiar, Miss Walker has said in response to such criticisms. Notwithstanding this original defense, the simplest explanation for the turn on Alice Walker is of course the book itself, which is everything its detractors make of it and less. Still, the monumental arrogance it took to present such a sorry sack of silliness to the public must at least partly have been nurtured on the fawning reception of The Color Purple—which might suggest that overpraise for black and women writers does a disservice to them as artists even before it does any damage to the culture at large.

But again one wonders if there may not be a deeper level to the near-universal critical repudiation of The Temple of My Familiar (which has not, however, prevented it from winding up on the bestseller lists). The vague, stringy, undisciplined story that Alice Walker sets at the center of this novel concerns a pair of middle-class blacks who teach college, have a troubled marriage, undergo therapies of different sorts, and seek more or less to find themselves. (Fanny teaches women’s studies but poor Suwelo must teach history as the record of “What a few white men wanted, thought, and did.” The college that forces him to teach in this way is the real mythical dimension of The Temple of My Familiar.) Could it be that when all is said and done, and despite Alice Walker’s attempts to make it appear mythbound, exotic, and African, life in the American black middle class looks too boringly much like life in the white middle class to exert any special allure?

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Although Marge Piercy’s new novel, Summer People, has received some favorable attention, the bellwether New York Times Book Review indicates that patience with her may also be wearing thin.

Summer People tells of a blissfully happy ten-year ménage à trois made up of a married couple, Willie (a carpenter and sculptor) and Susan (a fabric designer), and a single woman, Dinah (an avant-garde composer). (The “sexist” implications of two women to one man never seem to occur to Miss Piercy.) The contented trio is broken up by the novel’s course of events in which Susan allows herself to be infected/corrupted by Reaganist values like money, status, and glamor. Once Susan has conveniently removed herself by suicide, Dinah and Willie go on to form more traditional arrangements with even more conveniently available others, Dinah with a world-class violinist who not only gives her undying commitment and a baby, but also money, status, and glamor. (Not for nothing did one critic call an earlier Piercy novel “a Harlequin romance in a wolf coat of raised social consciousness.”)

The Times reviewer “sympathizes with Marge Piercy’s plight. She’s the sort of radical feminist sage whose fiction and poetry flourished in the 1960’s and early 70’s, when her épater le bourgeois posture, and the ramshackle social architectures she proposed, fit the Zeitgeist more snugly.” He went on to dismiss the novel for its soapopera dimension, its willed quality, and its clumsy, theme-conscious prose—all of which have always characterized Marge Piercy’s work, though rarely in the past to its detriment in the eyes of reviewers and critics.

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Ironically, both of these new novels can actually be seen to be moving, willy nilly, away from “alternative life-styles” toward more middle-class arrangements. Both authors firmly settle their characters in couples, male and female they settle them, two by two they settle them, albeit sometimes in the separate wings of bird-shaped houses. One can almost hear Bob Dylan rasping, for a change, Everybody must go home!

In their own convoluted ways, and for whatever reasons, Alice Walker and Marge Piercy may also be trying to come home, although most of the critics may be too bored to show up for the homecoming celebration, having already moved on to other preoccupations. If this is so, their careers help reveal the limits of ideology in more ways than one. For as the ideologies they subscribe to are increasingly exposed as empty and false, these writers too may find themselves looking for transcendence, possibly even in (somebody else’s) fiction.

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Footnotes

1 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 416 pp., $19.95.

2 Summit Books, 380 pp., $19.95.

About the Author

Carol Iannone reviewed Wendy Wasserstein’s Elements of Style in the September 2006 COMMENTARY.




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