Commentary Magazine


The Feminization of American Culture, by Ann Douglas

Pink and White Tyranny

The Feminization of American Culture.
by Ann Douglas.
Knopf. 403 pp. $15.00.

It has become a commonplace of modern literary and historical criticism to speak of the dominant role women played in cultural affairs during the middle and late 19th century. The ubiquitous cartoon of the wife dragging her reluctant husband from the office to the ballet spawned endless variants that persist today. Henry James and William Dean Howells, to mention only the most prominent of Victorian American authors, were well aware, as their letters reveal, that their audience consisted almost exclusively of women. Van Wyck Brooks, in his controversial study of Mark Twain, went so far as to claim that the feminine values of Twain’s audience, as interpreted by the censorious Mrs. Clemens, ruined the great humorist. And much ink has been spilled in analyzing the effeminate character of those novelists who abjured the overt sexuality of their 18th-century predecessors—particularly Swift, Sterne, and Defoe—creating instead the artificial sensibility that the American philosopher George Santayana termed the “Genteel Tradition.” The violent revolt of Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane against this delicacy (both wrote, among other things, about prostitution) inaugurated the sexual age that we associate with modern fiction.

Although Victorian prudery no longer exercises the control over literature it did during the 19th century, Ann Douglas claims in The Feminization of American Culture that its legacy is apparent not in the best but in the worst products of our age—in advertising, television, and magazines. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin has given way to Miss America, “Teen Angel,” and laundry-soap commercials that depict women mindlessly preoccupied with drivel while at the same time encouraging them to be so. But Miss Douglas’s main concern is with the past and not the present; her book is a scholarly examination of the creation and proliferation of a 19th-century subculture.

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In simplest terms The Feminization of American Culture is about power—about the efforts of a small community of Northeastern middle-class women writers and liberal clergymen to exert influence in a society that had, she asserts, shunted them both off to one side in its race for industrial supremacy. As Henry Adams noted:

The American woman at her best—like most other women-exerted great charm on the man. . . . When closely watched, she seemed making a violent effort to follow the man who had turned his mind and hand to mechanics. . . . He could not run his machine and woman too, he must leave her, even though his wife, to find her own way. . . .

Find it she did, claims Miss Douglas, through an alliance of church and literature that set the prevailing moral tone of Victorian America and may even have sown the seeds of modern American mass culture. Miss Douglas says of her subjects: “They were rightly insecure about their position in the broader society; they sought to gain indirect and compensatory control. . . . Under the sanction of sentimentalism, lady and clergyman were able to cross the cruel lines laid down by sexual stereotyping.” The result was a bifurcated society consisting of a female-dominated realm of “culture” and a masculine realm of business. During the course of the last century, she claims, the larger society succumbed to the “influence” of the subculture, mass-producing the trivia that came to characterize the Victorian era.

Miss Douglas devotes the first two of her book’s three sections to this progression. She begins by examining the decline and subsequent conjoining of women and clergy, attempting to account on the one hand for the dissolution of Calvinism and subsequent rise of a popular but less rigorous Unitarianism, and on the other for the changing role of women at the start of the Industrial Revolution. After mapping the convergence of these two disenfranchised classes, she devotes her second section to an exploration of a wide range of Victoriana from the emerging sentimentalization of death to the creation of the Sunday School movement, ladies’ magazines, pulp novels, and mass consumerism. Finally, she analyzes the lives of the transcendentalist Margaret Fuller and the novelist Herman Melville, interpreting their works in light of a subculture they rejected but which exercised significant control over them by shaping the tastes of their audience.

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Although Miss Douglas means in this book to argue for the “intimate connection between critical aspects of Victorian culture and modern mass culture,” her focus is really upon what Harriet Beecher Stowe termed the “Pink and White Tyranny” or what Miss Douglas herself calls “the drive of 19th-century American women to gain power through the exploitation of their feminine identity as their society defined it.” Her thesis is a provocative one, but it seriously overemphasizes the importance and influence of the trivia that a small community of women immersed themselves in, and formulates a historical interpretation on the basis of a culture’s refuse, perpetuating the very images the culture has discarded.

While Miss Douglas expertly analyzes her “control group” of thirty women writers and thirty ministers, and while she accounts in part for the phenomenon of the “Genteel Tradition,” as soon as she moves from the particular to the general she succumbs to stereotype. Her myopic vision fails to incorporate the numerous political activities of women during this period, particularly in the areas of abolition and universal suffrage (see Henry James’s The Bostonians). Such women, while also generally from Northeast middle-class families, shared few common goals with the idle matrons who Miss Douglas would have us believe typified American women.

In her analysis of women and clergy, moreover, Miss Douglas is unable to identify the critical catalysts that precipitated the changing roles and values of both minorities. Clerical “disestablishment,” the legislated separation of church and state prohibiting the use of tax revenues for religious purposes, forced the Protestant Church, says Miss Douglas, “into aggressive and largely successful proselytizing” to insure its survival in a competitive society. But this accounts only partially for the shift from a paternal Calvinism to a “feminine” Unitarianism of wider appeal; the fact is that the shift began long before the Church was forced to sell itself. So too in her discussion of the rise of women writers, Miss Douglas inadequately accounts for the psychology underlying their “tyrannical” influence as well as that underlying the failure of women to infiltrate other fields as they did the once male-dominated realms of writing and teaching. The question again must be asked: why did a small class of women wish to promulgate all that was petty and insignificant in feminine society at the very moment their politically active neighbors were demonstrating that not just influence but power itself could be won by women?

In short, this book, while exhaustively researched and well written, leaves some important questions unanswered and overemphasizes the importance of others. One feels, indeed, that today’s popular nostalgia for trivia, a nostalgia that has among other things resurrected television kinescopes and comic books of the 1950′s, has exerted no small influence on this examination of Victoriana. Perhaps it is just as well, then, that Miss Douglas’s promise to link modern mass culture—a consistently vague term throughout the book—and Victorian society remains unfulfilled, for it would require even more patience than she has shown in researching the underside of Victorian culture to wade through the morass of modern immemorabilia that had best be forgotten.

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