The (En)gendering of Literary History

Citation metadata

Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,306 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

[(essay date Spring 1989) In the following essay, Caughie contrasts Gubar and Gilbert's The War of Words--which explains modernism as a male reaction against the appearance of women writers--with Michael H. Levinson's A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine 1908-1922.]

Engender: 1. Of the male parent: To beget; "Thanne sholde he take a yong wyf and a feir / On which he myghte engendre hym an heir" (The Merchant's Tale, 28-29); 2. Of the female parent: To conceive, bear; "O Error, soon conceived, / Thou never coms't unto a happy birth, / But kill'st the mother that engend'red thee!"(Julius Caesar, V, iii, 70-72)

The making of the modern has become a critical preoccupation in recent works, both as a subject (how modernism was made by its practitioners) and as an ideology (how modernism has been and will be made by literary historians). Various books, such as Robert Kiely's collection, Modernism Reconsidered (Harvard, 1983), Alice Jardine's Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (Cornell, 1985), Perry Meisel's The Myth of the Modern (Yale, 1987), and Sydney Janet Kaplan's forthcoming Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction, focus on different writers, isolate different time periods, read different texts, and as a result, construct divergent explanations for the engendering of literary modernism. If I single out Levenson's Genealogy and Gilbert and Gubar's No Man's Land, it is because their asymmetry clearly sets the stakes in these efforts to make modernism. The former book painstakingly sets forth the conflicting forces that converged to form a particular strain of canonical modernism; the latter book provocatively challenges the very grounds of that argument.

The titles of these two works display their differences: Levenson's approach is temporal, Gilbert and Gubar's, spatial; Levenson covers a mere fourteen years, Gilbert and Gubar well over a century. The title of my review, taken (with parentheses added) from Gilbert and Gubar, and my headnote, adapted from the OED, specify their different emphases. For Levenson, the engendering of literary modernism, or one line of it, takes the form of a "recognizable lineage" among Hulme, Ford, Pound, Lewis, and Eliot. Excluding women from his study and ending with Eliot as the "heir of English modernism" (p. x), his understanding of engender would seem to be "of the male parent." In contrast, Gilbert and Gubar's understanding of engender stresses not the heir but the error of such accounts as Levenson's that "kill'st the mother," whether by neglecting a matrilinear development or by idealizing the mother as muse. Their book is a gendering of literary history, which for them means seeing what has long been discussed in terms of a generational conflict as masking "a more profound sexual-literary struggle" (p. 126), the battle of the sexes that is their metaphor throughout. They use engender in the second sense, "of the female parent," not only in their fourth chapter on "The Female Affiliation Complex," but also in their argument that women have been the bearers of literary modernism. The difference between these two...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100036840