Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Gene Stratton-Porter's "Freckles."(early 20th-Century Best-seller)(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

It has become fashionable to hold that "cultural work of [a] fundamental kind was often done by exactly those popular forms that . . . have seemed the weakest of 19th-century [American] cultural life" (Fisher 5). This "redefinition of literature and literary study . . . sees literary texts not as works of art embodying enduring themes in complex forms, but as attempts to redefine the social order"(Tompkins xi).[1] This view would seem to require, and indeed its proponents typically incorporate, both a redefinition of "sentimentality"[2] from a regrettable predilection for the mawkish to an effective "strategy" for bringing about salutary societal change, and the populist assumption, calmly ridiculed by David Bromwich (passim but particularly ch. 5), that only popular works, as opposed to those of "high" culture, can challenge a politically-repressive status quo. Freckles (1904), the prodigious best seller by Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924), provides a complicating counter example.[3] This novel, derided or ignored by critics then and now, dramatizes assumptions about class, gender, and sexual identity that are at best ambiguous, at worst retrograde. How or whether novels in fact change the way their readers think, for good or for ill, is of course beyond our knowing.[4] Stratton-Porter assumed, however, that the proper purpose of novels was moral edification and spiritual uplift[5] and insisted that elite critics were wrong to dislike her sentimentality: "All the world loves sweets! . . . I am a molasses person myself," she said (qtd. in Meehan 159-60).[6] The plot summary and excerpts of her novel given here may allow readers to come to their own judgments about this matter.

In the closing pages of the novel that is essentially his story, Freckles discovers that he is in fact the wealthy Terence Maxwell O'More, of Dunderry House, County Clare, Ireland.[7] In the year or so from the novel's opening where he appears at a lumbering camp in Indiana, Freckles, a nineteen-year old "waif" three months out of a Chicago orphanage that was his home since infancy, has come a very long way indeed. He soon earns the respect of all and the love of many, not least that of the Angel, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a prominent local businessman, a girl of wealth and social standing, a young woman whose virtues and abilities are manifold and marvelous. But he is haunted by the belief that his parents, after cutting off his right hand, abandoned him. He in fact lost his hand in an accident, his parents perishing in desperate attempts to save the beloved child from their burning home.

Freckles's courageous nature and impressive verbal vivacity are on display as soon as he arrives at the Limberlost camp. When trying to speak to the Boss, he is rebuffed by the camp cook who has noticed his missing hand, Freckles astonishes that cook by saying, "If you will be having the goodness to point him [the Boss] out, we will give him a chance to do his own talking" (1:12). Where, one might ask, did Freckles learn to produce such a tone of aristocratic, haughty disdain? Listening to Freckles's appeal for employment, McLean, the Boss, "scarcely could repress a start. Somewhere back of accident and poverty had been an ancestor who used cultivated English" (1:15). Stratton-Porter would agree with the Boss. It is basic to her characterization of Freckles, at the core of her conception of human nature and development, that traits acquired by an ancestor are inherited by his or her descendants. Freckles's rhetorical verve is in his genes. Similarly, Freckles's love of singing and his talent for it are taken as proof of the obsolete, Lamarckian thesis. Speaking with Stratton-Porter's authority, the Angel, Freckles's

beloved, tells him that "the little training you had from that choirmaster won't account for the wonderful accent and ease with which you sing. Somewhere in your close blood is a marvelously trained vocalist; we every one of us believe that, Freckles. …