To Kiss the Chastening Rod: Domestic Fiction and Sexual Ideology in the American Renaissance

To Kiss the Chastening Rod: Domestic Fiction and Sexual Ideology in the American Renaissance

To Kiss the Chastening Rod: Domestic Fiction and Sexual Ideology in the American Renaissance

To Kiss the Chastening Rod: Domestic Fiction and Sexual Ideology in the American Renaissance

Excerpt

"Herman Melville Crazy," trumpeted the New York Day Book's notice of Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, compressing the general tenor of critical reaction to the novel into one shrill note. Melville must have known he had it coming. He had taken the wraps off a subject, incest, that "universally-received rules of moral and social order" required one to keep "shrouded in a decorous darkness." And he had coupled this offense with a related one, compounded of "affectation," "remote analogies," "absurd forms of expression," "distorted fancies and conceits," and "genteel hifalutin, painful, though ingenious involutions of language." The upshot was "a kind of prose run mad" which dissolved solid truth in "unbounded ... nothingness" and confounded "virtue and religion" with "their opposites." In a word, the "raving lunatic's" "diseased imagination" had boiled over in a "monstrous," "unhealthy," outrageously "improper work," compelling the guardians of moral and aesthetic rectitude to "freeze him into silence." And they did, with a vengeance.

The present book began life as an attempt to get back into the spirit of their hysteria. If Melville merited muzzling for "sous[ing]" readers in a "torrent rhapsody" that treated "the holy relations of the family with supersensuousness," how, I wanted to know, did the primitive pre-Freudians of the age of Pierre treat the same sacred subject? (Melville's novel, it will be remembered, was conceived four years before Freud was.) What decorous domestic vision had Melville's distorted fancy distorted? I began fishing for an answer in . . .

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