Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction and the U.S. Welfare State

Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction and the U.S. Welfare State

Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction and the U.S. Welfare State

Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction and the U.S. Welfare State

Synopsis

Offering a sharp corrective to the existing literature on the topic, Grotesque Relations explores the vexed relationship between modernist domestic fiction and the rise of the U.S. welfare state. Whereas extant criticism focuses on the New Deal, Susan Edmunds returns to the Progressive Era, when maternalist reformers linked early welfare initiatives to a discourse of social housekeeping that extended domestic roles into civic life. Highlighting the unique importance of a modern sentimental project of domestic reform to the formation of the U.S. welfare state, Edmunds deftly demonstrates how modernist writers shaped-and misshaped-their domestic fiction in response to new state and market investments in the home. Crucial to Edmunds's study is the formation, during this era, of the "domestic exterior," a hybrid social space located at the intersection of home, market, and state and invested with the mandate to support and regulate domestic life. With innovative readings of works by Djuna Barnes, Jean Toomer, Edna Ferber, Tillie Olsen, Nathanael West, and Flannery O'Connor, Edmunds demonstrates how U.S. modernists used an aesthetic of defamiliarization and grotesque distortion to map the fraught ground of the domestic exterior, and to align the unsettled space of modern domesticity with the revolutionary discourses of socialism, consumerism, and the avant-garde. Grotesque Relations reveals how modernists' focus on issues ranging from domestic abuse, lynching, and eugenics to educational reform, health care, and social security delineates successive points of struggle in a history of welfare state building that culminates with the New Deal and the GI Bill. Combining historical and political perspectives with the social theory of Hannah Arendt, Jacques Donzelot, and Pierre Bourdieu, Grotesque Relations ultimately proposes that modernists forged an enduring set of terms for understanding and negotiating the widespread ambivalence, alienation, and conflict that characterize our current attachments to family life.

Excerpt

In his 1939 essay “What Is Epic Theater?” Walter Benjamin conjures up “a family scene” to explain the concept of Brecht’s alienation effect to his reader:

Suddenly a stranger enters. the mother was just about to seize a
bronze bust and hurl it at her daughter; the father was in the act of
opening the window in order to call a policeman. At that moment the
stranger appears in the doorway. This means that the stranger is con
fronted with a situation as with a startling picture: troubled faces, an
open window, the furniture in disarray. But there are eyes to which
even more ordinary scenes of middle-class life look almost equally
startling.

Benjamin’s unsettling scene fits comfortably within a picture we have devised for modernism as a whole: marked by a broken or alienated relation to the favored subject matter and representational modes of an earlier era, the work of modernist and avant-garde writers teaches us to regard the world with startled eyes, to question the unquestionable, to find the ordinary strange. And, as Benjamin himself suggests, one could hardly find a better place to begin such a project than within the fond embrace of the family, whose spirit presides over the most “ordinary scenes of middle-class life,” first giving that ordinariness its possibility and then, all too quickly it seems, its pervasive inevitability. To attack the ordinary itself—to expose the non-inevitable conditions of its possibility—Benjamin begins with the extraordinary, systematically inverting and deforming conventions too well known to require explicit citation. the sentimental mother, guardian of culture and loving caretaker of the young . . .

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