Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Poverty, Payment, Power: Kathleen Thompson Norris and Popular Romance

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Poverty, Payment, Power: Kathleen Thompson Norris and Popular Romance

Article excerpt

2006 marked the fortieth anniversary of the death of Kathleen Thompson Norris. Who? I hear my under-fifty colleagues cry. The question is both understandable and remarkable, considering that between 1910 and 1950, Norris was the equivalent of Nora Roberts or Stephen King. The author of eighty-two novels, many of them bestsellers and many more serialized in the period's most popular publications, Norris claimed in Time (in 1955) to have written "about nine million words--at the rate of about $1 per word." (1) Not bad, even by the inflated standards of 2008. But she has been forgotten, condemned to the critical abysses of "romance" and sentimental fiction, despite her often bleak portrayals of married life for women. Her husband is recalled in specialized circles, but the reputation of both has been overshadowed by Charles Norris's more famous brother, Frank. Two critical studies--Anne G. Balay's "'Hands Full of Living': Birth Control, Nostalgia, and Kathleen Norris" and Bruce Degi's Fiction and Family: The Early Novels of Charles and Kathleen Norris have recognized the two Norrises' place in literary history, but are less sanguine about their contributions to literature. (2) In particular, the forced happy endings that marked many of Kathleen Norris's novels have not been forgiven by the postmodern academy; nor have the novels that took a different stance been remembered.

However, Kathleen Thompson Norris is interesting in her own right, as a "real" author who calls genre into question and plays radically with both anxiety and expectation. While many of Norris's novels count as "romance," focused as they are on monogamous heterosexual relationships, the forced conclusions that end the happier novels, let alone the despair that marks the darker ones, tell a story not conventionally "romantic." Despite her faith in the potential of marriage and family to redeem society, educate the young, and provide happiness for women. (3) Norris's essays and novels are also cautionary tales that position the choices to marry and to have sex as the most dangerous and fraught of a woman's life: not just morally or spiritually, but in terms of practical threats (notably poverty) to women's well-being. Even the happiest of Norris's novels show an equal and opposite pull of anxiety concerning women's ability to achieve any kind of security for themselves in a world where the laws of both marriage and economy favor men.

The writing of Kathleen Thompson Norris is interesting not only as a recuperative project, but for its illumination of the tension that still characterizes popular romance today: love, sex, and financial and emotional security are profoundly desirable, but the power disparity between men and women means that the relationship that promises security may in fact undermine it. Long before scholars of romance in the 1980s pointed out the deep anxieties underlying that genre, Norris was addressing women's anxiety about the power disparities imbricated in sex and marriage, and attempting to allay it again in very nearly the way Janice Radway's Reading the Romance and Tania Modleski's Loving with a Vengeance would attribute to popular romance. (4) Norris's startling addition, however--one that did not cross into the subsequent generations' popular romances--was thrift. Love was not enough; there must also be money, and (contrary to the theme of the standard 1980s Harlequin) money was not to be had simply by marrying it.

Despite her belief in marriage, Norris advocated for women working both before and after it; moreover, she was a strong adherent of the new "science" of domestic economy or home economics. (5) Norris's works promise women security only as the result of extraordinarily good planning, both in choice of spouse and in terms of actual economy. In both love and domestic finance, solvency and safety are so difficult to achieve, and the perils of failing to achieve them so great, that endlessly careful choice, extreme thrift, and, in the last resort, good luck (good fortune, one might say) are the only hopes of salvation for Norris's women. …

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