What! Ruins already?
--Alexis de Tocqueville
From this remark by Tocqueville upon seeing the remains of an abandoned hearth in 1830s New England to Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 frontier thesis, a seemingly reasonable rough consensus emerged regarding culture in the United States: American identity rises from rejecting settled community and rejoicing in continuous flight toward the frontier. The American literary canon has often been described by prominent critics as a series of analogs for this heroic flight west. Rather than centering on the ruins all along its westering course, this vision of American literary tradition valorizes the unfettered American, nearly always male, breaking free of social restraints, and it supplants our history with a myth of the open road. This version of American literary history unites Melville's "No, in Thunder" with his call for a literary counterpart to manifest destiny (in "Hawthorne and His Mosses"). Recently, Nina Baym has derided such prominent critics as Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, Joel Porte, Richard Poirier, and Richard Chase for continuing this celebration of anti-social romances that reject community by defining the best of American literary tradition through ahistorical readings of those works that dovetail most easily with this limited idea of American identity. In her argument, the critics have constructed the canon almost exclusively from this notion of "beset young men" heroically resisting the (feminine) threat of the hearth.
The tradition probably starts with Rip Van Winkle fleeing the termagant wife. It is reenacted as a young hero flees from stifling society in manifestations of flight that vary from Thoreau's hermitage in the woods to more dramatic tales of roadlust in Melville's whaling ship, on Twain's raft, and in Kerouac's "borrowed" Cadillac. One way or another, these works celebrate a Whitmanesque "Song of the Open Road" that is all-male and without responsibilities. Baym's "Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors" criticizes not so much these works of fiction as the critical tradition that reads these works ahistorically--as enactments of mythic flight--and enshrines this myth as the cultural essence of America in literature. According to Baym, such criticism performs the dubious cultural work of valorizing an irresponsible, narcissistic rejection of historical problems in order to rejoice in the westering myth that shuns the present, both in time and space, distorts the past, and "warps" the works it elevates. Throughout its hegemonic hold on the American canon, this tradition has looked contemptuously on those works that "stay home" and attempt a realistic treatment of social problems. Baym summarizes the cumulative effect of this critical approach as follows:
The myth narrates a confrontation of the American individual, the pure self
divorced from specific social circumstances, with the promise offered by
the idea of America....
Thus it is that the essential quality of America comes to reside in its
unsettled wilderness (i.e., unsettled by white people) and the
opportunities such wilderness offers the individual as the medium on which
he may inscribe, unhindered, his own destiny and his own nature. (10-11).
Not only has this critical tradition elevated male authors, it has also focused on men as characters since they have been, until quite recently in our culture, much more credible as protagonists in the flight narrative. It has denigrated women authors and the characters they have traditionally dealt with as the oppressive wives and mothers, the keepers of the hearth, from which Tocqueville's New Englanders and Rip Van Winkle fled. As a result, women have "entered the tradition as the enemy" (9), as "scribbling women" whose domestic melodramas are the oppressors to which male flight is the creative and critical response. Ultimately, Baym calls for a theory of American fiction that attends to American particulars, one that historicizes the creative works it handles rather than warping them into the mold of an all-explaining myth. …