Pagan Dreiser: Songs from American Mythology

By Shawn St. Jean | Go to book overview

3
Gender and Sexuality

SISTER CARRIE AND GENDER BENDING EARLY IN THE
LATE CENTURY

THE TORTUOUS TITLE OF THIS SECTION IS MEANT TO MIRROR THE MEANDERing of critical fortunes one novelist can experience in the course of one hundred years. For example, no era deserves more careful consideration as a watershed in the literary history of sexuality than the inception of the twentieth century, the confluence of the Victorian and modernist periods; no literary figure represents that problematic transition, with regard to sexuality, better than Theodore Dreiser. But until recently, scholars of American literature could tacitly agree that, while Dreiser was no feminist—at least not in the sense that Margaret Fuller before him or his contemporary Charlotte Perkins Gilman were feminists—his fictional portrayals of women remain fair and convincing to the modern sensibility. And yet (to use the favorite Dreiserian qualifier), as we celebrate Sister Carrie’s centennial together with the millennium, the author’s views on gender and sexuality have received renewed attention by women scholars. While no one goes so far as to attack Dreiser as a dedicated misogynist, the critical tide seems to have turned against Dreiser’s treatment of women (fictional and in real life): while forward-looking, it is now lamented as unintentionally benighted and therefore still exploitative. Shelley Fisher Fishkin argues that “he was both ahead of his time and a creature of his time, a knot of contradictions as intricate and complicated as the culture itself. Through him one can read that culture’s tensions and ambivalences regarding women.”1 By “ahead of his time,” Fishkin refers to Dreiser’s famed “discourse of sexual frankness and liberation,” a discourse Irene Gammel calls, in the best recent essay on the subject, “problematic— not only because it may reinscribe old stereotypes in a new language … but also because it innocently assumes the existence of sexuality as an

-116-

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Pagan Dreiser: Songs from American Mythology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Acknowledgments 7
  • Introduction 9
  • Pagan Dreiser 25
  • 1 - Naturalism 27
  • 2 - Social Criticism 74
  • 3 - Gender and Sexuality 116
  • 4 - Religion, Mythology, and Intertextuality 164
  • Notes 201
  • Works Cited 221
  • Index 229
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