Friday, August 30, 2019
This blog post got 72 “hits” from Wilmington, Delaware, yesterday 2/12/21. It was on my zombie blog, prairiemary.blogspot.com. I repost it in case it’s signficant in some way.
RENEWING THE WESTERN
The usual words attached to sentimentality are “maudlin, cloying, contrived, sickly” and I’ve gone along with that, but was brought up short by the information that our classic American authors consciously considered “sentiment” to be a legitimate philosophical idea. In modern terms it translates to attachment, visceral comfort, and justification. Is not our concern for children sentimental? Why otherwise would a small not-yet-formed human be more important than a potent fully developed man with a role in the world? Why else would we give a care to the people living on the sidewalk in rag tents? Sentiment is often portrayed as an indulgence of prosperous people — not the ultra rich, but the comfortable.
This is from the unknown writer in Wikipedia: “In the mid-18th century, a querulous lady had complained to Richardson: “What, in your opinion, is the meaning of the word sentimental, so much in vogue among the polite…Everything clever and agreeable is comprehended in that word…such a one is a sentimental man; we were a sentimental party”. What she was observing was the way the term was becoming a European obsession — part of the Enlightenment drive to foster the individual’s capacity to recognise virtue at a visceral level. Everywhere in the sentimental novel or the sentimental comedy, “lively and effusive emotion is celebrated as evidence of a good heart”. Moral philosophers saw sentimentality as a cure for social isolation; and Adam Smith indeed considered that “the poets and romance writers, who best paint…domestic affections, Racine and Voltaire; Richardson, Maurivaux and Riccoboni; are, in such cases, much better instructors than Zeno” and the Stoics.”
I’m more or less signed up with the Stoics because of my stiff-necked attitude of right and wrong. But also because this was my mother’s unexpressed but lived philosophy of sucking it up when times are tough. She covered it up with sentiment, but her sentiment broke over grief when things didn’t turned out as they should. My stoicism is more like resistance to authority, including hers. I was one of those things that didn’t turn out.
When the last “new” version of “Little Women” came out in the movies, I invited my mother to go see it, but she refused as she did for all the old familiar beloved films, because she remembered them with such affection and a kind of virtual reality of fiction. So recently I watched the “Masterpiece Theatre” version but was braced to protect my generation’s version with Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret O’Brien, and June Allyson as Jo. Who the heck played Meg? This fancy PBS version was rich with period detail, particularly the kind of “white” clothes made possible by needlework before the sewing machine — all frills, ruffles, detail, embroidery. It was unquestionably sentimental in the way that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Black Beauty”, and “Mrs. Wiggs in the Cabbage Patch” were, powerful enough to be engines of progressivism. In fact, the novels of my grandmothers which I read at the age of formation — by Gene Stratton-Porter in particular — were novels of sentimental feeling. Even our contemporary porny romance films subscribe to sentimental philosophy, depending on your gut reaction to them being a guide.
Much of Montana and other parts of the West were “settled” (invaded) by resource-exploiting New England men with sentimental wives, which was interpreted as being genteel and cultured. This meant the relationship to the indigenous and pre-existing people was conflicted. At least it provoked the novels of Wallace Stegner and A. B. Guthrie, Jr. I cross this divide when I came to Browning because of my alliance with Bob Scriver, who was born there in 1914 and whose family was uneasily disturbed by it.
I often think about writing fiction that would exploit the phenomenon of the West-depicting artist in the Sixties and challenge the sentimentality. I just read an essay by John Williams written the year I graduated from undergrad college (1961). I don’t know why it is being reread now and I never read any of his novels. He suggests that the Western is a reaction to two New England forces: the Calvinist strictness of the founding English church and the Emersonian rethinking of it to make allowance for sentiment, particularly something like German nature worship. That is, his viscera respond to the land. Williams never makes a comparison to the powerful callous money-making father versus the tender, comforting love of the home-making mother. So I’ll claim it.
In the same online session I came across Siobhan Leddy’s essay about Ursula LeGuin’s historical thread contrasting the woman’s “carrier bag, sling, shell or gourd.” (She doesn’t bring into it the womb.) She contrasts this to the male spear’s “phallic murderous logic.” So it would be easy to use what I know about Bob Scriver’s prior-to-art business of taxidermy — not distorted, arsenic-poisoned, amateur taxidermy which has taken a drubbing from recent tales — but a serious attempt to reverse death.
Old ranchers, often tribal people, were aware of difficulties that arose between Bob and I. One said to me, “I always thought Scriver worked his women too hard.” (I was the third of four.) Others advised him that because I was of child-bearing age that I ought to have a baby. The welcome substitute we shared was wildlife babies: bobcats, foxes, badgers, gophers, an eagle, and so on. Some of them grew up sleeping between us.
The dark side of the solution was that these pets were biologically programmed to separate and leave. They did. Sometimes they died. So nurturing often ended in grief, until the marriage also ended. Then I gave birth to myself, but I never wanted a human baby, because of the possible grief. “Marmee” sobs, “I can’t control my girls if they DIE.”
Links to the essays mentioned.