Book Reviews

Book Review – Gender, Race, and Mourning in American Modernism

Gender, Race, and Mourning in American ModernismGENDER, RACE, AND MOURNING IN AMERICAN MODERNISM.  By Greg Forter.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  2011.

Greg Forter offers a challenging thesis in Gender, Race, and Mourning in American Modernism, examining five canonical texts as expressions of loss in “response to changes in the sex/gender and racial systems that took place between 1880 and 1920” (1). He merges cultural studies of manhood with psychoanalytic theories of mourning, scholarship on trauma, and literary close reading.

Forter’s introduction provides an overview of 19th-century America masculinity and its transformation under monopoly capitalism as groundwork for “the affective genealogy of modernist misogyny” (9) that follows. Central to his argument is the masculine/feminine dynamic within prescriptive gender roles: authors “came to yearn for a masculinity less rigidly polarized against the feminine” even as they could not “avoid internalizing the imperatives of the emerging gender order” (4). Working through this psychic ambivalence, which Forter grafts onto Freud’s mourning and melancholia, was “decisive to the emergence of canonical modernism” (4).

The work’s strengths are the fascinating analysis of gender intersecting race and the keen scrutiny of  narrative strategy.  The first chapter reads The Great Gatsby as allegory of the loss of male creativity embodied in lyrical Gatsby, a style of manhood “that cannot but be lost” (15). Fitzgerald’s “impersonal form” (16), the distancing imposed by the entangled first-person narrator, are persuasively examined.  Chapter two adds new insights into Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises by reading Jake’s wound and the novel’s phallic fixation as a melancholic reaction to modernity’s destabilized gender. Jake’s impotence and Romero’s primitive masculinity reveal the impossibility of manhood. This “fetishistic melancholia” insists “that men are cut off from both (racialized) primality and expressive ‘femininity’ while preserving these in rigidified, affectively deadened, unenlivening form” (57). Hemingway’s iconic style encodes this principle, “gesture[ing] toward affective communication while barring it from representation” (94).

The Freudian primal scene provides entrée to Faulkner’s use of history in Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!. Each text’s primal scene exposes the trauma inflicted by historical patriarchy, racism, and class inequity. Psychical and physical violence are transmitted between characters and, via narrative strategies, to readers. These characters at once pass on and hold onto their melancholy over the destruction of white Southern masculinity, modeling the means of “working through” a trauma ultimately proven inevitable. Finally, Cather’s “The Professor’s House” is interpreted as the failure of the maternal and primitive racial other under modern capitalism. The “Afterword” considers the “afterlife of canonical modernism’s melancholy aesthetic” (178) in three contemporary works.

Forter’s work offers much to scholars of modernist American literature, but less to cultural studies. Novels are treated as cultural artifacts revealing their authors’ and the larger cultural ambivalence, but the study focuses on psychoanalytic theory rather than cultural analysis. Perhaps because of the argument’s complexity, the writing is at times opaque, overstated, and reliant on “on one hand, on the other hand” constructions. Contributing to ongoing conversations in cross-disciplinary literary and American Studies, Gender, Race and Mourning in American Modernism accomplishes Forter’s goal of “enrich[ing] contemporary understandings of both modern and modernist masculinity” (7).

Beth Widmaier Capo, Illinois College

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