Monday, May 30, 2005

Peter Stonely, Consumerism and American Girls' Literature, 1860-1940 (Cambridge: CUP, 2005).

If anyone out there has read this book I'd value a second opinion, because my over-arching thought is that while there are some very interesting ideas in here, I've just spend £40 ($80) on a rather tortuous article.

Peter Stonely's thesis is that from 1860 to 1940 American Girls' Literature was constructed with the none-too-subtle aim of teaching middle-class girls to negotiate the rocky shoals of incipient womanhood in a society in which the definition of middle class was changing, the location of the middle-classes was moving from the country to the towns, and the chances of holding on to status were becoming more problematic as social mobility created traps for the unwary.

All of this is rather obvious, and written in stiflingly tortous language that manages to make Nancy Drew sound dull, but the subtleties of his arguments are worth paying attention to and some of his interpretation of the way in which successful female authors accomodated their notions of modesty to the consequences of their success are fascinating.

His book runs something like this:

1. Louisa M. Alcott--argues for "modesty" as the defining matter of Womanhood to be held onto at all costs even in the face of financial hardship. Excessive consumerism is immodest.

2. Magazines begin to publish fiction that is more ambivalent, contrasting the nouveau riche (who always turn out to be bad and shallow) against the poor but well-bred *but* at the same time running adverts for the things the poor-but-well-bred are not supposed to covet and increasingly marketing themselves not to the middle class per se but to the aspiring.

3. Education is increasingly seen as the true consumer desirable and indicator of middle-classness.

4. Men become commodities, awarded to the unassuming, who are increasingly identitified with "country" values.

5. "Whiteness" (or nativeness) emerges as a hallmark of the deserving middle-class girl.

6. The girl's body is subsumed into her eyes (which are always large) and her hair. The rest of the body remains "trim" (Stonely argues that this is about keeping the girl pre-pubescent but I wonder if it is also a racial stereotype. As I point out far too often, only Bostonian ladies would have decided that the proper place for a napkin is on the lap.)

6. With the Depression emerges the Nancy Drew/Orphan Annie figure, dependent on a father for luxury goods out of reach of others,

There are three elements of this book I find interesting:
The first is that the books were written to construct an ideologically bound narrative of the m/c girl/woman which shifts over time in ways we would all recognise;
The second is that because it was often the aspirational who read the books, there is a constant jockeying as the aspirational increasingly impose their values (through sales figures) onto what it means to be middle-class.
The third is the section on serials--those books written as franchises. They aroused much the same response as Star Wars tie-ins today. They can't be literature. They must be morally bad. But crucially, they are cheap enough for girls to buy themselves which means that control over their dissemination leaves the purview of parents and teachers. I find myself wondering if a) this is why tie ins are considered so dangerous and b) if it is also why they are so attractive to children, because they make it very clear to children that they are being listened to. This last point is something I'd love to explore but at this precise moment I can't figure out how.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sounds like an interesting book. I found the comments about Alcott funny, since she didn't actually agree with any of her "girls" books, she just wrote them for money. They do carry the message of modesty, though, whether she wanted them to or not.

I also found the ideas about penny novels/series books interesting. I think that because adults have little control over them (due to the cost that allows children to buy them) they fear them or find them dangerous, as you said. It's an interesting idea. The same thing has been studied with comic books, that the "danger" adults see in them is largely due to the fact that they can't control them as well. That link between comic books and series/tie-in books could be interesting to look at. They have many similarities. Just a thought.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

Good thoughts.

I note your comment about Alcott and it rubs one of my itches about this book: I had the sense that for all his cultural consciousness, he didn't actually know as much about his authors as people as he might have done, even though his use of letters etc. was scrupulous.

11:05 AM  
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