Date of Degree
Nancy K. Miller
African American Studies | American Literature | Literature in English, North America | Women's Studies
Twentieth-century literature, U.S. literature, feminism, modernist, Harlem Renaissance, New Negro
Anita Loos’ Lorelei has a baby because “a kid that looks like any rich father is as good as money in the bank.” Edith Wharton’s Undine uses hers as a pawn in divorce negotiations with the child’s father. Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Angela abandons her sister so her boyfriend won’t guess she’s black, and Nella Larsen’s Helga frustrates and alienates everyone she loves. Yet these protagonists were subject not just to gleeful mockery and sanction, but to furtive pity, uncomfortable recognition, even envy. Each age calls for its own bogeys; and the anti-heroine was, I contend, the perfect instantiation of American modernity’s fears and foibles. She tells of modernity’s fragmented selfhood and a “lost generation” of sorts—what Dorothy Parker, speaking to the League of American Writers in 1939, called “a ladies auxiliary of the legion of the damned.”
Of course, the “lost generation” of young men has long served as a standard-bearer for American modernist literature. Offering a deliberate rebuke to the mythology of the self-made man, the modernist anti-hero reports upon a rapidly contracting world and personifies the period’s existential dread and powerlessness. The story of U.S. modernisms that emerges as a result tells of a characteristic literary response to two brutal world wars and the devaluation of masculine labor, offering up a generalized masculine disenchantment. But what of feminine disenchantment? The anti-heroine, I suggest, bears witness not just to modernity’s contractions, but to its rapidly expanding possibilities: the new opportunities it offered for things like travel, communication, sex and sexuality, and even love.
This dissertation tells of American literary modernisms by way of a theoretical and historical analysis the period’s anti-heroines. Femininity gone awry, this figure, whom I call “the Woman We Don’t Want to Be,” delimits the parameters of the systems that create her and into which she feeds. In recovering women’s writing from the period, feminist scholars have for obvious reasons tended to value feminist texts. Yet the anti-heroine is a bad feminist agent; she either fails to attain self-fulfillment, much less empowerment, or succeeds by buying into and profiting off of patriarchal, racist systems. And in reproducing her, her authors also reproduce, to varying degrees, the racist and sexist ideologies by which she is judged. As a result, these texts don’t fit into the existing feminist schema by which we have recovered and framed women’s writing.
If this figure fits poorly into these rubrics, however, I argue that she perfectly reflects the period’s hesitancy towards feminist ideas. In this dissertation, I describe American modernisms’ relationship to what I call, following the lead of a 1925 Harper’s Monthly column, “feminism’s awkward age”—a marked ambivalence, on both sides of the color line, towards feminism as a collective project. If first- and second-wave feminism looked outwards in order to figure out what was wrong with women’s lives, modernity’s women looked within.
In documenting this turn towards bad, uncomfortable or wrong feminine interiority, this dissertation reframes the fragmented self—long considered a hallmark of modernist writing—by exploring its stakes in modernity’s constructions of gender and race. In a period preoccupied with self-making, in the sense of the self-made man, The Woman We Don’t Want to Be offers a fun-house image of her era, embodying the repulsive and fascinating possibilities of the un-made feminine self.
Priest, Madison, "The Woman We Don’t Want to Be: The Anti-Heroine in American Women’s Modernisms" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.