Demoting Hemingway: Feminist Criticism and the Canon
University of Nevada, Reno
In the “Extra” for March 1987 Lawrence Buell presents a deeply informed overview of what feminist revisionism can do for American literary history. As Buell’s reasoning and examples are quite persuasive, it will perhaps seem ungenerous for me to take issue with a single comment, offered as a parenthetical illustration. Nonetheless, I think the comment in question points up the dangers of the feminist approach to literary history, so I want to use it as a springboard to discuss what I take these dangers to be.
Toward the end of his essay Buell summarizes what feminist studies can hope to do in reshaping the American canon. The first thing such studies can do is “to foment reorderings in the pre-feminist canon (the demotion of Hemingway, for instance).” And why should Hemingway be demoted? Presumably because his works are informed by a crippling sexism, crippling on both aesthetic and cultural grounds. Indeed, this is so “obvious” Buell does not even explain the logic. His remark implies that feminist study has already confirmed the need to demote Hemingway or that such work, when done, will surely justify the demotion. Ultimately, of course, Buell’s remark implies that there are a good many canonical figures who need to be demoted or displaced, now that we have a better perspective on their work.
I wish to thank my colleagues Susan Baker and Ann Ronald for making a number of helpful suggestions about this essay.
“Literary History Without Sexism? Feminist Studies and Canonical Reconception,” American Literature, 59 (1987), 102-14.
Buell, p. 114.