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Grief Taboo in American Literature: Loss and Prolonged Adolescence in Twain, Melville, and Hemingway

Pamela A. Boker
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 372
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  • Book Info
    Grief Taboo in American Literature
    Book Description:

    In this feminist rereading, Pamela A. Boker examines the prolonged adolescence of the American male in the works of three quintessential American male authors, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, through a highly original psychoanalytic inquiry. Challenging conventional interpretations, Boker argues that failing to mourn loss and repressing one's true emotions do not demonstrate a heroic capacity, but rather, a damaging inability to work through psychological wounds that have not healed.Boker locates in the lives and fiction of Melville, Twain, and Hemingway the suicidal orphan, the adolescent simultaneously seeking masculine maturity and escaping from it. She reveals a world of perpetual adolescence, repressed grief, and repudiation of feminine identification. All three writers lacked intimate relationships with their fathers and remained conflicted emotionally, a condition which profoundly influenced their creative work.In Melville's life and work, readers encounter aggressive and guilt ridden characters, trapped in infantile and early adolescent development. Similarly, Mark Twain enlisted humor and nostalgic fantasies of an ideal past in his avoidance of difficult emotions. Silent references and vague allusions to painful feelings proliferate the fiction of Hemingway. In seeking out the repressed vulnerability of the tough guy in American literature, Boker finds it where it is most vigorously denied.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2346-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Jeffrey Berman

    As New York University Press inaugurates a new series of books on literature and psychoanalysis, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect briefly upon the history of psychoanalytic literary criticism. For a century now it has struggled to define its relationship to its two contentious progenitors and come of age. After glancing at its origins, we may be in a better position to speculate on its future.

    Psychoanalytic literary criticism was conceived at the precise moment in which Freud, reflecting upon his self-analysis, made a connection to two plays and thus gave us a radically new approach to reading literature....

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-37)

    The concept for this book was formulated several years ago, when, as a graduate student in American studies (with a secondary emphasis in psychoanalysis), I was asked to draw some conclusions about the traditional American literary canon. I recognized two common themes that consistently appeared in American literature written by male authors, from the Puritans, through the early Republic and Transcendentalism, and well into the mid-twentieth century. These were loss, and male adolescence; or, more specifically, the disavowal of grief over a willfully discarded past, and the fact that much of America’s greatest literature appears to be designed for adolescent...

  5. 1. “Circle-Sailing”: The Eternal Return of Tabooed Grief in Melville’s Moby-Dick
    (pp. 38-67)

    Herman Melville’sMoby-Dickprovides an ideal starting point for my investigation of the theme of tabooed, or unresolved grief in American literature. It also helps to establish the usefulness of object relations and feminist psychoanalytic theory in illuminating the novel in this fundamentally new way. The novel functions so well toward these ends, partly because it explores with sophistication and complexity the literary and psychoanalytic issues that will be taken up again in even greater depth in the fiction of Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, and partly because many of the claims that this study will make about the repression...

  6. 2. “My First Lie, and How I Got Out of It”: Deprivation-Grief and the Making of an American Humorist
    (pp. 68-102)

    Sam Clemens began his career as a humorist and storyteller as a young boy, when he reportedly came home in the evenings heavily laden with an assortment of tales about his day’s adventures. He would always recast his stories comically, relating them in a humorous and entertaining manner,¹ and although there was always a pretense of truthfulness, his listeners could never be certain as to how much of the story was true, and how much was pure fabrication. In his mother’s experience: “Sammy is a wellspring of truth, but you can’t bring up the whole well with one bucket.—I...

  7. 3. “Blessed are they that mourn, for they—they—”: Repressed Grief and Pathological Mourning in Mark Twain’s Fiction
    (pp. 103-136)

    Mark Twain once wrote to William Dean Howells, about one of his dream stories: “I think I can carry the reader a long way before he suspects that I am laying a tragedy-trap.”¹ The infusion of tragedy into Mark Twain’s humor is something that has long perplexed those readers and admirers who are familiar with his work. In order to understand this somewhat unusual admixture in Twain’s comic formula, it is first necessary to decipher what he meant by “tragedy”—what, in other words, was the definition of “tragic” that life had taught Sam Clemens? An answer has already been...

  8. 4. Huckleberry Finn’s Anti-Oedipus Complex: Father-Loss and Mother-Hunger in the Great American Novel
    (pp. 137-165)

    In all of American literature there is perhaps no adolescent male protagonist who is more endearing and more representative of the American orphan-hero than Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Like Melville’s Pierre, Huck seeks to free himself from parental bondage, and yet, once this adolescent rebellion is undertaken, he suffers deeply from an almost unbearable loneliness and isolation. However, whereas Pierre copes with his grief from loss by philosophizing about it and identifying with such heroic sufferers as Hamlet and Dante, Huck lacks the intellectual resources that might allow him to cope with his emotional pain. As T. S. Eliot observed,...

  9. 5. The Shaping of Hemingway’s Art of Repressed Grief: Mother-Loss and Father-Hunger from In Our Time to Winner Take Nothing
    (pp. 166-206)

    Ernest Hemingway’s commitment to the taboo against grief was perhaps the most dedicated, artistically refined, and ultimately self-devastating of any figure in American literature. About Hemingway as a young man, Gregory Clark, features editor of theToronto Star Weekly,once observed that “a more weird combination of quivering sensitiveness and preoccupation with violence surely never walked this earth.”¹ Clark’s insight into the nature of Hemingway’s character captures the paradoxical qualities of this complex American writer’s life and fiction. It implies Hemingway’s need to disguise his emotional vulnerability behind a facade of strength and control, which again brings to mind Mark...

  10. 6. “Ether in the Brain”: Blunting the Edges of Perception in Hemingway’s Middle Period
    (pp. 207-248)

    Hemingway’s attitude toward his previously valorized defenses against loss and grief underwent a metamorphosis during the period between 1934 and 1936—the years that according to Tom Dardis marked “a watershed in the transformation that came over Hemingway, what some have seen as a profound personal change.”¹ By the mid-1930s Hemingway began to realize that his taboo against grief, or more specifically, the defenses he used to arm himself against loss and grief, represented another, and perhaps a more personally devastating, kind of loss. The first suggestions of this change appear in the stories “After the Storm” (1932), and, even...

  11. 7. Grief Hoarders and “Beat-Up Old Bastards”: Hemingway’s Bittersweet Taste of Nostalgia
    (pp. 249-286)

    As I suggested in the previous chapter, in his later life and career, Hemingway became conscious of the disturbing fact that the art of repression, while it functioned brilliantly as a strategy of defense against personal loss, disappointment, and depression in the composition of his fictional narratives, had a way of taking its toll on him personally and professionally, as it did on Harry in “Snows,” by augmenting rather than diminishing the physical and psychological ills that plagued him. Also, by the mid-1930s, Hemingway appeared to have begun to identify narcissistically with the grandiose paternal image of the Hemingwaycode...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 287-300)

    While psycho-historical generalizations should always be posited with an appropriate degree of speculative caution, it is difficult—given our inherited national symbolism, which speaks of thebirthof America, thegrowthof a nation, thefatherof our country, and thefounding fathersof American democracy—not to think of American history in terms of the evolution of an emerging collective consciousness. The image of such a collective cultural figure which has been indirectly evoked throughout this study is that of the rebellious male adolescent who clings with stubborn pride to unrealistic and idealistic notions of self-control, emotional invulnerability, and...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 301-338)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 339-350)
  15. Index
    (pp. 351-358)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 359-359)