I, modernist: male feminization and the self-construction of authorship in the modern American novel
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An unexplored peculiarity of the male modernist novel is the frequency with which we find some version of the author himself in its pages, speaking, thinking and experiencing. Diagnosing this tendency as a symptom of cultural strain, this dissertation analyzes literary self-constructions in the works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ralph Ellison. These key modernists, plagued by anxieties about manhood, race and the literary marketplace, used their works as implicit self-portraiture to suggest their own achievement of exclusive forms of masculine authorship. Central to this aim is the use of author surrogates, first-person narrators or protagonists who evoke the author himself in the act of attaining “literary manhood,” a form of masculine identity distinguished not by physical or sexual dominance, but by intellectual and emotional superiorities. Yet the surrogate attains these qualities through shocking humiliations and defeats; he is wounded and laid low by mediocrity, by women, “lesser” men, and by modern life itself. Critics have argued that so many feminized protagonists were a sign that modern men felt threatened by the rise of women in the public sphere. But male woundedness—even to the point of castration—emerges in this study as the very condition of modern authorship. As Hemingway wrote, the true artist “impersonally” turned his feminization into art: “We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist.” Scientifically turning “damned hurts” into difficult new forms of modern knowledge, modernists redressed cultural and professional anxieties by converting trauma into intellectual mastery, agency, and social authority. To privilege certain traits, however, is to reject others. The epistemological victories modernists attained through their defeats rely on a repudiation of the “feminine,” whether portrayed in women, in male homosexuals, or in racial others. This study thus implicates highly influential concepts of modern authorship with broader cultural attitudes toward race, gender and ethnicity, investigating a crucial node of aesthetics, epistemology and identity politics at the heart of the modern novel.