Post Updated: I inadvertently left off the final two paragraphs of this post when I put it up on the blog. My apologies to both Andrew and our readers. They’ve been added back as of 3:30 pm EST, 15 Feb 2014. — Ben Alpers
[Editor’s Note: What follows is the first in a six-week series of guest blogs from Andrew Seal. Andrew is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Yale University. He is currently writing his dissertation, tentatively titled “Exporting the Common Man: Midwestern Intellectuals and U.S. Power, 1910-1960,” which critically examines the emergence and decline of an ideal of American character and civilization parallel to the American Century but derived from the Midwestern middle class. Hailing from Indiana, schooled in the East, and now living in Utah, he is on his way to a regional bingo. He hopes to use his posts to confront both texts that have inspired him and sources that have perplexed him in pursuing his studies and research. I’m delighted to have him blogging for us! — Ben Alpers]
When L. D. recently wrote about the strange condition of Mary McCarthy in intellectual history—L. D. argued that McCarthy is present but under-utilized in histories of the New York intellectuals—it intersected with some difficulties I, too, have been encountering in both the archive and the historiographical record. For I, too, have often—but not always—found myself on cold trails when trying to connect the women in my dissertation to the larger themes I find in the monographs I admire and the conversations, debates, and narratives they represent. Like McCarthy, they are there, but not there, not obscured, but hidden in plain sight.
When novelists and biographers depict the conjoining of women to grand literary or intellectual narratives, they often do so as an unveiling. In A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession, the crucial evidence that links the major poet Randolph Henry Ash and the relatively minor poet Christabel LaMotte is a letter that has been concealed in Ash’s papers, undetected by the scholarship of generations. A great deal of the novel’s plot proceeds through the figures and facts of letters concealed and revealed, secrets exposed and unearthed, but one way to read this archival drama is as the full canonization of the female poet by virtue of her connection to the male. By this link, she is shuffled into the mainstream of a Great Tradition and out of the marginalized countercurrents of feminist and queer scholarship.
Similarly (obligatory spoiler alert), in Meg Wolitzer’s brilliant novel The Wife, sexual politics collides with literature when it is revealed that the real author behind the prize-winning “major” novels of a Norman Mailer/Saul Bellow-like novelist is, in fact, his wife, who has posed as his typist/research assistant/stenographer. Wolitzer’s construction of this arrangement is brilliant and much more subtle than that summary, and I urge you to read this novel to find out how she does it, but the point that struck me in reading the novel is that it is, in fact, easier to imagine a secret of this magnitude than it is to imagine a female novelist breaking into, competing with, and triumphing over the male establishment of Mailer’s and Bellow’s circles.
Other examples of these highly dramatic revelations of women’s connections to male authors abound. Although written to illuminate a different kind of connection, there is even a new film about Charles Dickens and his lover Nelly Ternan titled The Invisible Woman (from a biography by Claire Tomalin), and that seems to sum up this general attitude, that it takes a sort of archival miracle to move women into the mainstream of literature or intellectual culture, to connect them to the Great Tradition. Women are invisible—in the attic or in the dust of the archive—and extraordinary, even anomalous, discoveries are required to see them.
These miracles have occurred many times over, and I am in awe of the diligence, commitment, and passion that has been required to make them. But I would like to suggest that there remains a serious problem with the sub-miraculous project of rethinking the intellectual historical space that is allotted to the women who routinely get three or four page references in an index, but little more. I would even suggest that we may have been half-consciously content not to ask the questions that lead to a direct articulation of this problem because we expect an archival miracle to solve it, to turn up a manuscript or cache of letters that will ground a new leap to prominence for a woman intellectual.
Let me provide an example of this problem, although I’m afraid I cannot promise a solution.
One of the intellectual communities I am pursuing in my dissertation is the raucous circle of US foreign correspondents—a great many of them from the cities and small towns of the Midwest—in the interwar period. It was a relatively small world, a dense network, intimate in a number of senses. While the more obviously “intellectual” aspect of this denseness was a vibrant circulation of secrets and tips—state secrets, open secrets, gossip, advice—a good part of this intimacy, as I have discovered primarily through reading biographies, was sexual: one male correspondent sleeping with another’s wife, lover, or friend, creating a very blatant example of the traffic in women.
What is fascinating to me about this traffic from an archival point of view is, however, the way that it spills over into correspondence. Men use women as conduits—for news, for introductions to important people, to greet another friend or re-establish an acquaintance, or sometimes to wangle an invitation to a party or for a weekend’s lodging while traveling. Or they try out ideas on them, cadge compliments, complain about a male colleague/rival or praise his new book in a manner meant to get back to him. If this is a network, women are the servers.
Of course, women write to women for the same reasons, and men to men, but the effects are not the same. For what I struggle with is that these women interlocutors are certainly not invisible, but they are only visible as biography, not as intellectual history. What they have is proximity, but not causality; they seem to have significance, but not influence.
The same problem travels outside the archive as well. A number of the male figures in my dissertation had wives, friends, or lovers who were themselves published authors—literary critics, journalists, novelists, often well-reviewed and modestly successful. A few, for instance John Gunther, acknowledged quite often the vast importance of their significant others’ intellectual labor in the production of their works, citing them in footnotes, the acknowledgments and dedications of their books, and in interviews. But except when the woman either had a prior prominence (as in the case of Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis) or actually received co-author billing (as in Robert and Helen Lynd of the Middletown studies), it is not uncommon for their work to go unmentioned, unexamined, when discussing the intellectual careers of their husbands. An example: while he is not a subject of my dissertation, the historian and critic Bernard DeVoto crossed swords with a number of people who are, but I did not know until I Wikipedia’d him that his wife, Avis, had an extensive and successful career as a food critic, shepherding Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to publication among other achievements. Again, the problem is not that these women are invisible, but that they have been quarantined within the social and the biographical, rather than the intellectual.
It is possible, and correct, to say that these problems are the legacies of the historical process of patriarchy, but my intention here is not merely to bang my head against the injustices of years past, rather to think creatively around them. So I ask you, is this half-visibility , this biographical primacy of women a problem you encounter, and how do you approach it, both in research and, more complicatedly perhaps, in your writing?
 Dorothy Thompson and Anne O’Hare McCormick were two of the most prominent women who acted as foreign correspondents during these years, and the community of foreign correspondents was not, despite this bedhopping, quite the boys’ club that, say, the community of Washington correspondents has been over the years. Still, it is not unfair to view the sexual involutions of this community as a crucial and characteristic dimension.