About ten years ago, a female publishing co-worker accused me: “You never read anything but dead white men.”
At that time, I conceived such narrow constructions of my identity based on gender and ethnicity (myself being female and Asian) as an intrusion on my inner-life, and in the midst of the furor over gender questions brought to the forefront with the overgenerous acclaim of Franzen’s work, I still hold the same viewpoint. Although I don’t plan to read Franzen’s new novel, having read a novel apiece by Franzen and Jennifer Weiner, I can easily say that I’d rather read Freedom over another of Weiner’s chick-lit if only the two authors were on a bookshelf. Yet, if I had free range of any novel to represent my inner-life, it would most likely be Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady.
Who should dictate to reviewers and readers where alliances of sensibility be made? And how have such choices become so crude as to be a checklist of categories — as though one were filling out a census form — rather than a representation of nuanced thought and subtleties of personal history?
What my co-worker said of me was not entirely true. By the time I entered publishing, I had read what literary works were available by Asian Americans as well as the few Asian-American histories available in the early 1990s. I studied African American literature in college along with early American literature and could trace the literary influences that shaped Phyllis Wheatley’s poems alongside that of Thoreau’s essays. Yet, as moved as I was by Carlos Bulosan and John Okada, neither represented my internal perception of American life. (Possibly, it had to do with the fact I didn’t live on the West Coast.)
Not surprisingly, Franzen’s representation of American life in the suburbs also doesn’t jibe much with my childhood in various cities. Review after review claim that Freedom is the great American novel. To which I ask: which America? I think most likely the college educated and affluent suburban America, or a very small percentage of America.
Of course, my idea of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady as American novel is no more representative. But then, my claim isn’t that Portrait of a Lady is THE American novel, but my American novel.
Isabel Archer, the central character, is haphazardly educated by traveling parents. Such a background ill-suits her to the subtleties of European courtship, made paradoxically more perilous when her well-meaning cousin, Ralph, persuades his dying father to make Isabel an heiress.
What struck my sense of empathy upon reading the first description of Isabel is that cobbled education. Never having lived continuously in one city for more than four years my entire childhood, I felt very much cobbled — joined pieces here and there with some concrete patching together the ill-fitting pieces — by the time I went to college. And I made the somewhat disastrous choice of going to a pastoral liberal arts college rather than a university in a city. As foreign as European mores were to Isabel, so too were the social mores that dictated the mostly suburban and WASP milieu of my college classmates (possibly my old college classmates might feel that Franzen represents their America).
There are other reasons why I love Portrait of a Lady so much, including its finely constructed sentences, the nuances of Isabel Archer’s thoughts as brought to the page, the description of Ralph, the good and consumptive cousin, as well as the ironic twists of good and bad fortune, neither seeming to be what they appear. Therefore, I do not press too hard on the notion that I would love a novel for its representation of my inner life — there are many reasons to love a particular book. However, I do think we should each rebel against the notion that a novel should be representative of our selves by only the dictates of gender and race.