Künstlerroman Criticism: Feminism In The KüNstlerroman

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Charlotte Goodman (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: Goodman, Charlotte. “Portraits of the Artiste Manqué by Three Women Novelists.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 5, no. 3 (1981): 57-9.

[In the following essay, Goodman reviews three contemporary novels that employ the Artiste Manqué, a literary device in which the artist-protagonist's talents are sabotaged by weaknesses in themselves or those close to them.]

As fiction became increasingly autobiographical in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many novelists began to write about artist protagonists. Novels such as Henry James' The Tragic Muse, D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, James Joyce's Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, Mary Austin's A Woman of Genius, and Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark all trace the growth and development of artist protagonists and describe their struggles to free themselves from the restrictions imposed by their environments. Still other novels consider the careers of artistes manqués: those whose talents are undermined by their own psychological limitations or by the attitudes of their societies. Both Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own and, more recently, Tillie Olsen in Silences have pointed out that many would-be artists whose careers have been aborted are women. “We who write are survivors, Only's,” Olsen declares, noting that few indeed are the women who have been encouraged to pursue artistic careers and fortunate are those “in economic circumstances beyond the basic imperatives, thus affording some choice.”1 Since many women writers have been painfully aware of the insurmountable difficulties faced by women artists in a patriarchal society, it is not surprising that a number of women authors have chosen to explore the frustrations of the artiste manqué. In this paper I will look briefly at three fictional portraits of the artist written by women novelists: Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills (1861); Edith Summers Kelley's Weeds (1923); and Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker (1954). Though all three authors were essentially middle class in their orientation, they describe in their fiction working-class protagonists whose circumstances do not permit their artistic talents to flourish. In so doing, Davis, Kelley, and Arnow dramatize not only the deprivations of their proletarian protagonists but also the struggles of all artists, especially women, to practice their craft in a society inimical to their needs.

The protagonist of Davis' Life in the Iron Mills is Hugh Wolfe, a poor, barely articulate male foundry worker. During the rare free moments when he is not working to earn his meager living, Hugh sculpts human forms out of korl, the refuse from iron ore. In her perceptive biographical preface to the novel, Tillie Olsen draws a parallel between the experience of Davis and her fictional Hugh:

The thirty-year-old Rebecca who wrote … wrote in absolute identification with the thwarted, wasted lives … mighty hungers … unawakened power … circumstances that denied the use of capacities; imperfect, self-tutored art that could have only odd moments for its doing—as if these were her own. And they were, however differently embodied in the life of a daughter of the privileged class.2

Life in the Iron Mills is subtitled The Korl Woman, because Hugh Wolfe's own insatiable life hungers are embodied in the figure he sculpts of a woman laborer with “tense, rigid muscles, clutching hands, a wild, eager face, like that of a starving wolf's.”3 Lacking education, money, free time, encouragement, and an appreciative audience—all those conditions necessary if the artist is to flourish—Hugh nevertheless finds an outlet for his talents in the rough-hewn figures he is driven to create. In the yearning of Davis' sensitive protagonist for an environment which will nurture his artistic talent, one can detect Davis' own yearnings, and in the figure of the starving woman which Hugh creates one can discern Davis' own frustrated hungers.

Writing in 1861, Davis chose a male persona to dramatize her...

(The entire section is 32,986 words.)