Terrible Honesty

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In THE FEMINIZATION OF AMERICAN CULTURE, published in 1977, Ann Douglas examined the textures and tensions of Victorian life, documenting the matriarchal ethos operating in the areas of reform, theology, literature, and the definition of gender in the nineteenth century. She continues this exploration in TERRIBLE HONESTY, locating her study, not in New England this time, but in New York. As in her first work, this sequel examines the ways in which Americans tried to free themselves from what Douglas calls “the Titaness, the Mother God of the Victorian era.”

The title and subtitle of this massive study of the Big Apple in the 1920’s indicate the cultural context of the work. Alluding to the planned (though never written) autobiography of writer and wit Dorothy Parker, Douglas notes that the title of that book—MONGREL—could refer not only to Parker’s mixed Jewish and WASP heritage but also to the racially and ethnically mixed “mongrel” Manhattan. In another allusion, Douglas notes that detective writer Raymond Chandler said that “all writers are a little crazy but if they are any good they have a kind of terrible honesty.” Thus Douglas’ book is about a New York City in which artists of various kinds—from Louis Armstrong to Harry Houdini to Eugene O’Neill—exerted their influence to expose unpleasant truths, to focus on the facts to speak and act and perform and create with a “terrible honesty.”

The hundreds of...

(The entire section is 429 words.)