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‘What’s Happening in America’

  • Sylvia Plath
  • Susan Sontag
  • Joyce Carol Oates

Abstract

For feminists in the 1960s, to address ‘reality’ was to engage in revolutionary and revisionist acts of storytelling. The pioneers of second-wave feminism suggested that basic womanly narratives had been obscured; their revolutionary polemics were acts of storytelling and recoveries of undocumented reality. Thus Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) unleashed a powerful political energy through its collation of anecdotage, personal memoir and interview. The book originated in a questionnaire Friedan sent to her fellow-graduates in 1957 about education and women’s role in society. The finished volume was structured around the freed voices of women, speaking out from the margins to place their angst at the centre of the culture. The Feminine Mystique achieved its vital impetus in moments of confession and collective recognition:

But on an April morning in 1959, I heard a mother of four, having coffee with four other mothers in a suburban development fifteen miles from New York, say in a tone of quiet desperation, ‘the problem.’ And the others knew, without words, that she was not talking about a problem with her husband, or her children, or her home. Suddenly they realized they all shared the same problem, the problem that has no name. They began, hesitantly, to talk about it. Later, after they had picked up their children at nursery school and taken them home to nap, two of the women cried, in sheer relief, just to know they were not alone.1

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963; New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 5.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Two important surveys of the period illustrate the assumption that this experimentalism was masculine: Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern American Novel (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984)Google Scholar
  4. Tony Tanner, City of Words (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Elaine Tyler May, ‘Cold War — Warm Hearth: Politics and the Family in Postwar America’, in Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (eds), The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 153–81.Google Scholar
  6. May’s indispensable Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992), pp. 83–107Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The Bell Jar is another of those texts (cf. The Awakening or Passing) where critics have sought political progressivism amidst the ruins of the heroine’s life. Thus Teresa De Lauretis’s 1976 essay, ‘Rebirth in The Bell Ja’, reprinted in Linda W. Wagner (ed.), Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 124–34.Google Scholar
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    Cited by Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago, 1991), p. 107.Google Scholar
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    Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963; London: Faber & Faber, 1966), p. 25.Google Scholar
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    Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1984), pp. 1–15.Google Scholar
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    Susan Sontag, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’, Styles of Radical Will (1969; London: Vintage, 1994), p. 28.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    Susan Sontag, The Benefactor (1963; London: Vintage, 1994), p. 1.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Liam Kennedy, Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), pp. 54–5.Google Scholar
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    Susan Sontag, Death Kit (1967; London: Vintage, 1994), p. 2.Google Scholar
  16. 20.
    George Dekker’s The American Historical Romance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)Google Scholar
  17. 21.
    Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover (1992; London: Vintage, 1993), p. 236.Google Scholar
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    Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (English edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), pp. 32–3.Google Scholar
  19. 25.
    Sally Robinson, review essay on Oates, Michigan Quarterly Review, 31 (1992), pp. 400–14Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing (1987; London: Bloomsbury, 1997), pp. 53–4.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Notes on Failure’, The Hudson Review, 35 (1982), pp. 231–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 30.
    Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Frankenstein’s Fallen Angel’, Critical Inquiry, 10 (1984), pp. 543–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 31.
    Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Afterword’, Expensive People (1968; Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1990), p. 242.Google Scholar
  24. 32.
    Joyce Carol Oates, ‘How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life over Again’, in The Wheel of Love (New York: Vanguard Press, 1970), p. 170.Google Scholar
  25. 33.
    Philip Roth, Reading Myself and Others (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975), pp. 117–35Google Scholar
  26. 34.
    Joyce Carol Oates, (Woman) Writer (1988), cited by Tony Hilfer, American Fiction since 1940 (London and New York: Longman, 1992), p. 190.Google Scholar
  27. 35.
    Joyce Carol Oates, The Rise of Life on Earth (New York: New Directions, 1991), pp. 109–10.Google Scholar
  28. 36.
    Robert Scholes, The Tabulators (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 12.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Guy Reynolds 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sylvia Plath
  • Susan Sontag
  • Joyce Carol Oates

There are no affiliations available

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