Just wanted to note an essay I wrote for yesterday’s LA Review of Books. The piece sparked a lot of discussion, and I was glad to see an often very substantive conversation about gender and the genre, even if a lot of it was vigorous pushback against my ideas. As someone who is an avid and serious reader of popular fiction, especially YA, it really was a pleasure. Thanks for the engagement, thanks to LARB for the venue, and special thanks to those who recommended books I should read.
In the aftermath, I did want to point out the aspect of the essay I would have expanded myself, had I more space (in retrospect, I am not sorry that I cut out the long discussion of nineteenth-century print distribution networks, fascinating as they may be—the 19c’s twitter!). But, to the point: this piece focuses on boyhood and manhood in general, but I was very aware in writing it that the question of how race mediates manhood lurks below the surface—and by “below” I mean “actually right there, waving it’s hand, like, YO! LOOK AT ME!”
Towards the essay’s conclusion, I mention race directly if parenthetically. But here are other ways we see it: all of the male protagonists I mention are white. Feed’s character Link is not only a reference to a nineteenth-century ideal of manhood, he also is a character with a specifically racial legacy. And, most importantly, in my discussion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin I mention the slaveholder George Shelby, but not the former slave George Harris.
I focused on George Shelby because he is the novel’s young adult: George Harris is already a man, a husband, and a parent at the novel’s beginning. Nevertheless, by giving these characters the same name, Harriet Beecher Stowe asks us to compare them. Doing so points us directly at one of the most challenging interpretive questions of the novel, helping us to think through what Stowe could and couldn’t imagine about racial integration–and about the experience of manhood–in 1852.
At the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both Georges take leadership roles, and Stowe boldly proposes that the end of slavery will mean an improved access to masculine privilege for both white and black men. But importantly, George Shelby becomes a leader in America, while George Harris moves off stage, out of the country, to Liberia. There’s lots to say about this, but one thing is: Stowe imagines manhood as generally important, but puts the black George Harris in the position of “outsider” manhood I note in so much contemporary lit. The nineteenth-century ideal of male privilege was not, in any sense of the imagination, universally extended. (If you’re interested in thinking more about this, I’d recommend these books, among others.)
Anyway, I think there’s lots more to say about boyhood and genre, about boyhood and manhood, about boyhood and race, about boyhood and multiple races, about boyhood and sexuality, and etc, than I said in my essay. (If I had the know-how, what’d I’d really like to write is about the different portraits of manhood in YA and country music). So here’s to a long, energetic conversation about a genre that merits our most rigorous attention.