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British Association for American Studies


Issue 5, Spring 2004, Article 2


Issue 5, Spring 2004, Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 5, Spring 2004: Special Conference Edition

Icons, Canons and Iconoclasts: Reading Adolescents in Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks and Joyce Carol Oates’s I’ll Take You There

Rachael McLennan
© Rachael McLennan. All Rights Reserved

In Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks (1976) [1], the twenty-seven year old protagonist Ginny Babcock Bliss returns to her home town of Hullsport, Tennessee because her mother is seriously ill with a rare blood disorder, a crisis which forces Ginny to contemplate the significance of her own life. Now the mother of a young daughter, and estranged from her husband, Ginny has to decide what these relationships mean to her, which entails engaging in acts of reading over and narrating her own life. Ginny reviews her adolescence in great detail, particularly her first year in Worthley College, Boston, as it is from her college reading that Ginny internalises philosophical prescriptions about the nature of existence and the relations between self and world, experiencing bafflement and frustration throughout the rest of her adult life because she cannot make personal events conform to any philosophical paradigm. However, initially Ginny does not want to attend college at all – forbidden to see her boyfriend, Clem Cloyd, after a motorcycle accident, her father insists that she apply, thinking that this will keep them apart. In a gesture of adolescent rebellion against her family and the wider world, Ginny refuses to fill out her college application form in the standard manner – she writes, for example, that ‘I don’t really wish to attend Worthley. I’m being held prisoner in a hospital bed. Please send help.’(K,194) To her surprise she is invited for an interview and Miss Head, her interviewer and future philosophy instructor, decides that she will fit into the college very well. In a recalled discussion which serves as a useful illustration of the privileges, risks and consequences attendant upon various acts of reading and being read, central concerns of this article, Miss Head asks

‘ Who is Virginia Babcock from Hullsport, Tennessee? What books does she read? What kinds of activities are most meaningful to her self-concept?’

Which self concept? I’ve had several.’ I speculated as to whether or not I could admit that my reading list over the past year had mostly consisted of such old favourites from Clem Cloyd’s bookshelves such as Hard Bargain and Tongue Power, with their blacked-out cover illustrations and their vast vocabulary of words never tested for on the SAT exams.

‘Oh ho ho. That’s what attracted me to your application, Miss Babcock. Among other things. I can be quite honest with you now. “Being held prisoner in a hospital bed,” indeed!’

‘But I was.’

‘A delicious wit you displayed, Miss Babcock, in your handling of the questions. Most refreshing. I’m sure you can appreciate how tedious it becomes for those of us who have to read these endless applications. “I desire to attain a Worthley education in order more fully to appreciate the world around me.” But your answers, Miss Babcock, well, they betrayed you as being true Worthley material, as it were. What field do you intend to pursue?’ She consulted her watch quickly.

‘Well, to tell you the truth, Miss Head, I hadn’t planned to pursue much of anything. I hadn’t expected to be accepted. I guess I’ll have to get busy and think of something.’ (K,197-198)

By asking what Ginny reads immediately after asking who she is, Miss Head suggests that Ginny’s identity and self-definition are related to what she reads. Ginny seems aware of this when debating whether to be honest about what she has read, as naming particular texts allows others to construct certain ‘self concepts’ about her – indicating the power of a society to sanction or reject particular texts and readers according to values held by a majority. However, although the adolescent Ginny is selective in responding to Miss Head, the adult Ginny, who narrates, endeavours to let her readers into the truth of the situation. In relating her adolescent self’s dilemma, the older narrating Ginny anticipates the dangers of being misunderstood or misread. The act of narrating allows the adult Ginny to combine her recalled memories of adolescence with her adult perspective, and while nonetheless complicating her narrative with the difficulties associated with the nature of memory, the adult Ginny is able to exert more control over her readers and how she is interpreted, whereas Miss Head’s misreading of the adolescent Ginny’s words has serious implications for Ginny’s future. By refusing to interpret the sentiments in Ginny’s application as revealing her true feelings and transforming her gesture of rebellion into evidence that she is ‘true Worthley material’, Miss Head safely incorporates Ginny into the world of the university, in which the adult representatives of the system wield power to read and interpret the behaviour of the students under their care.

This article aims to explore female adolescent reading experiences in Kinflicks and Joyce Carol Oates’s I’ll Take You There (2003) [2], as these experiences are central to the development of both adult female narrators and to the acts of narration themselves. The words in the title of this article, ‘Reading Adolescents’, indicate that the adolescents are not only subjects, active readers and interpreters, but are themselves the objects of critical inquiry, the site of significant readings (or misreadings) in American culture. Examining the female adolescent reading practices in these novels, and subsequently offering wider readings of these female adolescents in America raises questions about relations between narrator and audience, adulthood and adolescence, and ultimately about processes of canon formation in American literature.

In an essay called ‘Literature as Pleasure, Pleasure as Literature’, Oates recalls one of her adolescent experiences of reading:

To have read Nietzsche at age eighteen, when one’s senses are most keenly and nervously alert, the very envelope of the skin dangerously porous; to have heard, and been struck to the heart, by that astonishing voice –what ecstasy! what visceral unease! – as if the very floor were shifting beneath one’s feet. Late adolescence is the time for love, or, rather, for passion – the conviction that within the next hour something can happen, will happen, to irrevocably alter one’s life. [3]

Here adolescence and the experience of reading are grounded in the body. A passionate relationship exists between reader and text, rendering the very world around the reader unstable, causing fear and pleasure in equal measure. If for Oates, adolescence is predicated on such a belief in the power of external events to change the future forever (note the depiction of the adolescent passively waiting for the world to act upon her, suggesting the inability of the adolescent to actively cause or create in the world – her skin is like an envelope, fulfilling its function only when addressed) then the act of reading can provide such an experience. Just as the narrative voice of Nietzsche exerts a dangerously seductive influence on the adolescent Oates, the experience of reading exerts a similar influence on the adolescent protagonists in Kinflicks and I’ll Take You There. Both Ginny and Oates’s nameless narrator are students of philosophy in 1960s America. They avidly read and revere the work of Descartes, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, among others, in efforts to comprehend their own identities and the relation of self to world, anxiously seeking some template or guide to live by, although this receptiveness to texts can have negative consequences. For example, in trying to assess the influence of former boyfriends and Miss Head, the major figures in her life so far, Ginny claims that

I had studied Hegel. I knew that Clem had merely played the antithesis to Joe Bob’s thesis, and that Miss Head was the pure and elevated synthesis. That Miss Head herself might be the thesis for a yet higher synthesis, as Hegel would have insisted, was unthinkable. (K, 236)

Ginny attempts to make her relationships with others conform to the Hegelian dialectic, even though as she says herself, she chooses not to take Hegel’s argument further, indicating both the effort that has to be made in order to force her life’s events into this paradigm and her power to be selective in interpretation. When Miss Head proves to be less elevated than imagined, Ginny embarks on a lesbian relationship with her friend Eddie, who rejects the rationalism that Miss Head represents, and upon Eddie’s death Ginny turns to Ira, who provides her with the stability and constraints of the patriarchal family. When Bonnie Hoover Braendlin, in summing up these events, describes how Ginny ‘ricochets’ [4] towards Ira, she uses a term which, while suggestive of Ginny’s lack of independence and willingness to be led by others, fails to stress the importance of reading as a factor which determines those by whom she is led. Also, Ginny’s ability to form interpretations of her own in the act of narrating her story indicates that this lack of independence is not total. When Ginny finally accepts that Hegel’s theory is not applicable to her own life, she initially thinks that suicide is her only option – it does not occur to her that she could abandon her idolisation of that theory. However, her narrative ends on a tentative note of hope, with Ginny eventually summoning the strength to live under the dictates of nobody but herself, even though she has no idea what this may entail and if she will be successful – the novel’s final sentence reads, ‘She left the cabin, to go where she had no idea’ (K, 567). Ginny is at once most empowered and most vulnerable when granting reading less influence. The difficulties inherent in deciding whether this is to be regarded positively, in that Ginny is finding increased independence, or negatively, in that she seems unable to find revered paradigms of autonomous female experience from which she can gain hope regarding her own future, constitutes a significant reminder of the multiple and contradictory readings of Ginny’s life that can be made by herself and others.

Oates’s nameless narrator also tries and fails to make her relationships and existence conform to the postulates of the philosophers she reads, philosophers encountered through the reading lists of the university lecturers whom the narrator claims to admire and fear as ‘minor deities’ (ITYT, 41). I’ll Take You There is divided into three parts, each focussing on the adolescent protagonist’s relationship with one of three significant others – her sorority house mother, her African American boyfriend, and her father. These are relationships in which the narrator, like Ginny, idolises people whose identities differ widely from her own but which she wishes to appropriate. She seeks guidance in how to make them care for her and gain power over them from the philosophical texts she worships, such as Spinoza’s Ethics, which privilege mind over body, rationality over sensuality, the adherence to absolutes as the means to mastery of self and world. However, in each case the narrator’s desire for knowledge of the other person in the relationship induces her to commit acts of betrayal which destroy the relationships forever. In each case, acts of reading and interpretation constitute these acts of betrayal, yet again testifying to the potentially destructive power of such acts. The narrator reads private papers belonging to her house mother and her boyfriend, and disobeys her father’s injunction that she never look at him to see the ravages that cancer has wrecked on his body – the shock he experiences when he realises that she has seen him hastens his death. This narrator’s reverence for more intimate knowledge of another at all costs, and her belief that this knowledge resides in the work of certain authors, texts and ideas results in unthinking repetition of the same mistake. With this in mind, it is worth considering another comment by Oates about the experience of reading:

It is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin; another’s voice; another’s soul. One might argue that serious reading is as sacramental an act as serious writing, and should therefore not be profaned. That, by way of a book, we have the ability to transcend what is immediate, what is merely personal, and to enter a consciousness not known to us, in some cases distinctly alien, other[5]

In both novels the experience of reading resembles a falling into love or lust, an act of worshipping a particular text or author – Oates and the narrators of both novels are unclear about distinctions here. Also, both novels, like Oates’s comment above, illustrate how the experience of reading can itself be read in various ways – most commonly, as a threat to the self’s autonomy and control, or as an enriching, pleasurable experience which furthers knowledge about others. Oates’s ambivalence is seen in the fact that she considers reading a sacramental act of transcendence and also an action of ‘falling’, so that reading constitutes both a dangerous fall from innocence and a rise to an enlightened state of knowledge, not unlike the dual manner in which the transition from adolescence to adulthood is often regarded. Oates’s nameless narrator concludes her narrative by describing her father’s funeral and the burial arrangements she plans for her parents:

For the joint grave I would replace my mother’s marker with a small but, I thought, beautiful granite marker engraved with both my parents’ names, birth- and death-dates. I would not be joining them in that rocky soil, but my family was now complete.

If things work out between us, someday I’ll take you there. (ITYT, 290)

The words ‘if things work out’ again emphasise a loving relationship between narrator and ideal reader. It is significant that the narrator often complains that her house mother, lover and father all call her adolescent self ‘you’, rarely if ever using her name, reflecting the fact that in their lives she functions as object rather than subject, lacking a knowable identity. She experiences this as threatening, although when she narrates she not only withholds her name but in turn calls her imaginary reader or readers ‘you’, at once a sign of intimacy and a strategy which allows her to narrate herself as subject, at the cost of objectifying others. Similarly in Kinflicks, the novel’s chapters alternate between first- and third-person narration, which offers room for multiple readings of Ginny’s identity and existence in the world, although Ellen Peel, in her discussion of the novel’s narrative style, offers only one:

In a patriarchy, a woman may refer to herself as “she” rather than “I” because of alienation from herself rather than a healthy detachment. Also, in a patriarchal society, a woman may be referred to as “I” rather than “she” because someone else, acting as a sort of ghostwriter, is usurping her voice rather than feeling empathy with her. Such a society encourages a woman to see herself as an object and to relinquish her voice to a masculine subject. [6]

Peel’s focus on a negative reading of such a narrative technique fails to account for the fact that the ability to regard oneself as subject and object need not be a sign of alienation but rather of increased awareness of the shifting relationships between individuals in the world – also, she does not admit that, as Oates’s narrator’s stance towards her readers illustrates, ‘you’ is an indeterminate term which can not only designate both singularity and plurality but also is not gender-specific, pointing to the fact that experiencing oneself as both subject and object is a potentially universal experience. Rather than trying to formulate a definitive reading of Ginny’s narrative, which would involve deciding whether her story claims that it is healthy to regard oneself as subject and object, or whether it expresses concern about the formation of identity in a world where women in patriarchal societies have found it more difficult to narrate themselves as subjects, it might be better not to fall into the same trap as the adolescent readers in both texts discussed here (in that they seek a single, infallible reading of their lives and cannot accept that this does not exist) and instead consider what is involved in granting validity to multiple, even conflicting interpretations.

Oates’s narrator’s phrase, ‘I’ll take you there’, illustrates this clearly. ‘There’ designates the gravestone of the narrator’s parents (there lie her parents), where those lives are starkly summarised in terms which it pleases the narrator to read. She has controlled the manner in which her parents’ lives will be officially remembered, although the words hardly render the true complexity of those individual lives (there lie her parents), so that a space is made available in which their lives can be read and interpreted in different ways by others.

Although the comments in Oates’s essay are instructive, her own words highlight the benefits of resisting the helpless fall into the skin or voice of another in the act of reading. Oates’s use of the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ suggest homogeneity, some aspect of shared identity or experience, which means that if ‘we’ already share so much, if there is already a ‘we’ which can be defined and identified with, then reading is not the sole means of getting into another’s skin, or at the very least renders the ‘other’ as less alien than Oates describes. While this could be a positive idea, Oates’s ‘we’ masks the very real differences between individuals, such as gender, age and race, which do influence the experiences of reading and narrating, as examination of these female adolescent protagonists illustrates. All of the philosophers who are revered in these texts are male, and all devote their attention to the male self, male existence, which is assumed to be an experience applicable to everyone. Judith Fetterley describes what she perceives to be the consequences of such thinking in American culture:

American literature is male. To read the canon of what is currently considered classic American literature is perforce to identify as male. Though exceptions to this generalisation can be found here and there – a Dickinson poem, a Wharton novel – these exceptions usually function to obscure the argument and confuse the issue – American literature is male. Our literature neither leaves women alone nor allows them to participate. It insists on its universality, at the same time as it defines that universality in specifically male terms. [7]

Oates’s notion of reading as allowing an individual to transcend the personal and enter the consciousness of what may seem ‘other’ is taken to nightmarish extremes, seen in Fetterley’s insistence that for female readers, the experience of being excluded from a literature which claims to define your identity results in

a peculiar form of powerlessness – not simply the powerlessness which derives from not seeing one’s experiences articulated, clarified and legitimated in art, but more significantly the powerlessness which results from the endless division of self against self, the consequence of the invocation to identify as male while being reminded that to be male, to be universal, to be American, is to be not female. [8]

This complicates the situation of the adolescent protagonists of these texts, who as adolescent and female, are doubly objectified or marginalised by the patriarchal adult societies in which they live. Fetterley’s depiction of female readers being neither fully accepted nor dismissed as identifiably ‘American’ serves as a useful correlative to the manner in which adult American society neither wholly includes or excludes adolescents of either gender. Fetterley may advocate the stance of being a ‘resisting reader’, but none of the texts she discusses are written by women and about female experience, so that Fetterley portrays the female reader in a very limited position. Able only to ‘resist’ the seductive advances which these texts make upon her (the adoring relationships which the female adolescents in Alther’s and Oates’s novels form with the male-figured texts they read foreground heterosexual romance narratives and suppress others) the female reader is apparently incapable of finding stories about experiences with which she can identify, and equally incapable of narrating her own experience.

In Kinflicks, one of the moments in adolescence to which Ginny devotes the greatest amount of reflection concerns a visit to the opera with Miss Head. Ginny feels that she has disgraced herself because of her inability to value the quality of a performance. She feels that this inability is caused because

I had allowed my emotions to swamp my intellect. I had permitted myself the indulgence of becoming personally involved in Aida’s and Rhadames’s deaths in a neurotic process of identification. I had failed Miss Head. (K, 227)

To atone for her perceived failure, Ginny goes to a biology lab (which she seems to regard as a place of rationality, free from problems of emotional identification) and scrapes some cells from her cheek, which she puts on a slide and studies. The extended description of the cell activity is detached and clinical, Ginny taking pleasure and pride in the fact that her reading has given her the necessary knowledge to understand what is happening – the processes involved in the death of cells in her own body. However, her description suddenly changes:

If the amino acids were the letters of the alphabet that combined to form word proteins, proteins in turn formed sentences – cells like this one. The paragraphs in the book of life and death were multicelled organisms. Cells were dying continuously in this same fashion in Aida’s body, in my body, in Miss Head’s body. (K, 228)

The change in Ginny’s description is caused by her use of metaphor to compare the body and the components of cells to literature (seen in her description of ‘the book of life and death’) and the components of language – words and sentences – which are used in the creation of literature. Ginny’s use of metaphor allows her to set up an identification (not ‘neurotic’) between cells and language – concepts which would not normally be said to share similar qualities, yet inspire Ginny to achieve a major insight about her own life. The cells from her own body lie there, dead, in front of her, complicating the idea of clear boundaries between self and world and allowing Ginny to narrate herself as subject and object, crucially realising that this scientific process allows genuine identification with all. It is an identification rooted in the universality of death and the workings of the human body, nonetheless allowing Ginny to acknowledge the particularity of experience; the examples given – of herself, Miss Head, and Aida – are female. It is also an identification very different from that suggested in the essentialist discourse of the philosophers Ginny studies, whose discussions of mankind subsume female experience into the male, ignoring female experience while purporting to incorporate it.

Like Fetterley’s resisting female readers, Ginny and Oates’s nameless narrator do not seek to find texts which discuss female experience, which means that they do not challenge the canonical status grated to the philosophical texts they study. They believe that any difficulties in applying such apparently universal theories to their own experience lie not within the texts, but are indicative of inadequacy within themselves, a useful reminder that reading can function as a strategy for locating and positioning individuals within a culture’s power structures, generally in a manner which validates the values of the dominant and most powerful groups, those most visible and who (self)authorise cultural scripts – the manner in which Miss Head, as an adult authority, is able to transform the adolescent Ginny’s subversive college application form into evidence that she can be embraced by the adult, mainstream world of Worthley College may be a good example of this, as now Ginny can be literally located within the college and taught to read its culturally-approved texts. With this in mind, it does not seem strange, though it is certainly unproductive, that so many critics and writers account for the importance of adolescence in American literature (putting ‘adolescence’, as a generic term, under the microscope this time) by claiming that the developmental stage of adolescence presents a useful metaphoric means of considering America itself. [9] Adolescence exists in a liminal, transitory space between childhood and adulthood, just as America is often depicted as being both a youthful nation and a global, ‘adult’, superpower, and it is perhaps for this convenient reason that so many novels with adolescent protagonists are critically acclaimed as representing ‘American’ experience. However, it also seems that if adolescence is a stage regarded as subordinate to adulthood (as can be discerned in the fact that the philosophical texts these female adolescents read privilege not only male experience but also adult experience, making it doubly difficult for Ginny and Oates’s narrator to locate themselves), then a means must be found for justifying study of the portrayal of this stage in literary texts. This notion, and the practice of labelling America as metaphorically ‘adolescent’ are extremely problematic, as Ginny’s engagement with metaphor and the adolescent reading experiences she shares with Oates’s narrator should make clear. Engagement with metaphor tends to be undertaken for the purposes of rendering one concept, presumed somehow unknowable, more comprehensible by relating it to another concept, less problematically unknowable, hopefully resulting in a new and more enlightened way of perceiving both concepts. In this case, ‘America’ is presumed to be the problematic unknown, with ‘adolescence’ enlisted to make it more comprehensible. Such thinking must be revised, as ‘adolescence’, as a stage in human development, tends to be discussed in the essentialist terms displayed in the philosophical texts studied by Ginny and Oates’s narrator, with its gendered, class-based and racial components effaced. The result is that critical texts making such arguments based on the portrayal of adolescence in American literature generally concern white male adolescents such as Holden Caulfield in J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Arguing that these adolescents are representative of ‘America’ as a whole, and that to read their narratives is to read the story of American experience, begs the question of how and in what way Holden, like the philosophers studied by the adolescent protagonists of Oates’s and Alther’s texts, can be said to speak for everyone. Some critics, such as Jonathan Arac, in his study of the critical response to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), argue for an end to what Arac calls the ‘idolatry’ which allows such assumptions to be made about texts which are granted canonical status (being canonical, as Fetterley explains, they are concerned with what is believed to be ‘universal’ about American experience) and disallows deeper critical engagement of problematic themes in such texts. [10] Nina Baym outlines the pitfalls of such idolatry when she illustrates the circular argument that if the best literature is that which is the most American, and the most American is about what is male in American experience, a canon of American literature which privileges texts by male authors excludes women from being involved in what constitutes American experience, and in writing great literature about it. [11] Although Arac also finds the overlapping definitions of what entails the ‘most’ and ‘best’ in American experience to be troubling because they exclude the opinions of groups of people who may not be able to identify with this experience, while allowing those who can identify to ignore the fact that not everyone can, he notes the further important fact that texts which are elevated to canonical status nonetheless very often critique aspects of American society, even if that society remains unchanged at the end of the novel. [12] Huck lights out for the territory, refusing to accommodate to the civilising world, and Holden seems unable to decide whether or not to adjust himself to the adult world he feels so ambivalently towards; the implication is that the world, despite its flaws, will not change, but these adolescents may have to. When Patricia Hunt Steinle notes that by 1981 The Catcher in The Rye ‘had the dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the country and the second most frequently taught novel in the public schools’, [13] she raises the problems which every critic discussed so far is concerned – problems of articulating what it may mean to read as an American or to read for Americanness, articulations that lie (as Arac would have it, falsifying the truth) at the very heart of defining the canon of ‘American literature’. And what are the benefits and costs of reading in these ways? Just as Ginny fears that her identification with characters may affect her value judgments (the irony being that she has so far struggled to find coherence in her life because she desires so much to find postulates about existence with which to identify), how do such questions of identification affect the critical readings of texts? Who is reading, and on behalf of whom?

Examining these issues as they relate to the reading practices of female adolescents in American literature indicates how such issues refuse to simply lie there, whether knowable, dormant or safely at a distance. This exposition of the narrow definitions of what constitutes both adolescence and canonical texts should make it no surprise that Ginny and Oates’s narrator do not try to find texts which reflect their experiences or tell them how to live in the world. In fact, it is the central contention of this article that the female adolescent reading experiences of Ginny and Oates’s narrator (their search for paradigms of experience, their thwarted efforts to conform to established, sanctioned patterns of existence) dramatise the estrangement and confusion encountered when realising that their experience is not valued highly enough to be reflected, narrated in the canonical works of a culture, leading to their adult obsessions with reading and narrating their own female experiences, their worries about being misread and wrongly positioned, their desire for the specific and yet universal ‘you’, the loving ideal reader. Steinle’s work on the controversies surrounding the inclusion of The Catcher in the Rye in school reading lists testifies to the fact that fears exist in adult American society about the readings adolescents are capable of making of that very society. American literature which deals with adolescent protagonists of all genders, races and classes offers a particularly important means of engaging with debates over what is meant by the concepts of canon formation (particularly as this refers to readings and evaluations of texts) and American individual and national identities.

When reading criticism about canon formation and American literature, two powerful metaphors consistently recur. Two critics can be given here as examples – Stephen Greenblatt uses the extended metaphor of boundaries, with their associations of place, conquest, and limits, to describe relations between different fields of literary study [14] whereas when Judith Fetterley describes American literature as ‘male’ it sounds as if she is describing a gendered body. Both metaphors are problematic, as the notion of boundaries may result a in concept like ‘American literature’ being envisioned as a definable territory contested by different warring factions, whereas Fetterley’s own language shows that she oversimplifies her argument. Her use of the word ‘it’ to describe the canon of American literature in her comments above sounds as if the American canon is a single unsexed body, capable of narrating itself, when Fetterley is trying to argue that it is in fact male and in need of being narrated by others, particularly female readers. Although she is insistent that ‘American literature is male’, she cannot call the American canon ‘he’ as obviously the canon is not a person, but a vague entity which eludes definition.

The most important fact is that critics are compelled to seek such metaphors in the act of narrating the story of American literature. Like the concept of adolescence, the concept of canonicity resists concrete definition and suffers from essentialist readings. Metaphor is often employed to render both terms comprehensible. Debates about the concepts of adolescence and of canon construction in America took on a particular urgency and importance in the years immediately following the Second World War, with the postwar economic boom creating a new generation of young people who called particular attention to themselves as independent consumers at the same time as America began to regard itself and be regarded as a major world power. Definitions of individual and national identity, and how these concepts were to be narrated became paramount, reflected in increased debates among critics about which American novels best represented the nation and should be taught to the young at this major point in history. [15] Ginny’s use of metaphor increases her understanding of herself and others, but the reading practices of her adolescent self, and that of Oates’s narrator, show that sometimes acts of reading and narrating obscure rather than reveal understanding. Perhaps – to engage in another problematic act of reading and metaphor-usage – it is a good idea to think of canonicity, or successfully functioning canonicity, as somehow an adolescent enterprise, in that it partakes of some of what are commonly assumed to be adolescent qualities, qualities which are shared despite gender, race and class differences, and yet underline the plurality of both ‘adolescence’ and ‘canonicity’. This idea is further justified since questions of canonicity are, after all, questions of reading, and it has been argued so far that reading itself can be read as a fundamentally adolescent activity (seen in Oates’s idea of reading as both a falling and a rise to adult knowledge, mirroring the ambivalent passage from adolescence to adulthood). Successfully functioning canonicity, then, would be liminal and developmental, resisting concrete definition. It would regard individual and national identity as fluid, plural and relational, something to be constructed and discovered, read and narrated again and again, and in multiple, conflicting ways. It would concern itself with past and future, tradition and innovation, so that it includes all voices while privileging none.

Reading adolescents – that is, looking at the idolatory reading practices of selected female adolescents in American literature, and considering the often idolatory critical analysis of (usually male) adolescents in American literature, shows that although loving readings are fruitful, stressing intimate collaboration between readers and texts, idolatory readings, which privilege and suppress certain texts and voices, are not. When at the end of I’ll Take You There, Oates’s narrator offers her tentative but loving invitation to readers, it may be that she is forced to because she has not learned to read her own life properly so far, and so may well be doomed to the same mistakes, but it also indicates that she is prepared to try again. It is important that when the narrator describes her plans for the gravestone she does not say that the gravestone actually exists – she only describes how she would like it to be, how she would like it to read. As her description stands, the gravestone stands as a kind of Barthesian site of bliss or pleasure to encountered when reading the text it displays, emblematic of the narrator’s utopian dream of multiple readings in the future. Barthes argues that

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. In these cases, there is no tear, no edges: a gradual unveiling: the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing the sexual organ (schoolboy’s dream) or in knowing the end of the story (novelistic satisfaction). Paradoxically (since it is mass-consumed) this is a far more intellectual pleasure than the other: an Oedipal pleasure (to denude, to know, to learn the origin and the end), if it is true that every narrative (every unveiling of the truth) is a staging of the (absent, hidden or hypostatised) father – which would explain the solidarity of narrative forms, of family structures, and of prohibitions of nudity, all collected in our culture in the myth of Noah’s sons covering his nakedness. [16]

Although Barthes is talking about Western civilisation rather than American culture in particular, this passage is relevant to Oates’s narrator, who in telling her own story is also telling about the death of her father, and in inviting the ‘you’ whom she loves to the gravestone, is extending an invitation for further pleasurable readings in the future – readings of the lives of herself and her mother and father. Although Barthes privileges mind over body, male experience over female, and adulthood over youth – he likens lesser, physical sexual pleasures to male (adolescent?) fantasy and considers more intellectual pleasures to validate the authority of the father, which involves validating the patriarchal structures of society – the determination of Ginny and Oates’s narrator to accommodate and undertake multiple readings and narrations of their lives by themselves and others leads to a more productive way of considering the concept of American canon formation and readings of female adolescence in American literature. When Oates’s narrator says ‘If things work out between us, someday I’ll take you there’, and when Ginny, at the end of her narrative, undertakes her journey to an unknown destination which holds the same significance for her as the gravestone site does for Oates’s narrator, they acknowledge that the pleasurable readings have yet to take place, but that they could become a reality – it may be possible to get closer to ‘there’.

University of Glasgow


[1] Lisa Alther, Kinflicks (London:Virago Press, 1999)

[2] Joyce Carol Oates, I’ll Take You There (London, Fourth Estate, 2003)

[3] Joyce Carol Oates, (Woman) Writer – Occasions and Opportunities (New York: E.P Dutton, 1988), 53-65, 59

[4] Bonnie Hoover Braendlin, ‘New Directions in the Contemporary Bildungsroman: Lisa Alther’s KinflicksWomen and Literature, (1980), 160-171, 163

[5] Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Literature as Pleasure, Pleasure as Literature’, in (Woman) Writer, (56-57)

[6] Ellen Peel, ‘Subject, Object, and the Alternation of First- and Third-Person Narration in Novels by Alther, Atwood and Drabble: Toward a Theory of Feminist Aesthetics’ Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 30:2 (1989), 107-122, 119

[7] Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), xii

[8] Ibid., xiii

[9] For only a sample of many such examples, see Frederic I. Carpenter, ‘The Adolescent in American Fiction’, English Journal, 46:6 (1957), 313-319, Barton Friedberg, ‘The Cult of Adolescence’, Nassau Review, 1:1 (1964), 26-35, or ‘Author Joyce Carol Oates on Adolescent America’, US News and World Report, May 15 (1978), 60

[10] Jonathan Arac, Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), vii

[11] Nina Baym, ‘Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors’, American Quarterly, 33:2 (1981), 123-139

[12] Arac, 138

[13] Patricia Hunt Steinle, In Cold Fear – ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000), 2

[14] Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn, Redrawing the Boundaries – The Transformation of English and American Studies (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992)

[15] For a good introductory discussion about canonicity in the postwar era see Arac, and for adolescence in the postwar era see Kirk Kurnutt, Alienated-Youth Fiction (Michigan: Gale Group, 2001)

[16] Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill&Wang, 1975), 10