Franco-American Women's Literary Tradition: A Central Piece in the Region's Literary Mosaic
Written and Presented by Rhea Côté Robbins, author of Wednesday's Child
"Rhea Côté (Cote) Robbins' Wednesday's Child is beautiful stuff, a defiant and poignant memoir that transcends the personal. It is an important book not only for its immediate content, for the experience of life within its covers, but because it gives us a glimpse of the almost unmined Golconda of literary source material in Franco-American lives.--E. Annie Proulx"
Paper at the Colloque: "Cultural Identity in French America: Legacy,
Evolution and the Challenges of Renewal," May 1996, Bar Harbor, Maine
In this paper I will contend that a Franco-American woman's literary tradition exists and that a separate feminist criticism is needed to look at this literature. Subsequently, I will then look at the ways that Franco-American women's literature is unique unto itself. In order to do this, I will employ variant concepts of realism and sentimentalism to discuss Franco-American women's literature but more importantly, I will explore other components of criticism that can be incorporated to come to a deeper understanding of these ethnic women writers.
As Raymond LePage states in a paper presented at MLA, 1982, entitled, "Realism and Feminism: Franco-American Women Writers of New England": "Unfortunately, most literary studies...fail to mention the literary output of the largest ethnic group living in New England.... Thus, a central piece in the region's literary mosaic is nearly always omitted." (8)
The Franco-American woman writers that I will be discussing are: Corinne Rocheleau Rouleau, Camille Lessard-Bissonnette (nom de plume: Liane), and Grace Marie Antoinette Jeanne d'Arc de Repentigny Metalious. The reason I chose the first two of these women authors is because of the recent scholarly work which has been done on Corine and Camille, presented in 1994 at a yearly conference held at Institut Français, Assumption College which focuses on Franco-America. The directrice, Claire Quintal, writes of how Franco-American women have been over-shadowed and need to come into the light of the day:
"La femme franco-américaine a toujours vécu dans l'ombre--Le moment était arrivé, nous semble-t-il, d'en sortir pour étaler au grand jour son apport indispensable à la vie et à la survie de la Franco-Américanie."
I also chose Grace Metalious, who is of Franco-American heritage and better known for her popular works Peyton Place and Return To Peyton Place, but who also wrote two other works which deal primarily with issues surrounding Franco-American women. These books are entitled, The Tight White Collar and No Adam in Eden.
In order to establish a literary tradition complete with its criticism for an ethnic group such as the Franco-Americans of the Northeast, I believe it is necessary to examine the historical context of the Franco-Americans in terms of their immigration--first to Québec and then to the United States-États-Unis. It is also important to establish the knowledge that, within the "Anglo-American" culture, which the women of color assumes to be mono-cultural, there are ethnicities that have been conquered culturally and linguistically.
Some call such a conquering assimilation. Within the Franco-American cultural grouping, there is a large debate as to who the Franco-Americans are and to what extent they have assimilated. If they have been assimilated at all. Belonging to the Franco-American culture group is also a question of border crossings--geographical and personal. "In the Borderlands/you are the battleground." (Anzaldúa 194) Dean Louder of Laval University states, "Of all ethnic groups in the United States, only the French, along with the Chicanos[/Chicanas], are located at the threshold of the Mother Country." (15) And I would agree with Lucy R. Lippard that: "Thinking about crossing cultures makes us look more closely at our own environments. Most of us cross cultural borders every day, usually unconsciously. Assuming a dynamic rather than a passive role for the arts in society, one of my goals is to raise these daily encounters--at least in the realm of language and imagery--to a conscious level." (6)
The raising of the daily encounters with the language and imagery that concern the women of the Franco-American culture begins with understanding the history of these women as they have come to exist today in the Northeast.
Besides voluntary immigration to Québec, before the British Conquest in 1760, women were imported from France as wives for the men who had earlier come to settle New France. Choquette states: "Entre les débuts de la colonie et sa conquête par les Anglais au 18th/XVIIIe siècle, environ 2.000 femmes et filles ont passé de la France au Canada." (Choquette 4) Many were married within three months of their arrival because there were rewards or punishments meted out to the men who did not marry and begin families.
Women were to be the mainstay of settling New France. The government and the Catholic clergy saw the women, through pronatalist policy, as the way for the French of North America to resist the English.
Bouliane states: "The key to understanding French Canada is the word 'survival,' la survivance. When England conquered France in North America in 1760, some 60,000 odd canadiens were confronted by several million Aglophone colonists with whom they had been at war off and on for over a century. Prospects for the Canadiens' continued existence as a French-speaking, Catholic people appeared dim. At the outset, British policy aimed at assimilation; however...this plan was not given substance until 1840, by which time it was too late to expect more than half a million French Canadians to abandon their language, religion and culture." (Bouliane 9)
I have yet to establish the ethnicity of the Franco-American women within the Anglo-American construct, white women, as they would be seen from the viewpoint of the women of color. In literature, Franco-Americans have been referred to as "the White Niggers of the North" and "the Chinese of the East." The oppressions of the Franco-Americans have been compared to those of people of color. The running theme in the Franco-American women's literature who write about the experience of being on the U.S. side of the frontière is buried in the term "Canuck."
In White Niggers of America, Pierre Vallières calls attention to the similarities in status between French-Canadians [Franco-Americans] and Afro-American people. Bystydzienski writes, "Just as American Blacks had first been imported to the New world to serve as cheap labor and continued to be exploited for the better part of three centuries, so, too, were French-Canadians...'servants of the imperialists...(and) still constitute a reservoir of cheap labor...mistreat(ed) and trample(d) underfoot....' Although cognizant of the particularly difficult situation of French-Canadian women in the struggles of the Francophones, Vallières did not consider the parallels between them and their Black U.S. counterparts." (Bystydzienski 15)
While the Franco-American women's history has not been a slave history, their experience can be compared to the women of color in terms of values and beliefs as well as the way in which Franco-American women have been viewed by out-groups such as the Anglo women. In her introduction to the poetry presentation, "After Columbus New World Poetry in the 1990's," before reading Québécois writer Michèle Lalonde's poem, "Speak White," Kathryn Slott says: "In 'Speak White,' the notion of linguistic oppression is generally associated with cultural, racial, class, economic, and military oppression."
Franco-American and Québécois women were expected to bear many children, engage in hard physical labor, to adhere to the philosophy of their one and true destiny as mothers, or religious, with no other opportunities in sight. The Catholic, celibate, clergy preached incessantly for the fertility of the French women. There were two times in the history of the Québec government when incentives were offered for households who had 10 and 12, living, children under their roofs--the first in 1670 and the next in 1890. In 1890 a law was passed called, Binette says: "La Loi des 12 Enfants" which awarded 100 acres of farm land to such a household. The law was commonly called, "La Revanche des Berceaux" which was a remake of an earlier policy, as a response to the British Conquest, which was called the "the Revenge of the Cradles." (Binette 12)
Bystydzienski goes on to say: "...From the perspective of the women, survival of the Blacks...their race, became their main purpose in life." (Bystydzienski 15) "Like the female slaves of their Southern neighbors, women in New France were regarded as desirable property...they bore children and made it possible to propagate the group." (Bystydzienski 15)
For many of these women, it was not possible to remain in their homelands where they were part of a collectivity with shared values and beliefs. For the Black women, after the Emancipation, they were forced to move in order to continue with their lives. For many French-Canadian women, they crossed the borders over into the U.S. in order to find work. Which is very much like the Chicanas, who also had to leave their homelands in search of a better lifestyle. The problem for these women happens in the crossing of borders. While yet connected to a geography in Québec which defined them, the women were a part of a collectivity where the group mattered. After they crossed to borders into the U.S.: being an individual was what counted.
Beyond marriage, motherhood and/or a religious life, in Québec, there were few opportunities for women. Subsequently, beyond working in the mills and possibly, with some social upward mobility in secretarial work or clerking stores, there was also limited opportunity for the Franco-American women after they immigrated to the U.S. as well. Bystydzienski says: "French-Canadian and Black American...[are] women at a disadvantage because they belong to cultural or racial minorities,...their status as women,...has the additive effect of decreasing their positions relative to the majority population as well as to men within their own respective groups. They are thus subject to the double-jeopardy hypothesis...that persons...[they] are likely to come out particularly low...[which] include education, occupational status, income, health and political power." (Bystydzienski 16)
To illustrate further what compounds the Franco-American women writers'
task, I offer these two point for consideration which I believe is linked
closely to the way which the Franco-American women write and the reactions
to their writings. As Mitsuye Yamada says, "They felt the women's
organizations with feminist goals are still 'a middle-class women's thing'."
(73) And then Bystydzienski says:
And in the light of the strictures placed on the North American French women historically and, given today, that many of these women are unaware of their own histories or even that they belong to the Franco-American cultural group because as Lippard says: "Ironically, and sadly, access to information about [their] global art [language, history, culture, folklore, etc.] is more available to the educated and well-traveled...than to most of the heirs of those dehistoricized cultures." (Lippard 26) While Quebec women writers have a long literary tradition, I believe that their condition as described below by Gilbert Lewis is one which the Franco-American women have shared and in some ways are still living since the Franco-American women, not seeing themselves as middle class for the most part, have not had the same benefits of the women's movement as their cultural sisters experienced in Quebec. I offer it as further proof as to why diverse feminist criticism is needed when looking at the Franco-American women's literary tradition:
"Contemporary women writers have noted, in addition, that the situation of women in Quebec, especially prior to the 1960s, although deplorable was, in one sense, similar to that of québécois men: both groups led a colonized existence under the economic and linguistic dominance of English and the powerful authority of Church and State. Both groups developed signs of feelings of impotency, inferiority, and alienation, characteristic of colonized peoples. The female literary tradition was greatly overshadowed by the necessity of collective survival. Women tended to support men as Québécois, rather than to attack them as oppressors. After all, these men have themselves been 'humiliated,' according to Michèle Lalonde, and forced into 'a passivity that one often links to what one can term femininity." (Gilbert Lewis 5)
In addition to beginning to look at Franco-American women's concerns, the incidence of writing from within a cultural group/collectivity poses a problem as Miner states:
"The very content--descriptions of waitresses and secretaries and construction workers--is passing family codes to middle-class outsiders. Of course anyone who writes faces issues of confidentiality. But class compounds the dilemma because of the power inequity between the working-class characters and the often middle-class audience. For some working-class people the secrets seem all they have. Thus writing about them feels like betrayal. Or desertion. Moving from this background into the professions is an immigration. Writing is particularly alien because it embraces literacy....For many working-class people, becoming a writer is like moving to a country where a different language is spoken." (Miner 77)
Franco-American women, two-times immigrated from their country of origin, France, exist in a cultural, third world. When one considers the existence of the French-speaking peoples in the U.S. in comparison to those who exists in France or Québec, one realizes that there are cultural and linguistic comparisons made which are not well-founded, but based on myths perpetuated by the Anglo culture to suppress francophone expression as well as an elitism within the French culture and standards which has no bearing on the French language and culture here in the U.S. There has not been a Quiet Revolution in Maine, New Hampshire or elsewhere in the Northeast and we do not have an l'Académie française to regulate the language. We do not speak a "bad" French, but we do speak a French whose roots can be found in Western France. Some speak with the accent of certain geographical areas of Québec or New England.
All are viable languages because as Pinker says:
In the case of Franco-American women writers, it is important that they have access to their "home" French as opposed to writing in a language which does not capture the essence of what it means to be female and Franco-American.
In the preceding paragraphs I have begun the dialogue on presenting that Franco-American women's writings are based on a real literature, a real culture and a real language. I have established the accepted roles for women--marriage, motherhood and the religious life. The crossing over the borders into the Northeast challenged these accepted roles. The women writers Corinne, Camille and Grace build on each other in terms of creating links of a lived and recorded culture and language through their writings. But I would also like to state that these women broke all the rules in order to be the writers that they are. [I will use the women's first names when referring to them because of the "ownership" quality built into the last names which women bear. One is always someone's daughter and sometimes someone's wife...contrary to what Sandra Cisneros says...and often times we are mothers...]
Maggie Humm writes in her book, Contemporary Feminist Literary Critisism, in the chapter entitled, "Third World feminist criticism: third wave and fifth gear," in a section called, "Techniques,": "According to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the three salient characteristics of minority literature are: its subversion of the territory of the majority through language; its fundamental concern with politics; and its urge to represent collective issues...[a] tripartite sense of territory, politics and collectivity." (265-266) All of these elements are present in the Franco-American women's writing of Corinne, Camille and Grace.
The other elements characteristic of Third World/minority women's literature which can be found are a mixing of genres, place and displacement, constant circling from present to past, and more. Some other features of Third World/minority women's literature and their criticisms, which have evolved more for other cultures' literature than for Franco-American women's literature, have yet to be aspired to by Franco-American women writers and critics. Mostly because a criticism remains yet to be developed in reference to Franco-American women writers--both past and contemporary.
The writings of Corinne, Camille and Grace contain elements which can be identified as realism and sentimentalism, but these elements are over-shadowed by the territory, politics and collectivity characteristics and in keeping with the mix of genres, place and displacement, circling from present to past to present as well as bilingualism. Speech patterns between languages show up when a writer writes across the borders of expression.
Corinne was born in 1881 in Worcester, Ma. She had a happy childhood. At the age of nine years old Corinne became ill and lost her hearing. As a result she also lost her ability to speak. It was a long hard task of finding a school which Corinne would attend. Eventually, she was sent to Montreal at the age of thirteen to the Institution des Sourdes-Muettes de Montréal. Her sojourn at the school enabled her to re-learn how to speak and to read lips in English and French. By age eighteen, both her parents were dead and she returned home to take care of three younger sisters. Those two events--the loss of her hearing and speech and the five-year stay at the school in Montréal were to affect her for the rest of her life. Two of her works, Hors de sa prison and Those in the Dark Silence are part of her mission--apostolat. The books deal with the territory, politics and collectivity of the deaf/mute. In Hors de sa prison, which is l'histoire médicale of a little girl, Ludvine Lachance who became deaf at age two and whose parents were afraid to lose her but, because they had to work everyday, both the mother and the father, left her alone in the kitchen of their cabin. Even though the curé and le docteur tried to help them, they resisted. Finally, they gave in and let them take her to l'Institution des Sourdes-Muettes. The parents could not believe the change in their little girl whom they thought was an idiot. Corinne was awarded Médaille d'Or et le Prix de la langue française from l'Académie française for Hors de sa prison. Through her works in writing about the conditions of the deaf/mutes Corinne is credited by Belisle MacQueen as: "Son influence sur les moyens pédagogiques à employer dans l'éducation des handicapés se fait encore sentir aujourd'hui." (Belisle MacQueen 110) Her numerous writings on the situation of the deaf/mute of which I only mention two, has an effect on the pedagogy of these students today.
Corinne was also a columnist who favored acquisition of languages (she herself acquired four), was pro-war and was in favor of Women's Suffrage. She wrote a play in 1915 for the Cercle Jeanne-Mance de Worcester entitled, Française d'Amérique. The extraordinary nature of this piece, tableaux, is that the subject matter: it is about the héroïnes de la Nouvelle-France. The territory, politics and collectivity criteria of the minority women's literature is present in this work as well. Ironically, Corinne was born in the U.S., but she based her writing almost exclusively in Québec. For her the border was something which she crossed at ease in her writing. Because of her privileged up-bringing, Corinne, writes in the spirit of the elite--la survivance--the upkeep of langue, fois and moeurs. But, she translated the tools of the language of the elite into promoting women. Her heroines in the play are: La Huronne; Madame Louis Hébert et sa fille Guillemette; Madame Samuel de Champlain; Madame de la Peltrie; Madame de la Tour, baronne de St-Estienne; Une dame de compagnie; Jeanne Mance; Madame Jacques de Lalande; Madame Louis Jolliet; Madeleine de Verchères; Jeanne le Ber; La cousine de Jeanne le Ber; Madame de la Mothe-Cadillac; Une habitante; Marie; Françoise.
Corinne, at the request of the membership of the Cercle Jeanne-Mance de Worcester, wrote a play to take these pioneer women out of the shadows of obscurity. Although, the women do not retain their own names, women's history has never looked so good to me! I was absolutely stunned when I opened the anthology to find the evidence of a French woman's history. These are the stories of our mamans and mémères. There is a quality to the text which harbors between realism and sentimentalism--stereotyping in its capturing the composite lives of these women, but the overriding factor of territory, politics and collectivity define the text because it is something which explains the Franco-American women's situation. The border becomes an invisible boundary which stands between a divided nation of French speaking/cultural peoples. Corinne was a women who broke with tradition. She married late in life and had a politics which was pro-women. Her writings supported the ideology of a collectivity and focused of bettering the cause for the deaf/mutes. She was a woman who was honored several times for her writings, but she also kept in touch with the common woman and her concerns. She crossed borders of class, language, the physically challenged, cultures, gender, and much more. She offers a glimpse into the Franco-American woman's world that sets the stage for others to follow by modeling, against all odds, a writing tradition that she fashioned for herself and others.
Camille presents a different style of writing than Corinne. Camille was born in 1883 in Sainte-Julie-de-Mégantic, province de Québec. She finished her schooling at age sixteen and she became the teacher, "institutrice dans une école de rang" states Shideler. In 1904, her teaching career was interrupted when her entire family emigrated to Lewiston, Maine. Camille found herself working again, but not in the classroom. She began work dans les filatures Continental where she worked for four years. She offered her services to the local French language newspaper, Le Messager, and she began work as a columnist in 1908. She founded les pages féminines and soon enough she was in correspondence with her readership. Les pages féminines was already bien établie in the Québécois newspapers. Of the three characteristics of minority literature: its subversion of the territory of the majority through language; its fundamental concern with politics; and its urge to represent collective issues [a] tripartite sense of territory, politics and collectivity, Camille most clearly represents these characteristics by her writings because she consciously created out of these ideas.
For Camille, as a first generation emigré she had a divided
loyalty toward son patriotisme Canadienne and her new pays.
Anzaldúa says: "To survive the Borderlands/you must live sin fronteras/be a crossroads." (Anzaldúa 195) Or, as Lippard states: "Without the reconciliation of the self to the community, we cannot invent ourselves. Art speaks for itself only when the artist is able to speak for her or himself, but the support of a sensed or concrete community is not easy to come by." (Lippard 21-22) Camille's expressions above are personal, but they also have to do with the territory, politics and collectivity of the minority literature. It is my belief that immigrants coming to a new country have to relearn who they are and pass through an experience much like the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. It is also true while reclaiming one's culture. (e.g., Arredondo-Dowd)
Camille wrote for "les filles des États" as she called them. Shideler writes: "C'est surtout à ce groupe, pour ce groupe et de ce groupe--c'est-à-dire les femmes francos qui travaillent hors du foyer...Et c'est surtout ce groupe qui correspond avec elle dans les pages féminines du Messager." (Shideler 117) She offered them encouragement because they were breaking with tradition and working outside of the home and they were being attacked for their lack of character. She compares how they left the collectivity in Canada to come to terms with the philosophy of individualism dans les États. They left a rural environment for an urban one; work on the farm which did not pay for work in the mills that paid and the women left behind them the singular role where they were instrumental as wives and mothers to come to the États where for once they had the opportunity à gagner un salaire en récompense d'une tâche bien faite. They could earn money, but it was not always easy work.
Camille was also aware of: "certaines possibilités d'avancement, l'égalitarisme n'est pas un principe pratiqué au même degré à travers toute la société états-unienne. L'ethnicité ou bien la race, la classe sociale et le sexe imposent des obstacles énormes, parfois impossibles, à surmonter. C'est surtout de ce dernier problème que se préoccupe."
Insurmountable obstacles. Camille is expressing the sentiment of a minority woman about a political situation with a group in mind who does suffer from the causes that she lists as reason to want political freedoms. Camille is credited with being militant in her feminism which distinguishes her as one of the first for Franco-American women. Her experience of the mills is first hand, therefore her writings are based in the personal--theory and practice are not divorced. In her novel, Canuck, which is written in two kinds of French, Camille continues along the same vein as in her journalism writing--promoting the rights of women. Moving between a vernacular and a standard French such as, Humm says: "Many [Third world/minority women's literaturary] critics insist on the social role of the feminist critic, denying a Western non-feminist preoccupation with individual and isolated 'thinking'. For example, Anzaldúa often quotes her mother verbatim focusing on the interface between standard and vernacular speaking styles." (Humm 265) to tell a story about the women's condition from a non-sentimentalist point of view.
Camille uses several genres which is one of the marks of a minority literature. Humm says that possibly the use of several genres "may be due in part to a lack of positive models." (265) I think it may have to do with loss of contact with other women writers or, more importantly, one form cannot adequately express the diverse dimensions of a woman's life.
Camille tells a story of a family who has migrated to Lowell, Ma. to work in the mills. A father, mother, daughter and two brothers. The daughter is very much aware of the father's tyranny over the mother and the family. The mother accepts her fate. The daughter rebels and moves out to her own place where she is free to spend her money that she earns as she wishes.
Camille represents the petit Canada with a realistic eye toward the detail of poverty, oppression both from within the group and without, the conversations, the manner in which the household was run, the work load, how the women were judged, their sexuality, although she is not as explicit as Grace, the differences between the mother and the daughter, class differences and more. This is a story about border crossing and those who live the crossing.
Canuck is a book which bridges the past to the present. Camille is a women who tells a minority woman's story. She stays on the subject. She understands the worth of saying, out loud, those things which have not been said about the culture. She does not protect the male and his frailty as a sacrifice in telling his role in the woman's oppressions. She provides a road map for other Franco-American women writers who need positive role models as writers. "I'm afraid to be a writer...I'm afraid to put things down on paper, things I might regret later on, as if these things really applied to me. But then they do...So I was born in Canada. I was a new Canadian...I lived in a community that worked hard...yet I emerged as a member of an ethnic minority." (Funk Wiebe 178) She offers knowledge, history and connection between and for the next one who chooses to write.
It is my belief that Grace Metalious was a woman before her time.
The links among the writings of Corinne, Camille and Grace is a metaphor for the shift in ideologies represented in the physical moves between Québec and the Northeast, through their immigrations and migrations. The ambiguity of the border straddling is present in all their writings, but is most profound in the writings of Grace. To whom and to what will these women be loyal? Grace makes a stand for Franco-American women, but she does it her way, and she does it generationally. Grace is removed from the pull of loyalty to Québec, but not so much that its vestiges do not show in her cultural self. I believe Grace was misinterpreted by the media, because, in the U.S. at the time of her writings, the melting pot was still on the burner. Cultural assimilation is a legacy we are living out today. In both the Franco-American and Chicana tradition there are women misunderstood/misrepresented for "controlling, interpreting or visualizing women, but also to wage a domestic battle of stifling proportions." (Alarcón 182) Women at the service of conquerors. For example: Malintzin (or La Malinche) was an Aztec noble women who was presented to Cortes in 1519...She...served...as lover, translator and tactical advisor...she is a controversial figure...And for the Franco-American women historically,
An other example, a 1881 article about Mme. de Maintenon praised her for reconciling Louis XIV with his wife and the Church.
Grace was very aware of the ambivalence about women's roles in society
and it was on the pivotal point of her arrested motherhood that her serious
writing career began:
"'You begin to look for a substitute. Somehow you are going to create something. And then one day you look at your typewriter.' As Grace described it, she began writing as a replacement for the fourth child she could never have." (Toth 62) In a reaction to Peyton Place, her husband George lost his teaching job. "You live in a town and there are patterns. 'The minute you deviate from the pattern...you're a freak. I wrote a book, and that makes me a freak. They [the townspeople] don't like that'." (Toth 122)
I believe that the patterns that Grace broke was more than the ones obvious in a small New England town. The critics reactions to her books about the Franco-American cultural group is one based in ignorance. Time magazine said: "She traces the roots of their wretchedness to a neighborhood of Quebec that could have been invented only by a writer eager to fix Canada's wagon for banning Peyton Place." (Toth 302) While Grace paints a dark picture of her cultural collectivity, it is not one which I do not recognize. Her genius was in telling a story of what happens to immigrants in the host country when they are unwelcome. Her writings are about the psychological underpinnings of a minority culture in a dominant culture where there identity does not work.
Lippard writes: "Question: How do we know who we are? Answer 1: Society tells us. 'Society,' first in the form of family and other caretakers. Later, we learn our 'place' increasingly via messages from institutional mechanisms--municipal governments that replace some street lamps far more readily than others. --Autobiography in Her Own Image." (Lippard 19)
Toth writes: Grace was an avid reader and for the most part, self-educated. She supported her husband when he attended college on the G.I. Bill after the war, but she never had the opportunity to attend college. "Grace told George she wished she'd actually gone to college...She also talked about her longing for serious literary recognition." (Toth 272) As a Franco-American woman, Grace is a serious contender in the field of minority literature. Despite her fame, and subsequent banishment because of it as a "torrid" writer, which still has flame to it's reputation, this is from a NPR radio broadcast:
"Gilmanton, where Grace Metalious wrote a novel that in 1956 was an early bombshell in the sexual revolution...In the mannerly, moralistic, pre-pill '50s, Gilmanton felt betrayed...Pandora in Blue Jeans opening the lid on all of those pent-up lives, the passions, the assignations. In '56 there was sex, but nobody talked about it...And now Larose Wilkins is glad her friend Grace lifted the lid on stuffy New England hypocrisies 40 years ago..." (Stamberg 48-49)
I would like to add that Grace not only lifted the lid off of 'stuffy New England," but that she popped the cork off the bottle of what it means to female and Franco-American in the U.S. More specifically, urban female, Northeast and bilingual.
Grace's writings fall into the category Humm cites as, "the importance of a matriarchal and communal consciousness created by storytelling." (265) Toth says: "Grace said she planned a novel about French-Canadian women." (Toth 284)
As Yamanda states: "When Third World women are asked to speak representing our racial or ethnic group, we are expected to move, charm or entertain, but not to educate in ways that are threatening to our audiences...I am weary of starting from scratch each time I speak or write, as if there were no history behind us...It should not be difficult to see that Asian Pacific [Franco-American] women need to affirm our own culture while working within it to change it...This doesn't mean that we have places our loyalties on the side of ethnicity over womanhood." (Yamada 71-73)
As a woman and Franco-American it is important to understand Grace as a historical link to a literary tradition which in on a continuum. She is not the only one--past, present or future, but she is an important piece of the identity puzzle. Particularly, as a role model. The tragedy of her life was that she was so misunderstood and without a community to support her as a writer. She died poor, rejected by society, estranged from her family, and under mysterious circumstances. I don't know if Grace was aware of any other Franco-American women writers consciously, but within the collective unconscious, she was writing, with each subsequent book, deeper and deeper into herself and her collectivity. Beginning with the surface tension of Peyton Place and ending with her two books on ethnicity, Grace, is a serious literary force in minority women's literature.
The Tight White Collar is a book that deals with the small town life and self. It is a story which tells of escapes and near escapes from the suffocating atmosphere of being cooped-up in a space too long with people you are not that crazy about. But you stay anyway and you grit your teeth. It deals with a young mother with no opportunities in sight but who reads to confront her unused resources.
It is a story about ethnics. The word "Canuck" appears for the
first time in the book on page eleven. Canuck is one of the themes
of the book. Attitudes toward them. From within the group and
without. It is a theme which repeats itself often in No Adam In
Eden as well. A theme which has much to do with Franco-American
woman's sexuality. Grace offends because Grace tells it like it is.
This is a father, Anglo, middle-class, talking to his son:
The prison of an ethnic woman is her own sexuality. She is not worth marrying. In The Tight White Collar Grace explores in her writing the theme of a young wife who has an affair. A woman, Margery, who has a Down's Syndrome child and the current medical responses to such a condition. She explores a gay man coming to realize his own psychology, which is ambiguous to him, about his sexual preference. Grace's writings are earthy and raw. Grace writes about difficult sexual topics such as wife rape and incest. She dares to question the silences. She presents the reader several scenes where the wife is attempting to break out of her cycle of poverty and the husband captures her and punishes her with rape. Her books are not easy books to read. She questions the feminine ideal from all angles. Toth says: "Grace could have analyzed women's powerlessness: how their having to act only through men corrupts both sexes; how women's lack of power can lead to avarice, frigidity and murder...Instead, in No Adam In Eden Grace created cruel, competitive women, as if rejecting feminine 'softness' or sensitivity." (Toth 306)
I think Toth is incorrect in her analysis. I think that Grace knew full well the outcome of living in an environment that was harsh--it would not be an environment that produces "sweet," "soft" women. The women, without community, without support, if they were at all trying to break the bonds that was controlling them, would have to be tough. They would have to be cut of a different cloth than their sisters who accepted their fate and bore the children, cooked the meals, cleaned the house, etc. Grace, herself was trying to stretch her own horizons in a limited horizons sort of place. Territory, politics, and collectivity are present in her writings.
In No Adam In Eden, the primary driving force of the story is women and generations. It is primarily autobiographical hidden in novel form, so I would suggest that on that basis, it qualifies as multi-genres--it is a text within a text. Grace is also giving away family secrets.
Grace paints a family portrait. But the better part of it is, she is telling her truth. And that is what I believe to be ground-breaking, particularly at the time she was writing. She does not write a sentimental, sniveling picture of the happy household, but she understands the interactions as full of life and meaning and depth.
As I was reading No Adam In Eden and The Tight White Collar, I was on the lookout for cultural clues or signposts, much like you would look for visible signs on the landscape as proof of the existence of an ethnic group. Signage, the color of houses, ethnic foods in the restaurants, etc. I found the most evidence of the cultural signposts in No Adam In Eden. The Tight White Collar has representative elements of the Franco-American culture, but not so many as No Adam In Eden.
I repeat, Grace is a definite force in minority women's literature when read from a minority women's feminist perspective.
I would like to conclude with acquiescence to the following statement
which Josie Donovan wrote:
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