Susan Howe, Modernism, and Antinomian Tradition

by Elisabeth Frost

Fordham University

In 1983 Kathleen Fraser and a group of San Francisco poets founded HOW(ever), the first journal in the U.S. devoted to feminist avant-garde writing. Fraser asserted several goals for the journal: to recuperate women avant-gardists of the modern period, to foster dialogue between contemporary women poets and feminist scholars, and to nurture a community of avant-garde writers caught between the divergent camps of a "mainstream" feminist poetics and the largely male circles of the literary avant-garde.

HOW(ever) marks a significant juncture in the history of avant-garde women poets, who have most often occupied an anomalous position in American letters, struggling against the frequent masculinism of avant-garde rhetoric while attempting to voice feminist alternatives. There was certainly little usable past of feminist innovation available to women writers of the modern period; Mina Loy, H.D., and others positioned their work in ambivalent relation to masculine avant-garde agendas. By contrast, rather than responding to male avant-gardists, contemporary women experimentalists claim their place in a continuing feminist history, establishing what Fraser has called a "tradition of marginality." Among such women, Susan Howe has molded a version of that alternative history that draws not just from modernist precursors but from sources that predate experimentation from the modern period. In this sense Howe both attests to the importance of modernist women and underlines a still lengthier lineage--one often unacknowledged as a source for contemporary feminist avant-gardism.

Howe contends that the "American practice" of a poetics that "involves a fracturing of discourse, a breaking of boundaries of all sorts" has been largely excluded from the canon, and even "when the history of this sub sub group gets written even here women get shut up or out" (Bernstein 192-3). Howe notes:

When I read books about American poetry and even current discussions among poets. . . I generally read about men. Yes, Dickinson is in the canon. But she is treated as an isolated case, not as part of an on-going influence. . . . Stein is brought in but again as an isolated case, with influence, but somehow a break in the line. Marianne Moore the same, an isolated phenomenon. . . .[And] with H.D. we must always hear of her romantic connection to Pound, Lawrence, even the Williams friendship is presented not in terms of poetry but romance or rejection. And it’s usually their influence on her, not her influence on them. (Tal 26)

In such texts as My Emily Dickinson and others (some excerpted in HOW(ever)), Howe illustrates that work such as hers is far from an "isolated case."

Howe clearly establishes the importance to her own work of modernist women poets, particularly H.D. One section from Trilogy supplies Howe with an epigraph for Singularities (1990): H.D.’s lines refer to the figure of the Lady, a sign of spiritual renewal in "Tribute to the Angels": "she must have been pleased with us, / for she looked so kindly at us" (CP 568). Howe cites as a fragment the lines that follow--"under her drift of veils, / and she carried a book." These phrases link feminine identity to language; they couple the book, symbol of knowledge, with veils that obscure the Lady's body, and with it, her identity. This epigraph to Howe's collection signals her debt to H.D. and one of their shared fascinations: the linking of woman and word, at the same time that sexual definition is blurred, making space for the re-vision of identity itself.

Yet Howe just as often pays tribute to a feminist dissidence that informs modernism:

In the college library I use there are two writers whose work refuses to conform to the Anglo-American literary traditions these institutions perpetuate. Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein are clearly among the most innovative precursors of modernist poetry and prose, yet to this day canonical criticism from Harold Bloom to Hugh Kenner persists in dropping their names and ignoring their work. Why these two pathfinders were women, why American--are questions too often lost in the penchant for biographical detail that "lovingly" muffles their voices. (MED 11)

Reminiscent of Woolf’s Oxford halls in A Room of One’s Own, Howe’s "college library" and the sanctioned books within it point to a patriarchal control that silences innovative women. Howe’s witness of this lost avant-garde tradition connects Dickinson to Stein, and both to her own texts. Howe analyzes one of Dickinson’s manuscript pages: "These lines traced by pencil or in ink on paper were formed by an innovator. . . . There are political implications here," for Dickinson’s texts necessitate "an end to passive consumerism" (HOW(ever) 3.4 [1986]: 12). As the poet’s progeny, Howe demonstrates how revolutionary were Dickinson's idiosyncrasies: "Codes are confounded and converted. Authoritative readings’ confuse her nonconformity" (BM 139); "If we could perfectly restore each packet to its original order, her original impulse would be impossible to decipher. The manuscript books and sets preserve their insubordination" (BM 144).

Howe also traces an antinomian lineage that underlies Dickinson’s transgression:

The issue of editorial control is directly connected to the attempted erasure of antinomianism in our culture. . . . The excommunication and banishment of the early American female preacher and prophet Anne Hutchinson, and the comparison of her opinions to monstrous births, is not unrelated to the editorial apprehension and domestication of Emily Dickinson. . . . The antinomian controversy continues in the form, often called formlessness, of Dickinson’s letters and poems. (BM 1)

Dickinson’s innovations sparked a reception akin to that of Anne Hutchinson’s antinomian rebellion; Howe identifies "Dickinson’s refusal during her teens to join the Congregational Church during the Great Awakening" as emblematic of a feminist genealogy: the poet’s defiance of "great community pressure recalls the stubborn strength in isolation of Mary Rowlandson. Her intuitive spiritual apprehension links her with Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer" (MED 54). Thus Dickinson’s "apprehension" hearkens back to a female heterodoxy that exhibits both "strength in isolation" and a literary daring stemming from Hutchinson’s un-feminine speech.

Howe locates in these women’s dissidence a model for her efforts to show how gender operates as a limitation in language. Following her court and church trials, "Mrs. Hutchinson was silenced" (BM 58), banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638, for having criticized the colony’s patriarchs for preaching what she held was a covenant of works rather than the New England Puritans’ covenant of grace. Howe notes that Hutchinson’s story served as a terrifying object lesson to generations of women who risked "unwiving" themselves by acquiring learning or--worse still--daring to preach the word. One example Howe points to was the wife of the governor of Hartford, who, as John Winthrop described it in his journal, "was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding and reason. . . by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing." (1) As Amy Schrager Lang explains, the accusations of antinomianism leveled against Anne Hutchinson stemmed from gendered roles: "the gender-specific problem of the public woman figures the larger dilemma of maintaining the law" (3); "the crime attributed to Hutchinson at her trial is the violation of her role. She is condemned for playing the part of teacher, minister, magistrate, husband." Hence the cautionary tales penned by Thomas Welde, Cotton Mather, and other chroniclers and preachers -- representations of Anne Hutchinson as Eve ("both seduced and seductress"), Jezebel (sexual wanton), and even Hydra ("the archetypal mother of monsters") (Lang 65). That Hutchinson’s "sin" was fundamentally gendered in Puritan imaginations is apparent in the comparison between the Hutchinsonians’ misguided notions and "monstrous births," which came "out of their wombs, as . . . out of their braines," as Welde explained. (2) The still-born "issue" of Hutchinson’s follower Mary Dyer was the literal progeny of Hutchinson’s doctrines. According to Winthrop’s journal, Mary Dyer’s infant was born with a headless body adorned by horns and scales, the visible sign of God’s vengeance against Hutchinson and her defenders, and a vindication of the Church fathers who would see them duly punished. Howe identifies the antinomian controversy as the founding moment in the feminist past she claims. Mary Dyer’s "monstrous birth" becomes a figure for Howe’s own de-forming, experimental texts -- a dissonance of words "born" from the discordant voice of the heretical Anne Hutchinson and from the outlawed feminine knowledge of the midwife ("witch") who birthed the still-born child. Howe’s texts become that child: "One has just been born. A monist conception. It is a daughter a monster the other" (BM 119).

Howe describes this tradition as deliberately transgressing literary mores -- a feminist "avant-gardism" avant la lettre. Howe calls Rowlandson’s 1682 A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, her account of Indian capture and eventual release, "the first published narrative written by an Anglo-American woman ostensibly to serve as a reminder of God’s Providence." Yet, it is manifestly un-feminine, opening with gunfire, the murder of children, a burning home, and the cutting open of a slain settler’s bowels. Writing against the grain of femininity, daringly confronting the violence inherent in her story, "Mary Rowlandson saw what she did not see said what she did not say" (BM 128). Such literary transgression sets Rowlandson apart from her celebrated counterpart--the "tenth muse," Anne Bradstreet. With undisguised irony, Howe calls Rowlandson’s textual violence a "far cry from Anne Bradstreet’s polished pious verse" (BM 95); she distances herself not just from the piety but also from the poetics of the circumspect Bradstreet, whose "correct" verse, like her piety, manifestly served to keep her safe. Howe notes that "Anne Bradstreet gained public acceptance as a writer" in the shadow of Anne Hutchinson and the hapless Mary Dyer:

The excommunication and banishment of Anne Hutchinson; the banishment of Mary Dyer; published reports of their "monster" premature babies; the reprimands or silencing of other women who were midwives, had medical knowledge, or transgressed the male boundaries of theology by preaching. . . were ominous precedents. Anne Bradstreet was the daughter of a governor of Massachusetts and the wife of a leading magistrate, both of whom were virulent persecutors of Anne Hutchinson. (BM 113)

The object lesson was powerful; in Howe’s account, Bradstreet adopts polish and piety in a bid for survival, while Bradstreet’s sister "was less fortunate": in a reprise of Anne Hutchinson’s offenses, Sarah Dudley Keayne trespassed onto the male domain of theology, having "growne a great preacher"; her husband Thomas Dudley wrote to his father-in-law, "shee has unwived her selfe." As a result, she was disinherited, lost her husband and custody of her daughter (thus figuring the demise of female lineage), and was finally relegated to historical oblivion. (3)

Howe contrasts the circumspect tradition of Anne Bradstreet with that of feminist innovators, whose daring renders unthinkable the degree of public acceptability Bradstreet’s "polished verse" permitted. It is appropriate, then, that Bradstreet’s poems were reclaimed by an American woman writer who advances what Fraser calls the "common language" aesthetic of second-wave feminism: in 1967 Adrienne Rich wrote the foreword to Bradstreet’s newly-available selected poems. By contrast, Howe locates her lineage in the terrain of a feminist Puritan dissent wherein "The violence of ambiguity" is voiced, and "Disorder is another order" (BM 122). In the dichotomy between the verse-piety of Bradstreet and the heterodox "enthusiasm" of Hutchinson, Howe unequivocally chooses the latter--what she calls in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time "Enunciate barbarous jargon / fluent language of fanaticism" (S 31). Howe points to this antinomian enthusiasm as the start of a tradition of feminist avant-garde resistance.

Invoking these precursors, Howe, like Fraser, inscribes a feminist tradition for which she seeks broader recognition. Yet Howe’s effort to construct a pre-modernist legacy also suggests the hunger for a literary history that might place dissident women -- and not just those of the modern period -- in the center of the "story" of American letters. Howe implies that the search for a usable past, particularly that of feminist avant-gardists, requires redefinitions of such fundamental terms as "feminism," "avant-gardism," and "modernism" to make room for greater understanding of submerged traditions of resistance, both textual and political. Howe’s work also reveals the extent to which poetics can become the site of such textual recovery: like HOW(ever), Howe’s researches erase distinctions between the critical and the poetic--a gesture, Howe might argue, presaged not just in the work of H.D., Stein, and other modernists, but in the voices of Dickinson, Rowlandson, and the Puritan Anne Hutchinson.


Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles, ed. The Politics of Poetic Form. New York: Roof, 1990.

H.D. Collected Poems 1912-1944. New York: New Directions, 1983. Abbreviated CP.

Foster, Edward. Interview with Susan Howe. Talisman 4 (1990): 14-38. Abbreviated Tal.

Fraser, Kathleen. "The Tradition of Marginality." Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition. Ed. Sharon Bryan. New York: Norton, 1993. 52-65.

Howe, Susan. The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover: Wesleyan U. P., 1991. Abbreviated BM.

---- . My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985. Abbreviated MED.

---- . Singularities. Hanover: Wesleyan U. P., 1990. Abbreviated S.

Lang, Amy Schrager. Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England. Los Angeles: U. of California P., 1987.


(1) John Winthrop, The History of New England from 1630 to 1649. Ed. James Savage. Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825, Vol. 2:216-17, cited in BM 108. (back to text)

(2) Welde's statement appears in David D. Hall, ed., The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History. Middletown: Wesleyan U. P., 1968, cited by Lang 56. (back to text)

(3) John Winthrop, Winthrop Papers Vol. 5, 1645-1649. Ed. Allyn B. Forbes. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1941. 70 and 144. Cited in MB 109 (back to text)

BIO: Elisabeth Frost is an Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University. She has published articles on modern and contemporary poets, including an essay for the volume Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, as well as essays on Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Harryette Mullen, and Leslie Scalapino in Genders, Postmodern Culture, Women’s Studies, and The Wallace Stevens Journal. Her interview with Leslie Scalapino appeared in Contemporary Literature in Spring 1996. Her own poetry has been published in Poetry, The Denver Quarterly, Boulevard, The New England Review, Shenandoah, and other periodicals. She is currently completing a book entitled The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry.


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