Thursday, March 15, 2012

thoughts on How It Was: 1920

The earlier part of the 20th century: I can't get enough of it.  I want to know more than stories and facts; I want to understand.  Coming across the line quoted below (from the 1925 Pulitzer Prize winner) made me stop and consider as I may not have if I hadn't just read Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark.  It's a peek into society: one of those mood-setting, reaction-dictating nuances of a culture that is too current to seem altogether foreign, and too far in the past to be completely familiar.

Passion was a thing no woman possessed, much less talked about.  It simply did not exist, except in men, and then was something to be ashamed of, like a violent temper, or a weak stomach.
from page 69 of So Big by Edna Ferber (1924)

The Song of the Lark was published in 1915, 9 years before So Big, but they both address this societal change from angle that would be easy to trivialize, (or to seemingly miss or ignore altogether, as in Millhauser's more recent Pulitzer, Martin Dressler,) looking at it from this late date.  The Song of the Larks is about art, about passion.  Cather does a wonderful job at fleshing out such personal experiences, and yet reading it twice wasn't enough for me to receive the full impact of her message.  It took this cross-referencing to really be brought to light.

Harsanyi rumpled his hair irritably and shrugged his shoulders. “Her secret? It is every artist’s secret” --he waved his hand-- “passion. That is all. It is an open secret, and perfectly safe. Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials.”
from page 429 of Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (1915)

Of course, I knew that the Victorian era had a very confining effect on women--in America as well as Britain--but getting a clear picture of the transition from that to something more modern can be difficult.  Anyhow, that was my brain-expanding moment for the week.  Thoughts?


  1. This is something I've never understood. How can a woman have 8 kids and not have passion? I'm definitely a product of my age.

    These sound like great reads. I'm guessing that you liked So Big?

  2. I actually haven't finished it yet, but I am enjoying it. I was just stuck on this thought so I had to post about it! It was one of those time when I realized how much I, too, am a product of the society I grew up in. The idea that a woman couldn't (not even just shouldn't, but could not) be passionate is so difficult for me to understand.

    So often we hear only the more aggressive side of the Women's Rights movement, but how it personally affected women and society is a story more complicated and less told. There was a character in Song of the Lark that was a perfect example of the quote from So Big--a man who had passion, and felt ashamed of it. I love how the ideas from the books fit together so well.

  3. This sounds so interesting - I'm going to have to find this book. Women's issues and oppression interest me so much. This review actually made me think of Isabelle in Birdsong, but perhaps that's because of the period and the common bird reference! Hooray for passion not now being a dirty word.


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