11 October 2006

"Created He Them" by Alice Eleanor Jones

I've begun reading (more or less randomly) around in Justine Larbalestier's anthology of stories and criticism, Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. It's a rich and rewarding book, particularly for anyone interested in literary history and gender studies, because the format of having each story followed by an in-depth essay about the story's era, author, and perspective allows a more vivid view than would a book that was either primarily an anthology of fiction or primarily an anthology of criticism.

Of the stories that I have read so far and was previously unfamiliar with, Alice Eleanor Jones's "Created He Them" is the one that has remained in my mind. Lisa Yaszek's essay on "1950s SF, the Offbeat Romance Story, and the Case of Alice Eleanor Jones" provides fascinating background on Jones, a writer who mostly wrote stories for the "slicks" such as Ladies Home Journal and Redbook, but who also had published a handful of science fiction stories in 1955. Yaszek provides some background on what has been called "diaper" or "housewife heroine" SF, stories that featured women protagonists in domestic roles, and she makes a good case for giving more political value to these stories than they have received in the past.

(I have to pause for a tangential comment: The historical analyses and socio-political manuevers of the essays are certainly interesting, but as I was reading Josh Lukin's essay about the story following "Created He Them", Kate Wilhelm's "No Light in the Window" from 1963, I began to think about the value in reading mediocre work from particular periods. Though Lukin makes a heroic effort to redeem Wilhelm's story, it would be absurd to argue that it is among Wilhelm's best work, and I, at least, can't see that it's much more than a competently-told tale with a clangingly predictable twist ending. Yet this is where the design of Daughters of the Earth is particularly strong -- we do not need this to be an anthology of "the best SF stories by women". Indeed, an anthology such as this, one that seeks to examine and re-examine particular types of writing within their historical and political contexts, would do a disservice by including only great stories, because that would create a false picture of literary history. [Which is not to suggest there aren't great stories here -- there are.] The essays are insightful, and the stories provide the material for their insights, thus creating a new context, one in which a discussion occurs between generations and various types of writers, a discussion that I may be undermining by focusing on only part of the book here, because it seems that this is a book best evaluated and absorbed as a whole, which means that I am writing against my own better judgment. But what's the fun in writing if you don't, at least occasionally, go against your better judgment?)

All I really have to say is that "Created He Them" is a devastatingly efficient post-apocalypse story, and a fine example of what well-crafted popular fiction can accomplish. It was published in the June 1955 issue of F&SF, and it tells the story of a woman unhappily married to a bitter, verbally-abusive husband. The society in the story increases the need for the two people to remain married, and this raises the stakes of everything. It also allows a nuanced conclusion to the story -- a tale that could have ended with a neat and ostensibly satisfying resolution instead opens up to offer a dilemma where the personal and the social are pitted against each other. The sad and damaged world in which the events occur is drawn with evocative details, and the general mood of melancholy that fills the plain, spare prose of every sentence accumulate real emotional power. This is a story where the careful telling allows readers even now, more than fifty years after it was first published, to feel the plight of its characters, and to care. Without denying the subtle political commentary or historical interest of "Created He Them", the first thing that hit me, and the sense that has remained with me days after reading it, is the elemental emotional power conveyed by its originality of conception and its careful structure and language.

3 comments:

  1. That sounds good. I really like that era - there was something straightforward and confident about it, despite the bomb.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great appreciation, Matt. A propos of your parenthetical, yes, exactly. One reader praised the Wilhelm story to me and I took strong exception to the claim that it was a good one. It's a pedestrian tale that, when viewed in the context of its time and of KW's better work, has a little spark of a liberal-feminist point somewhere. I felt a pedagogical need to limn the social and literary atmosphere of the 1963 U.S., as I'd been meeting scholars as old as forty-four who didn't know a thing about what gender politics were like back then, and the immediate goal of making the story intelligible was useful for the larger project.

    --Josh

    ReplyDelete
  3. Alice was my teacher's wife and I knew her as well. She was not the trapped housewife in the story, and in fact the last project she worked on, before her death in 1981, was editing the definitive collection of the letters of William Lloyd Garrison.

    She held a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and made her choice to be a writer and home and family maker with full consciousness, including feminist consciousness. She was, as clare notes, "straightforward and confident."

    But her feminism was not the "feminism" of the Bay Area/Boston set--the kind that sells books and workshops, marches in rallies, or wears provocative t-shirts. Her sort, which revolved around bringing certain values and perspectives to the domestic "sphere," has been hugely dismissed and devalued by academic, professional, and upscale feminists in the past 50 years. Who fail to recognize that there are many feminisms.

    Among the many radical feminisms is the commitment to fully living, engaging with, and witnessing to one's experience, trapped in the categories of bipolar gender. It is easy to read "Created He Them" as a chronicle of an abusive marriage...but that was not my sense of why she wrote it. Like all women devoted to the care of others, she was deeply troubled by the Cold War and nuclear posturing. She also saw that these dynamics existed between men and women no less than between Commies and Cappies.

    But now I feel I have spoken for her, and that is not just.

    Alice's husband also published short stories--deft, humorous science fiction tales, most of them with mathematical themes. I seem to recall her saying she tried her hand at science fiction because of his success at publishing in mainstream SF journals of the time. His stories were collected in an anthology and have been reprinted in various places. He was a polymath, very much outside the traditional male roles of the time, although his commitment to his family meant having to go into the world and pose, as successfully as possible, as one of the guys.

    He taught for over 40 years at a college where everyone agreed he could have done better (like her, he held three degrees from Penn). But he considered himself a teacher, and neither he nor she were cut out for the 1950s-suburban class and gender politics they faced. They both were freethinkers, but not in the "Sixties" manner.

    There is much to be reclaimed from those elders, and I thank the gods every day that I had a chance to know these two. I had the good fortune to spend ten years of my young life guided and inspired by Alice's husband, as well as by her. The nuances of interaction between men and women were just one of the things I learned more about from them. I also learned to trust my own sense of reality, which always felt, to me, like something far off the bead of most other people's.

    I trust you already know that the title, "Created He Them," comes from the Judaeo-Christian book called Genesis:

    "Sexes created he them."

    This is, of course, a lie. While "god" may have "created" "sexes" in the sense of the evolution of sexual reproduction, the politics of sexuality are a purely human creation.

    with respect and affection
    misha

    spelled out to hopefully confuse the bots but not the humans:
    emm gee ess 2369 at at at com cast dot dot dot net

    ps--I found your blog while casting around for an address for my old Madison, WI, art-business friend, Paulette Werger. Amazing.

    ReplyDelete