Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and death in the American novel 1966.Link
In Fiedler’s book, it all comes from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa: Lovelace and Clarissa are the encounter of the male principle and the female principle, the aristocracy and the newly risen bourgeoisie, reason and sentimentality. Everything from the romance paperback to sadomasochistic pornography is the distant, debased descendants from Clarissa, the first modern novel.
The novel proper could not be launched until some author imagined a prose narrative in which the Seducer and the Pure Maiden were brought face to face in a ritual combat destined to end in marriage or death; the form and its mythology were born together, in the works of Samuel Richardson….
Clarissa Harlowe is a dutiful daughter, the glory of her family, at once submissive and strong-willed, pious and intelligent, modest and beautiful…. Lovelace is a Machiavelli of the boudoir, a Don Juan who turns monomaniac before the unconquerable virtue of of Clarissa, who loves him deeply but will not surrender to him on his terms.
The seduction that forms the main action between Clarissa and Lovelace is something that doesn’t have a direct analog today. “Seduction” isn’t rape or even date rape as we would understand it, nor is it only an attack on a woman’s person. It’s damage to a woman’s social worth.
Fiedler also addresses something I’ve commented on before: where is the American pornographic literary tradition in the 19th and 18th century?
Similarly, there existed in America no body of pornographic literature. But this cuts our bourgeois off from the device of borrowing the brutality and frankness of pornography on the grounds that opposing forces, in order to meet, even on a moral battleground, must adopt similar strategies. There is a real sense in which the novels of Richardson, at their Hogarthian strongest and most appealing, are “dirty books.” It is no accident that Fanny Hill, the masterpiece of British pornography published in the same year as Clarissa, itself adopted – however cursorily – the letter from of Pamela; or that Diderot was the author of the Bijoux Indiscrets, an extended smutty joke, or that in his most Richardsonian novel, La Religieuse he pursued sexual titillation even in the midst of moralizing and tears. Implicit in Diderot – and, though quite differently, also in Rousseau – are the seeds of the infamous Justine, the book the Marquis de Sade would never quite confess he had written, and of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, last of the great epistolary novels, which defined a delicate line between obscenity and art, inconceivable to the American mind.
Apart from American puritanism, America has never had an aristocracy, and therefore no aristocratic, courtly manners to conflict with domestic virtues. To Fiedler, Richardson’s followers are just debased imitators. Instead of the clash of good and evil, the descendants of Clarissa and Lovelace are just Mamas and Bad Boys.
…generation after generation of female sentimentalists contented themselves with portraying good Revolutionary colonial girls defending their honor against swaggering Redcoats, of Confederate lasses fighting the same fight against dashing Union officers, or last of all, the country girl upholding her honor against the city slicker. In this sense, the farmer’s daughter and the traveling salesman of a thousand dirty jokes represent a last degradation (though a strange persistence, too) of the archetypal figures of Clarissa and Lovelace.
At the high ends, Richardson’s descendants are Prevost (whose Manon Lescaut is a strong example of the femme fatale or dominatrix), Goethe (whose The Sorrows of Young Werther is a masochistic male staple), and Rousseau, whose Nouvelle Heloise was parodied by Sade.
The Richardsonian novel of sentiment also begat the Gothic novel.
Through a dream landscape… a girl flees in terror and alone amid crumbling castles, antique dungeons, and ghosts who are never really ghosts. She nearly escapes her terrible persecutors, who seek her out of lust and greed, but is caught; escapes again and is caught; escapes once more and is caught…. In the end, all the ghosts that have terrorized her are explained as wax-works or living men in disguise, the supernatural appearances that have made her enemies seem more than human revealed as mere mechanical devices, etc.
In America, the Gothic produced Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also George Lippard”s Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (1845), a highly popular potboiler expose of the sexual misdeeds of Philadelphia’s elite. Lippman had a liberal populist’s outrage at the deviant sexuality of the elite (projected onto them by the bourgeoisie), but he never missed the opportunity to describe a woman in distress or depict heaving bosoms sensually. It was the bestselling book in America until Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Larry Flynt’s Hustler is driven by the same combination of resentment and envy across classes. Is this the distinctly American pornographic form?
When we watch a femsub-maledom video clip from Kink.com, we’re observing the distant descendant of the scenario laid out by Richardson more than 250 years ago. The social and political elements of the scenario are largely gone, leaving only the sexual and gender.