Week Five/ Adventure Notes (HUM303)

Week 5 includes our final meetings on The Last of the Mohicans. We’ll also be discussing “American Eve.” Week 6 we begin King Solomon’s Mines. The 1937 film version, which deviates considerably from its source text, is available in its entirety on youtube. Of particular note is the presence of Paul Robeson, one of the most significant African American film actors (and radical public figures) of the early 20th century.

There are a number of other film versions out there. We’ve already seen a trailer for the 1950 production. In 1985 Sharon Stone starred in yet another interpretation of Haggard’s novel, and in 2004 Patrick Swayze made the unfortunate decision to join a miniseries for Hallmark theater. Note that in every cinematic dramatization of KSM, a white woman has been added to the cast of characters. This in itself can tell us something about the narrative demands of 20th century adventure films.

Rough Notes on the adventure genre.

It helps to establish the meaning of specific key terms. One basic distinction is between the romance and the novel. The common history of the rise of the novel (cf. Eagleton and Belsey) emphasizes its commitments to the aesthetic value of verisimilitude. In this respect the artifice of realism is a primary aspect of the novel. The novel tends to be concerned with the quotidian, psychological interiority and the development of character, with creating a fictional world (diegesis) that meshes with our sense of lived experience. The romance, on the other hand, given its deep roots in the western tradition as far back as Hellenistic Greece and medieval “Europe” (a geopolitical concept that did not exist until later in history), is sometimes represented as the prototype of the realistic novel. Its emphases include exotic locales, action, plot over character, and a heavy symbolic dimension.

Yet certain novels were deemed romances and in some quarters the two terms were used interchangeably. One example of this would be the genre of the historical novel/ historical romance, such as The Last of the Mohicans. In fact there is a whole cluster of generic terms that are related to our area of inquiry, and it is the theme of adventure that unites them. The Library of Congress subject heading classifies works from Robinson Crusoe to latter-day texts such as A Flag for Sunrise or Blood Meridian as “adventure fiction” and “adventure stories.” Prose fiction centered on adventure may include: adventure romance, colonial romance, imperial romance and the adventure novel. Yet there are many subgenres of popular fiction that fall under the same rubric. Thrillers, mysteries, and westerns, for example, all deal with adventures, though according to different formal conventions. One way to come to terms with this confusing taxonomy is to attempt to define the concept of adventure itself. What is an adventure? What are its etymological roots and how have its meanings proliferated and transformed over time? The Oxford English Diction is one possible resource for such an inquiry.

In its most basic sense an adventure is a space-time distinct from the ordinary rhythms of everyday life. In general, adventures incorporate exception events, are peopled by unusual characters (though the protagonist is often an ordinary figure with whom the reader may identify) and located in “elsewheres” that exceed the bounds of familiar (and/or domestic) space.

On a related note, the adventure novel can be identified as the antithesis of the literature of domesticity because of its fantasy-geography and its themes of risk, exploration, and violence. Alternately, sentimental novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin employ tropes of adventure in juxtaposition to domestic tableaux. The issue of gender arises in this context. If, early in their development, romances were coded as feminine, a masculine form of adventure romance gained prominence in the 19th and 20th centuries. By a  curious process of aesthetic transvaluation the realism of the domestic novel was linked to what were construed as the proper objects of feminine concern. Realism was thus feminized, portrayed as a mode of writing best suited to the bourgeois parlor. For example Frank Norris, one of the most significant practitioners of US literary naturalism at the turn into the 20th century, considered his own work to be a form of romance. In opposition to realism, which he caricatured as a genre concerned mainly with “things… likely to happen between lunch and supper” he posited naturalism as a kind of fiction that confronted life and its realities in their most extreme forms. Romance, then, embraced a wider view of human (implicitly masculine) experience.

The genre of the adventure novel is thus clearly implicated in a gender politics, notably the ideology of “separate spheres,” a basic patriarchal division between masculine public space and feminine private space. And yet many if not most masculine adventure romances are antagonistic to social values– even to the social as such. The male adventurer leaves society (civilization, the scene of socialization) behind in order to explore and attempt to master domains (and their inhabitants) well outside “normal” (normative) social reality. At the same time, as Bruzelius argues, the masculine adventure novel tends to be deeply conservative. Even as he is transformed, inevitably the hero is re-integrated back into patriarchal society in order to assume his proper role of command.

We might with profit think about The Last of the Mohicans in these terms, in order to assess whether that novel– which was in many ways a template for future literary production– meets these general criteria.