by Neila C. Seshachari
Professor of English, Weber State University
I must begin this paper with a confession. Some time in the mid-1970s, just about the time I was appointed at Weber State University, my taste in reading literature underwent a subtle but cataclysmic change. I continued to appreciate well-written fiction and poetry, but the way writers portrayed their female characters shaped my decision of whether or not to complete reading their works. I became more sensitive to the treatment and development of female characters in any given work.
My introduction to William Kennedy’s works came late. A few weeks before I saw the film Ironweed in the late 1980s, I read the book and was moved by its humanity, mysticism, and spirituality. In Saratoga at the New York State Writers Institute in 1991, I picked up a copy of Quinn’s Book to get it autographed after Kennedy’s scheduled reading. Bill Kennedy saw the hardback copy with interest and, as he turned the book to write an inscription, his eyes fell on the abominable thin blue line along its folded pages. "A remaindered book," he chuckled. I winced, but he was happily writing his inscription: For Neila, in the midst of wine, horses & literature at Saratoga (See P. 239 et seq). With a flourishing line that dived to the bottom of the page, he signed, William Kennedy, and after a split second he added impulsively, in parenthesis (see you in Utah).
Getting Quinn’s Book autographed made a big difference in my professional life. Within the next few years, Kennedy visited Utah as a featured speaker at the Rocky Mountain MLA Conference that I organized at Weber State University, and he completed his one-act play, "Dinner at the Phelans," to be published alongside Tom Smith’s interview with him, both of which I had requested as editor of Weber Studies: An Interdisciplinary Humanities Journal. By the following year, I was working on Conversations with William Kennedy for the University Press of Mississippi, and for which I interviewed Kennedy at his home here in Averill Park in December 1996. And this Spring Semester 1999, I am teaching a seminar titled "Reading William Kennedy and Maxine Hong Kingston: History, Myth, and the Creative Imagination."
Kennedy’s works pleased me for a number of reasons: his extraordinary voice, ubiquitous humor, versatile style, his bold and imaginative use of history and myth that weave through his narratives, and his use of Albany as the one "magical place" where the "multiple incarnations" of human drama take place. But what intrigued and fascinated me most was the way he fleshed out all his female characters as "subjects" who voiced their own thoughts rather than those of their male creator. Courtesans, homeless bums, mistresses, or wives, everyone of these characters seemed to radiate her own unique power that precluded each from being pitied as victim or object.
In the hey day of feminism, critics who were rethinking women’s roles in terms of power, were discouraged by the gloomy evidence they detected everywhere in literature of "woman as victim" or "woman as the oppressed Other." Critics like Nina Auerback even pleaded that women’s power must be "searched out and insisted upon" (7). Judith Lowder Nelson, in Women, Power, and Subversion noted that to survive the chronicle of a timeless and unchanging oppression, the women’s movement needed to develop coping strategies in discovering covert power in women. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society devoted its initial volumes in 1975 to theoretical analyses of "Power and Powerlessness" to identify the sources of female power.
One does not have to search for female power in the Albany Cycle of novels. Kennedy’s women characters carry the aura of their power like bright halos around their heads. All of Kennedy’s female characters are individualistic, some outstanding, all very different from one another. There is no stereotyping here of any kind. When I interviewed Kennedy, I asked him how he managed to portray them so differently in voice and point of view.
"It’s the same as I depict the men," he said seriously, "discovering what is singular about them, in some way, extremism of behavior. The protagonists of my books are always extremists ¼" (Italics mine. Conversations 259). Herein lies the key to understanding Kennedy’s creation of women characters.
Bernard Shaw, in explaining the powerful women in his plays, told the New York Times Magazine in 1927, "I always assumed that a woman was a person exactly like myself, and that is how the trick is done" ("As Bernard Shaw Sees Woman." 19 June 1927: 2. Qtd. in Watson 114). Shaw’s vision enabled him to imagine his women in nontraditional roles; Kennedy’s imagination similarly enabled him to vitalize the women in his novels in nonstereotypical ways. Both writers make the shift from woman imagined as an object to woman treated as subject, a woman who is a sentient being. We might note here that the best writers imagine all characters as subjects.
Kennedy’s female characters are not driven into behavioral extremism by external circumstances; they are self-directed into extremist behavior, which is their own choice and exercise of power. They derive their power through directing their own lives within the social confines of the historical times in which they find themselves. Katrina Taylor Daugherty, Maud Fallon, Magdalena Colón, Helen Archer, Giselle Marais Purcell readily come to mind. However, Annie Phelan in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Molly and Giselle in Very Old Bones, Hillegond in Quinn’s Book, Alice Diamond and Kiki Roberts in Legs are no less powerful as individuals, even though their roles in the respective novels are relatively minor. All these women lead their lives, albeit in a male-defined world, on their own terms.
Historically, our definitions of power, like our very conception of history itself, have systematically excluded consideration of women. In any discussion of female power, it is important to distinguish between power as control, which is a particularly masculine concept, vs. power as agency or ability, which has been recognized as a resource more available to women. Elizabeth Janeway first noted that the Oxford English Dictionary gives two core definitions of the word "power": 1) the "ability" to do something or anything; 2) "dominance." "What is the relationship between these two?" Janeway asks, and she suggests that "The liberating power of capability may be power-as-seen from within, while the limiting power of domination is power-as-experienced by others." And she goes on to suggest that "if one’s power is felt by others as dominance and compulsion, then it is morally dubious, for it can be justified only if it does not impinge on the capability of others" (103). It is with these distinctions in mind that I explore the female power of Kennedy’s women characters.
I was drawn into reading Kennedy through Quinn’s Book, so I shall begin my inquiry into the power of William Kennedy’s "female protagonists" as he calls them with an examination of this book’s major female characters —Maud and Magdalena Colón. It may be a misnomer to talk of "female protagonists" in Kennedy’s Albany Cycle of novels because none of Kennedy’s novels has a female protagonist in the traditional sense of the word, and yet novels like Quinn’s Book, Ironweed, and The Flaming Corsage feature major female characters who lay claim to sharing the title of protagonist. And in every novel, whether they are major characters or not, Kennedy’s female characters project themselves with such individuality that they draw attention to themselves.
Quinn’s Book charts the career of the adolescent Daniel Quinn, an orphan, from the time he sets eyes on "Maud, the wondrous," who is then only twelve years old, until he is on the verge of consummating his love with her fifteen years later. In the interval between these two events, Daniel Quinn sets forth on his own adventures—into a career in journalism, which draws him into the historic Civil War, gives him opportunities to help slaves flee North, and develops his personality as a well-educated thinking individual, with his head and heart in the right places.
The first paragraph of the novel sets the tone, not only for the book and its events, but for the power and autonomy that William Kennedy’s female characters command:
I, Daniel Quinn, neither the first nor the last of a line of such Quinns, set eyes on Maud the wondrous on a late December day in 1849 on the banks of the river of aristocrats and paupers, just as the great courtesan, Magdalena Colón, also known as La Última, a woman whose presence turned men into spittling, masturbating pigs, boarded a skiff to carry her across the river’s icy water from Albany to Greenbush, her first stop en route to the city of Troy, a community of iron, where later that evening she was scheduled to enact, yet again, her role as the lascivious Lais, that fabled prostitute who spurned Demosthenes’ gold and yielded without fee to Diogenes, the virtuous, impecunious tubdweller. (5)
This beginning fixes part of the reader’s critical mind on the book’s mythic dimension. Daniel is the mythic hero; Maud is the object of his affection. In mythic terms, as Joseph Campbell has noted, the quest of the hero, the sum total of all his bravery, gets equated with his ultimate goal of acquiring and possessing his love. The object of his affections becomes the end-all, and winning her love has echoes of a fairy-tale ending: "And they lived happily ever after." This "mythic power" of the woman, no matter how heart-warming to women, is male defined; it answers the psychic needs of males. The woman is the symbolic Anima that enhances, complements, or completes the Animus within the male hero. The roots of this search can be traced to chivalric ideals which, as Kate Millet shrewdly observes in Sexual Politics (1969), lead to the exploitation of women. Mythic power rarely comes to the aid of a woman in her daily life. But in Quinn’s Book , the suggestion of this mythic power only heightens the book’s aura of magical realism without in any way impinging on the freedom of either Maud or Magdalena Colón. While the opening paragraph voices the mythic dimension of Quinn’s personal dreams, the actual events take off in their own directions. If we think of Quinn and Maud’s love as a fairy-tale love, then we must recognize right away that this fairy tale develops along a new paradigm: Daniel and Maud each go their own way to seek their destinies after they find each other, after she asks him to kidnap her, and after Daniel falls in love with her.
Likewise, Magdalena Colón, Maud’s widowed aunt and caregiver, might appear at first to be the mythic Crone. In mythic terms, the withered and aging woman, who is no longer defined in relation to a man, becomes a wise counselor and caregiver. She is rendered sexless. But not Magdalena. As a courtesan, Magdalena wields sexual power in whose presence men turn "into spittling, masturbating pigs." She has the attributes of Lais, "the lascivious and fabled prostitute who spurned Demosthenes’ gold and yielded without fee to Diogenes, the virtuous, impecunious tubdweller." Traditionally, sexpots become "objects" of cheap love. Far from eliciting this stereotypical response, Magdalena actually turns out to be the power that commands men into doing her bidding.
Magdalena is a crafty businesswoman as well. Her recklessness in crossing the Hudson on a stormy day is a clever commercial to pack audiences for her performances. She flamboyantly advertises in the Albany Chronicle that she would pay one hundred dollars, "a bloody fortune," to any boatman who would take her from Albany to Greenbush, where she would board a carriage bound overland to Troy. She is the master of spectacle in show biz. And at the Great Pier, with calculated craftiness, she speaks in her "fraudulent, Hispanicized English" and hands over a hundred dollar bill to boatman Carrick with pomp and ceremony, after lifting his woolen hat and kissing him on his lumpy forehead. Magdalena demands admiration and gets it.
"One dead slut," says her macho rescuer, John the Brawn, as he heaves her and her floating trunk into his skiff after the boat capsizes, but his lecherous sex act with her corpse revives her literally from the world of the dead, and he ends up being her slave-lover, escorting her everywhere on her performance tour.
Magdalena is adored by her young niece as well. Twelve-and-a-half-year old Maud tells Quinn that her aunt is vastly superior to her own mother as a human being. Lusted after by men and hated just as fiercely by women, Magdalena incites extreme actions. "A woman rose from beside her inert man and bit a chunk out of Magdalena’s cheek and spat on her chest" (13), as she lies "dead," we are told.
Quinn and Maud witness Magdalena’s corpse staring at them with one open eye. "Close her eye," pleads Maud. "If you look into their [corpses’] eyes you see your fate. And one must never know one’s fate if one is to keep sane" (17). But Magdalena’s closed eye opens again and Quinn sees disturbing visions that he must learn to interpret. Power accrues to Magdalena in every way. She expects to dominate all who come in contact with her and she succeeds. Her master stroke in her power plays undoubtedly is the wake she holds for herself fifteen years later, a week before she actually dies.
But at this moment when Quinn sees visions of his fate in "dead" Magdalena’s open eye, Maud takes charge of her own life and Quinn’s future as well. She tells him she is never going to grow up to be like her hated mother, or even like her saintly whore of an aunt, and that he, Quinn, should steal her away from Hillegond Staat’s house if Hillegond tries to take charge of her life. "Now kiss me" (19) she commands Daniel.
Thus the wondrous Maud, literally the damsel in distress, turns out to be the arbiter of her own fate. The fairy-tale princess here is not passively asleep in a deadly pall, unaware that her entire future is in the hands of a Prince Charming who must kiss her to bring her to life and then "kidnap" her, as Walter Scott’s young Lochinvar does, in order to share his romantic future with her. Quinn may be her future Prince Charming, but she tells him that she is never going to marry anyone. She is on her own personal quest.
Maud’s personal search is quite singular—she forays into seances and the world of spirits, and she pursues a career as a performer and dancer of rare courage and artistry. Like a male hero, she too is initiated sexually in the way of the world. We are not told of Quinn’s sexual experiences. We see him earning our respect as he aids the freeing of slaves, gets involved as a journalist in the Civil War, comes home and is booed when he portrays the reality of war. His achievements are not dependent on Maud’s love or her faithfulness, as hers too are not dependent on his support. They are both individual achievers, both possessing "singularity of character," both exhibiting "extremism of behavior," whose lives intersect at the end, with the smitten Daniel poised to enter her life.
Book One of Quinn’s Book begins with an inscription from Albert Camus, ". . .a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened." I want to suggest that the image of a powerful woman with varying representations, an archetypal woman certainly, but also one who is nobody’s minion, who gives herself the autonomy she yearns for and therefore blames no man for her destiny, seems to be one of the images that Kennedy’s writerly heart opens up to. For what comes through in Quinn’s Book is not just the magical realism of churning myth and history, but also the strength and power of Kennedy’s female characters who capture his imagination. These characters are no victims in any male-dominated situation; they are the agents of change in their own lives. They exude female power.
Maud is not a supporting character or the beloved who helps her man change the world. J.K. Van Dover, who thinks of Daniel Quinn’s romantic interest in Maud as the central action of the novel, points out that Maud’s independent life "that has no connections with the love plot"—her conversations with the spirit world, her career as a dancer, for instance—take away the "coherent center" of the novel (110–111). But the center of the novel, in a real sense, comprises the trajectories of these two singular characters, whose lives weave a collage of activities that reflect not only the mythic magnitude of their historical times, but their own extremism of behavior and singularity as well.
Also, Maud, as well as Magdalena Colón, defies the female code of sexuality. Our culture has always been ambivalent about sexuality and the mysteries of Dionysian energy in women; in Kennedy’s world, however, the female is not bound by the restrictive code of sexuality or even matrimony. Even more significantly these women recognize, as Maud knows, as does Katrina Daugherty, that with marriage, their lives are likely to be restricted. When they step into matrimony, they make conscious decisions.
If Maud and Magdalena are major characters who exercise their powers by making decisions that determine their life-paths, there are others, like Molly in Very Old Bones, who exercise their power heroically and quietly within their limited lives. Molly is not a "major character" by any means. She is one of many women in the Phelan family who engage our attention in this novel, which technically begins and ends on the same day, Saturday, 26 July 1958, when Peter Phelan brings all his family together, including his "bastard" son Orson Purcell, who becomes its narrator, to read them his will. The entire novel can be read as a novel of reconciliation and expiation, of making peace with oneself and within one’s family for all the sins committed willfully or unwittingly. Structurally rich and complex, Very Old Bones weaves a tapestry of the Phelan family history, which includes a large number of women characters, mostly not lovable, but all noteworthy.
Molly stands out as perhaps the most powerful and lovable, inasmuch as she quietly appropriates power to herself and exercises it confidently and unobtrusively in both familial and social, as well as spiritual ways. The youngest daughter of the seven children born to Kathryn and Michael Phelan, Molly is also the most unfortunate in worldly terms. Molly gets pregnant when she and Walter Mangan are courting at Grand View Lake House soon after her mother’s death in 1934 and decides to abort her fetus secretly all by herself. Unsuccessful in her attempts, she gives birth prematurely after four months to a stillborn son, then buries the baby boy in the Phelan family cellar, safely tucked away "with boxes of horseshoes and jam jars on top of him" (221). Married subsequently to the child’s unsuspecting father, she is widowed within two years, when Walter Mangan is killed in a car accident in 1937, and she returns "home" permanently to the Phelan household. In accepting the traditional lifestyle of middle-class women in the 1930s, Molly may appear to be passive, but she is in reality the silent powerhouse that sustains the dour Phelan family as its tired members eke out their lives.
In discussing Molly’s female power, we may find it useful to keep in mind the views of two theorists on the subject. Berenice Carroll has pointed out that the definition of power primarily as "control, dominance, and influence" is of recent origin and that the primary meaning of power as late as 1933 was "ability, energy, and strength." Carroll sees "ability" as the capacity to assert "one’s will over one’s body, one’s own organs and functions and over the physical environment—a power which is seen as inherently satisfying and not merely as an instrument to other ends, as neither requiring nor leading to the power to command obedience in other persons" (585, 591). It is a form of self-definition and self-rule.
Barbara Bellow Watson persuasively argues that "We must observe women as agents—even secret agents—as agonists though not always protagonists. . . [T]hese are not visions of woman triumphant but of woman militant, the agonist who is active and perceptive and, if she loses, defeated by circumstances and overpowering forces not by masochism or passivity" (Italics mine. 115). Molly exemplifies most closely the type of woman both Carroll and Watson would have had in mind.
Molly’s life is beset with unfortunate circumstances not of her making. Her personal life is punctuated with deaths of her loved ones. Christian Michener, for instance, observes that Molly’s relationship with Walter is "defined by death" (208). Molly and Walter fall in love when they are both independently vacationing at the Grand View Lake House on Saratoga Lake. She picks up an injured waxwing that has fallen from a tree and he helps her revive it for a few days until it looks healed. On its first flight to freedom, it sits on the same tree for a while and falls dead. Their shared grief helps them cement their intimacy. During this courtship, Walter’s hint of a forthcoming marriage proposal comes to her only in cryptic Kennedian grotesque: How would you like to be buried with my people? (209). Molly, as events turn out, has Walter buried in the Phelan graveyard.
We see Molly’s powers when Walter dies in the accident on his way to Virginia. As she tells Giselle in their "colloquy, September 1954," she comes to know of his death only when the abominable Mangan family informs her of the wake through their funeral services. She goes to the wake accompanied by her own undertaker, and she exercises her "widow’s rights." She wants to take Walter’s body with her for his final wake before burial in the Phelan family plot. She exhorts them sternly, "I hope none of you try to stop me, because I have a letter my lawyer got me from the courts, and if you raise one finger against me I’ll have the police on you." She confides in Giselle, "I really didn’t have a letter; I made that up" (210). In making that momentous decision, Molly exercises the kind of judgment or power that is normally assumed by males.
In all her dealings with her unwanted pregnancy, Molly shows not only her moral power in taking charge of her own body but religious and spiritual power as well. There is no shame or sin for a young Catholic greater than premarital pregnancy. Refusing to be marginalized by Church and society, and unable to share her anxiety with any of her sisters or brothers, or even her own lover, Walter, who has not yet proposed to her formally, she taps into her own inner strengths instead of giving way to spiritual disillusionment or depression. She refuses to implicate Walter in this "sin" for two reasons: Since he has not proposed to her formally, she does not want to put moral pressure on him to do so as a result of her preganany, as she tells Giselle; and she perhaps wants to protect Walter and herself from social embarrassment and spiritual shame that would sure be pronounced by the Church. She decides single-handedly that the "right action" to take is abort the fetus. Florence Nightingale, in Suggestions for Thought to Searchers After Religious Truth (2:24), asks a searching question on morality that may enable us to understand Molly’s plight and decision. Nightingale asks, "What is morality to be referred to? Is it not to our sense of right? But we have referred it to a book [the Bible], which book makes many contradictory assertions" (Italics mine. Qtd. in Jenkins 41). Seen in this light, we may recognize that in Molly’s own eyes, her decision is a moral action, devoid of guilt.
The Church also has a history of marginalizing women of their spiritual powers. But Molly quietly claims this spiritual power to baptize her son "with water from the sink in a teacup" and name him Walter Phelan, not Walter Mangan. "We don’t know how strong we are, do we?" she says to Orson as she takes him into confidence. "God was with the Phelans, don’t you think? He took the baby but savwed us from scandal and he let me have my love back." The baby, who gets his name from both the father and the mother, remains buried in the Phelan cellar for almost two decades until Molly gets a chance to bury him properly when her sister Sarah dies in 1954. Molly exhumes baby Walter’s remains with Orson Purcell’s [Phelan’s] help and puts the swaddling cloth in its "burial packaging" of brown paper and a white linen napkin with the scrolled letter P on one corner" all tucked in a small purse. She asks Orson to place the purse under the pillow in sister Sarah’s coffin. Thus Molly appropriates to herself another spiritual birthright as well—the right to give her baby a Christian burial. The decision to abort one’s baby is never easy on any woman, and the way Molly deals with her long ordeal is heart-wrenchingly admirable.
Molly exercises her spiritual power to legitimize her stillborn son’s connections with his God and, in his burial, his biological bond with his rightful family, the Phelans. Molly’s Church-patriarchs would have relegated her innocent baby to a life in Purgatory for eternity; Molly has the courage to circumvent, even subvert, their censure by reclaiming the God-given power of ritual to the believing. I find Molly to be the most courageous, generous, and most powerful of Kennedy’s women characters.
Molly may appear to some as a victim in her circumstances, but she does not think of herself as one. She feels helpless, depressed, and guilty only when she cannot intercede on behalf of her siblings with the dour and masochistic Sarah, cannot prevent Sarah from beating up Tom into a literal cripple for misbehaving with an elderly woman à la Charlie Chaplin (197). But she is otherwise a sunny creature, who connects with everyone. "She was wonderful with human relationships and I loved her," (278) says Orson.
Molly is a liberated woman, despite her sixty-four years, even in her sexuality. When she and Orson, twenty-five years her junior, feel attracted to each other, she goes to Grand View Lake House where she relives her cherished moments of her courtship with Walter when she waltzes repeatedly with Orson to "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" by Ray Noble and his orchestra. This is a dance of celebration of life by two intimate people who have fallen "in love with each other’s failed love" (223). Later, when they are sitting in the hotel parlor and watching the fire glow—the same in whose presence she tells him about herself and about aborting her baby—his hand wanders over her face and then comes down on her bosom. She tells him it is all right to fondle her. She too runs her fingers through his hair and reaches enough emotional intimacy to kiss him "with the fullness of her mouth." But she sets parameters on their relationship right away when she removes his hand gently and puts it back on his lap. "We must find a way not to be naughty" (220), she says. Molly’s benevolent love is powerful. As Orson confides in us, his readers, "She [Giselle] says she envies me the family ties, and that she’s come to understand she and I might be divorced now if it weren’t for Molly" (249-50). And as he recalls earlier, Molly was the one to oversee his reentry into the human race after his alcoholic depression and grave illness (215).
Women’s friendships can often become sources of power. Through her friendship with bootlegger Cubby Conroy’s dying widow, Charity, Molly gets a windfall of a total of twenty-seven thousand dollars in cash, which she astutely converts into gold coins and, through the years, distributes a gold coin of different denominations each to various family members on special occasions such as birthdays. To Orson she gives forty ten-dollar gold pieces when he first moves to the Lake House (in 1953) to recuperate from his mental breakdown. As Orson comments after she inherits another tidy sum, this time from her brother Peter Phelan, she is "the self-sufficient dowager, ready with the quick fix for family trouble" (279).
Molly possesses an abundance of selfworth and generosity. The notion of power encoded in public life is not available to her and therefore does not interest her. She has, however, tremendous "influence," which she exercises, albeit unconsciously, on various individuals who inhabit her personal world. In exercising her ability in taking charge of her own affairs, she exercises a form of resistance to dominant values. In her foregrounding her own female ability and her subversive undercutting of family control, she exercises her power.
In evaluating William Kennedy’s women characters, one has to consider connections between text and historical contexts, and to the changing ideological and material situations in which the evolution of all power—but particularly female power—takes place. One recognizes how "literature has more to say about power than might first appear" and how "literature teaches that power is relative and confused; that power is everywhere in a variety of forms and degrees; that all our [initial] formulations about power are [often] too simple" (Watson 113, 118).
A close reading of Kennedy’s works reveals his dual representations of women: 1) women as they are seen by male characters (by macho men like Jack "Legs" Diamond or his outlaw buddies, depraved men like Maginn or Marcus Gorman, as well as by sensitive men like Daniel Quinn or Orson Purcell) and 2) women as they see themselves. Kennedy’s singularity in treating women is that he portrays them all as they see themselves, as heroic women, who are not given to driveling self-pity, nor to self-deprecation and self-doubt. They are either capable of exercising their influence as arbiters of their own fates or they are social "victims" who deal with their fallen conditions with dignity. Helen Archer, for instance, is dignified in every way and singular enough to even choose the way she dies.
Other women characters who hold our admiration and deserve extensive attention in Kennedy’s complex world are: Katrina Daugherty, who dominates two novels in which she is a relatively minor character—Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed— and who shares the limelight in The Flaming Corsage; Giselle Marais Purcell in Very Old Bones, who is a photographer of global renown, "a pioneer feminist in a man’s world" (284); Helen Archer and Annie Phelan in Ironweed. Helen and Giselle can take care of themselves in ways that have historically been seen as uniquely male. [Unfortunately, I have time only to mention all these powerful women here.]
One may legitimately ask how Kennedy’s women characters are unique. They do not fall into the traditional mold of passive, submissive women—a concept we see propagated by some writers even in our own times. Even Annie, the most traditional of Kennedy’s women characters, manages to rise in stature the day Francis Phelan visits her with a turkey after 28 years. Annie welcomes him with dignity, leads him up the attic to show him the trunk with all his baseball things in it, gives him back his self-relinquished power as a member of the family by telling him he could share the room with grandson Daniel Quinn if he decides to stay. But she lets him know obliquely that her spousal relationship with him is over. In the decades of the 1920s and 30s, women whose husbands walked out on them may have felt discouraged and discarded, but not Annie. She creates no melodrama of an abandoned housewife when Francis comes home. She rises in stature not only in our own eyes for conducting herself with dignity, but in Francis’s as well, as one who has never blamed him for dropping their infant son, Gerald, to his death.
Kennedy’s uninhibited women free themselves of oppressive societal restrictions. This is not to say that Kennedy does not portray the downtrodden. Far from it. Kennedy’s world is full of fallen characters who are also singular. The Flaming Corsage begins with a scene in which Maginn and Edward Daugherty visit a house of ill fame. But the prostitutes are highly individualistic. They come alive. Rose, the older woman who initiates Edward, is witty and lighthearted, without self pity. In her memorable tete-a-tete with Edward, she elicits our admiration. In Legs, both Alice Diamond and Kiki Roberts, Jack’s wife and mistress, display their feisty independence and conduct themselves with the dignity that is worthy of our respect.
Katrina is the fascinating, uninhibited, obstinate, true aristocrat who does not give a hoot about what other people think of her. In Billy, she is the seductress who initiates Francis. In Ironweed and Bones, she haunts as memory; and in The Flaming Corsage, she vies with Edward, her husband, to be treated as a protagonist, rather than a major but peripheral character. One detects in her independence a dialectic of power play that goes beyond the simple male/female realm. Not surprisingly, Kennedy thinks of her as his "most complex female creation" (Conversations 254). Katrina’s death is neither a passive nor a desperate act. It is a conscious choice.
Kennedy’s representations of women vary somewhat depending on the times they live in, especially in light of the shifting social mores of those times, but his women characters are always tough and powerful. In order to assess their female power, we must not look for their non-existent declarations and manifestos, but for their unspoken convictions, their actions that subvert accepted values, the hidden meanings that emerge from their day-to- day living strategies. Kennedy uses toughness in complicated ways to break or bend gender stereotypes. His women characters, who come from all walks of life, owe their courage and power to their creator, who makes no distinction between the creation of his male or female characters, abundantly bestowing on each the gift of singularity and extremism of behavior.
WORKS CITEDAuerback, Nina. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978.
Janeway, Elizabeth. "On the Power of the Weak." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1.1 (1975): 103–109.
Jenkins, Ruth Y. Reclaiming Myths of Power: Women Writers and the Victorian Spiritual Crisis. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1995.
Johansson, Sheila Ryan. "‘Herstory’ as History: A New Field or Another Fad?" in Liberating Women’s History: Theoretical and Critical Essays. Ed. Berenice A. Carroll. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976: 400–430.
Kennedy, William. Quinn’s Book. New York: Viking Press, 1988.
---Very Old Bones. New York: Viking Press, 1992.
Michener, Christian. From Then Into Now: William Kennedy’s Albany Novels. Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 1998.
Newton, Judith Lowder. Women, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in British Fiction, 1778–1860. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1981.
Seshachari, Neila C., ed. Conversations with William Kennedy. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
Van Dover, J.K. Understanding William Kennedy. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Watson, Barbara Bellow. "On Power and the Literary Text." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1.1 (1975): 111–118.