In her collection of critical essays, The Men in My Life
(2008), Vivian Gornick explores the pathological self-doubt experienced by both men and women, raising questions about why men are more able to express these feelings in literature than women. Nominated for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award, reviewers believe the collection is a highly underrated work. Regarded as a leading second-wave feminist and critic, Gornick is best known for her controversial memoir, Fierce Attachments
, which explores her troubled relationship with her mother.
Each essay in The Men in My Life
explores the struggles that we all face in our quest for inner freedom. Inner freedom is so challenging to learn for two reasons: first, because from an early age, we are taught to rely on other people for validation, and second, we’re all bound by the political and social conventions of our time, including the patriarchy and gender norms.
Gornick questions the role the patriarchy plays in restricting our inner freedom. She concludes that even men, who are far more able to express themselves than women, struggle in patriarchal societies. Just like women, men wrestle with despair, depression, anxiety, and failure. Universal, these feelings are not constrained to any one historical period or political era. The essays in The Men in My Life
are dedicated to men who labored to produce writing that elevates our understanding of the human condition. Through reading their work, we learn what it means to be human, and we gain some insight into achieving inner freedom.
The first essay, “George Gissing: A Neurotic for Our Times,” centers on a nineteenth-century English novelist who lived a lonely, introverted life. This isolation, Gornick claims, allowed him to create such visceral, socially intelligent writing. Gissing felt that he couldn’t reach his true potential thanks to the brutal Victorian caste system. Isolating himself from society, he focused on enriching his soul. This sense of disenchantment, Gornick argues, is something that we can all relate to.
“H.G. Wells: The Beginning of Wisdom” considers how Wells spent his later years trying to make peace with who he truly was. Life hadn’t turned out the way he had planned, and he felt like a fraud. Gornick believes that Wells was a high-functioning depressive, although he didn’t know it at the time. His depression colored his worldview, which is true for anyone suffering from depression or anxiety.
“Loren Eiseley: Excavating the Self” looks at how one man built his loneliness into a lasting monument. He created a self around his unwavering loneliness, embracing life circumstances that he could not change. He did not rally against isolation but instead embraced it. Gornick believes that, from Eiseley, we may learn how to turn our own negative experiences into strengths.
“Randall Jarrell: Reading to Save His Life” contemplates whether literature is what separates humanity from the animal kingdom. Without literature, there is arguably no difference between man and beast. Jarrell spent much of his life theorizing on the nature of man and our place in the universe; his contemplations ultimately led him to suicide.
“Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and the End of the Jew as Metaphor” puts forward the idea that Jewish-Americans created an enduring, quality canon of literature from the immigrant experience. The problem, however, is that once the experience is exhausted, Jewish-American writing loses its hook. There are only so many ways one can write about the same experience. Bellow and Roth both recognized this and struggled with its truth.
“Allen Ginsberg: America’s Holy Fool” looks at the role of friendship and community in creating great poetry. Ginsberg believed in using poetry as an act of rebellion against government oppression, and, according to Gornick, he perhaps overestimated his own significance. He was a lonely man who believed in uniting people through poetry, but he held himself out to be a literary prophet.
“Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Richard Ford: Tender-hearted Men” explores how some writers embraced sentimentality in their work. These men became almost entirely consumed by their own emotions, to the point where the emotions overpowered their writing. They struggled to strike a balance between emotive writing and melodrama.
“James Baldwin and V.S. Naipaul: America Made the Difference” considers how these writers became obsessed by circumstances beyond their control. Like Carver, Dubus, and Ford, they let themselves wallow in anger, frustration, and doubt to the point where it defined them. They are examples, Gornick argues, of what happens when we are so consumed by our need for validation that this obsession becomes our only identity.