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Spring 2016

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In Her Own Words:

What first sparked your love for films/movies?

I grew up in a house where we all loved to read, we all loved to watch movies, and we all loved music--from show tunes to opera to rock n roll. No one ever censored our reading or viewing, so I read and watched pretty much everything. By the time I was in high school, my parents must have recognized that I was a book nerd and movie freak, and they stopped making me go to bed if I was deep into a book or watching some great old movie on the WGN/Chicago late show.   


What made you want to write about them, to pursue your academic interest in film?

I had teachers and mentors who showed me by example that studying film could be really exciting.  In my very first semester of my freshman year at the University of Illinois in Urbana, I enrolled in a film studies course offered through the English Department. This was such a new concept at the time that the course didn't even have a number--it was "experimental." My professor was Robert Carringer, who, several years later, distinguished himself as a formidable film scholar when he published a book about Orson Welles and Citizen Kane. No matter what else I went on to study (I was a history major) I never forgot Professor Carringer's great class. I realize now that his example--an English professor who studied film--really inspired and encouraged my own later work.    

Loyola University awarded me a PhD fellowship in the 1980s, and I used some of the award money to buy my first VCR. I watched movies regularly while I was working on my dissertation, which was a study of three seventeenth-century Puritan sermons. Who wouldn't want to watch movies while doing that?  I think I might never have completed the thesis without that VCR.


Your point about watching movies while working on your dissertation really hits home for me. After I finished my Orals, I spent the summer reading and writing poems. It's as if my brain needed to escape, to find a different outlet. And that is why it took me an extra year to finish my thesis... Okay, so you wrote your thesis on Puritan sermons, and yet your first book, Reel Rituals: Ritual Occasions from Baptisms to Funerals in Hollywood Films, 1945-1995 (1999), was on films. What happened to those sermons? Did they chase you away?

Isn't the connection between Puritan sermons and Hollywood films obvious?  Probably obvious only to me . . . my work in Colonial American literature and culture has imprinted everything else I have studied since, and always will.  The English Department here at EIU has encouraged and supported my scholarly pursuits through the years, no matter where they led, and I am grateful for that support.  


Interesting point. That's true for me too. My dissertation was on epic heroism, and so my focus since then has been on comic books and superheroes. Can you describe a little, then, the lens created by Colonial American Lit and culture through which you observe the movies you watch? 

My work in Colonial American literature continues to influence how I study film and other literature, really. My B.A. and M.A. degrees are in history. As a history major, I was drawn to the earliest texts generated in the North American colonies:  sermons, travel journals, letters, biographies, histories, etc. What fascinates me still--and what sent me to the English Department back in grad school--was that so much of the non-fiction writing from this early time period reads like fiction.  Storytelling comes naturally to the preacher, the escaped slave, and the traveler in an era before the word "fiction" meant what we think it means now.  For me, history is fiction, and fiction is history. And film is another kind of storytelling, another kind of  literature, sometimes another look at history. Do I sound like I'm high?  


You are too funny. Maybe anyone of us sounds high at this point of the semester. So, your comment about the interrelatedness of fiction and history, and even film, definitely explains the focus of your second book Edith Wharton on Film. Certainly all three are integrated in that book, where you examine Wharton's fiction for its reference to films of its time (therefore, a historical reference), and you also explore the films adapted from her work. Is this why you chose Wharton as a topic? Because her writing seemed to epitomize the fluidity between fiction and history, history and fiction, and between both of those and film? 

I have loved Wharton's fiction since I began reading her works in the 1980s, but I never would have guessed back then that I would someday write a book about her.  I began researching Wharton seriously in the late 1990s, really because of my students here at EIU.  I often taught Wharton's The House of Mirth in several different classes. We had some great class discussions about this book, which eventually led me to investigate the relationship between Wharton and film adaptations of her works.  What I learned seems too good not to share! I will always be happy that I worked on this project, which culminated in Edith Wharton on Film through Southern Illinois University Press in 2007.


Your interest in film spilling into your teaching of Wharton actually sounds like a natural and logical progression to a book on Wharton and film, especially since movies are in her fiction, and movies have been made from her stories. I’m beginning to see how your mind works. It comes, now, as no surprise that while watching pregnant comic actors on television, your mind immediately thinks: The Scarlet Letter. It’s that lens again. I probably would have thought Catwoman and Wonder Woman, and how their skimpy, breast-inducing, shrink-wrapped costumes could never accommodate a pregnant belly, or any belly. Only sexy women can even slightly inch their way towards the possibility of being considered heroes. I’m thinking about Hester. She certainly wasn’t revered, and I think she was very heroic. So, tell me about your third book, Pregnancy in Literature and Film. I read your Preface and was immediately hooked. What exactly happened as you were watching television through that lens?


Pregnancy in Literature and Film was a great joy to write. I had thought about fiction and pregnancy a great deal when I was studying Edith Wharton, who uses pregnancy in several ways in her fiction. But what I describe in the Preface of Pregnancy really happened:  I was reading a great oral history by Anne Fessler called The Girls Who Went Away-- about women who gave up babies in the 1960s--while I was watching Saturday Night Live's very funny opening skit with two very pregnant hosts:  Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph. The "pregnancy narrative" hit me over the head like an anvil! Pregnancy is everywhere in art:  fiction, poetry, film, painting, photography religious art, etc. I had the chance to study pregnancy narratives from Biblical stories to popular fiction, to slave narratives, to the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, to Demi Moore's pregnant cover of Vanity Fair to I Love Lucy, to horror and science fiction film. Hester Prynne and Linda Brent (from Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) became my muses and guides on this wonderful journey through pregnancy art.


Have I told you enough how I can’t wait to read your book? So, where do you think this lens will lead you next? Are you working on anything right now? Do you ever write fiction of your own? Or tell stories?

Last summer I was contacted by a scholar in Ohio who had read Edith Wharton on Film, and is putting a collection of essays together on Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway (who shows up in my book on pregnancy). I will be contributing an essay to her collection:  a study of Wharton, Hemingway, and Patricia Highsmith and their relationship to American noir (also suggested by work with my students, by the way).  As part of this project, I will be presenting work at the Edith Wharton Conference in DC this June, and at the Hemingway Conference in Oak Park in July.  So I have lots of wonderful work to look forward to!  I am delighted to have been asked to participate.  

I used to write (bad) poetry and (worse) fiction, but not in many years.  I am happier studying and reading and writing about how I understand the narratives of others instead.  And I just can't stop reading.  Right now I am obsessed with African American history, especially the history of American slavery.  I also like to write book reviews for various publications.  Sometimes I think about working on some sort of memoir, but then sometimes I think that a trip down memory lane is not that great a journey, especially if I have to drag some reader with me. . . so for now I'll just keep doing what I'm doing.



Preface to Pregnancy in Literature and Film

Pregnancy in Literature and Film cover photoMy interest in fictional pregnancy began several years ago when I was working on a project on Edith Wharton, who uses pregnancy in masterful ways in her fiction. But like most scholarly projects, this one really came into focus because of the happenstance of everyday life. One Saturday night, I turned on Saturday Night Live and watched a remarkable opening monologue. Host Tina Fey, six months’ pregnant, and Maya Rudolph, eight months’ pregnant, were performing a duet in which they were singing to their unborn children about how babies are made. I was immediately reminded of an earlier pregnancy skit when 9-months’ pregnant Amy Poehler and host Josh Brolin danced to “I’m No Angel.” The songs, the acts, and even the performers’ costumes were provocative. And funny. And for me, timely.

The book I had been reading earlier in the day—which was sitting at my bedside while I watched Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph gyrating through their final trimester of pregnancy—was Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade (2006).[i] Part memoir (Fessler is an adoptee who bookends her study with her own story), and part historical narrative, the real power of the book lies in the oral histories that Fessler provides. Her interviewees tell us how they felt and what their lives were like when they were young, pregnant and frightened. They describe what happened to them before and after pregnancy changed their young lives. They relive their fear, helplessness and anguish. For some of them, the interviews in this book represented the first time in their lives they had told their pregnancy stories.

My SNL/Fessler evening should have been little more than a coincidence, really. Serious, heart wrenching personal narratives and a raunchy TV skit? After all, pregnant or not, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Pohler are all mature professional entertainers, light years removed from the teenage girls in Fessler’s book. And whether we are in 1960s America or the 2010s, pregnancy is rarely funny. Yet the juxtaposition of SNL and the Fessler book stayed with me. The more I thought about the robust pregnancy performances on SNL and the stories of Fessler’s women, the more I realized that their coming together one Saturday night in my mind was not a simple coincidence. As I continued to research, listen, and watch, I understood that the Fessler book and the SNL skits are both part of a rich legacy of pregnancy narratives in American literature and art, one with a complicated, often subtle, and always challenging history. As different as they are, a collection of real pregnancy stories and a song and dance by three pregnant celebrities both suggest the ways in which pregnancy narratives function. [ii]

In Pregnancy in Literature and Film, I will explore the ways in which pregnancy behaves in canonical American literature and mainstream Hollywood films. I will consider the ways pregnancy has been used by writers and filmmakers, so that we can gauge the ways that fictional pregnancy has reflected, and has been reflected by audiences throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. I have chosen to work with canonical and mainstream works for two reasons. First, I wanted to work with texts and films that we think we already understand. Evaluating them through a frame of pregnancy will change these works for us, revealing aspects of them that we have either never thought about, or have never taken seriously.

Second: I have chosen mainstream, canonical works because traditional anthologies of literature and Hollywood studios are always the last to know anything. Both rarely set trends or take risks; in terms of cultural changes, they are almost always behind the curve. This has proven to be useful to me. Because Hollywood productions and multi-volume anthologies of American literature change very slowly, when they do embrace new ideas, then we know that the ideas have probably already arrived. They have both afforded me the chance to gauge the changes in how we express pregnancy. If Hollywood is doing it, then everybody else has already done it.

I have designed this study as a loosely chronological narrative—a story—that begins with a discussion of literature, beginning with The Scarlet Letter and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Because we find pregnancy in every genre and every decade of literature and film, I have organized subsequent chapters within a sketchy but sturdy historical framework into which I have woven discussions of genres and trends. We begin with the pregnancy melodramas of the earliest decades of Hollywood film, moving on through noir and teenpics, to horror films, and beyond to science fiction, and finally to independent film. We will explore how these genres are related and linked, and where fictional pregnancy belongs in an historical context. I conclude with a theoretical discussion of “the gaze”: how we frame, perceive, and evaluate these artistic expressions of pregnancy, and a final summary of how narrative pregnancy behaves with the integrity of language.

 And “behaves” is the most seminal verb to describe pregnancy, real or fictional, because all pregnancies are organic and eventually follow their own rules and take on their own lives. As we will discover, the history of fictional pregnancy actually suggests a real pregnancy, one which begins subtly and often secretly in the 19th century, and grows throughout the 20th century to reveal new life by the 21st century. Also, like a real pregnancy, fictional pregnancy suggests the unknown and the unknowable to us. We may not always understand why a pregnancy behaves as it does, but we can certainly figure out how it behaves.

Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away has been especially helpful to this work, as have other recent scholarly studies on childbirth, mothering, and motherhood, all subjects that are related—but not identical—to pregnancy studies. Many of these works have supplemented and complemented my own work on fictional pregnancy. I have drawn my research from a variety of disciplines, including gender studies, film studies, and literary studies. This is primarily a historical narrative, but in order for it to make any sense I have examined these texts and films through a variety of lenses, especially through a theoretical frame. There are some great works on feminist film theory, genre theory, and cultural theory, and they have informed all of my own readings. Although I have chosen to concentrate on popular or canonical American titles, I have also referenced other texts and films from around the world when appropriate. I have included references to poetry, drama, medical journals, websites, Youtube videos, photographs, paintings, advertisements, and television shows, all of which have enriched my understanding of fictional pregnancy.  

For all of the titles and examples that I have included, I have never intended this work to represent a comprehensive listing of every text or film in which pregnancy is featured—there can be no such list.   For those texts which have also been adapted to film, I have tried to acknowledge both. However, some film adaptations are better than others, and some do not lend themselves to a discussion of pregnancy as narrative. For example, Nabokov’s Lolita has been adapted by Stanley Kubrick in a way that contributes to our understanding of how pregnancy works, but the film version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale does not tell us much that we cannot discover from that great dystopian novel. I have tried to provide a balanced and complete approach to work with so many examples, which has been challenging, because there are a bountiful number from which to choose. For every title I mention, there are probably ten others that come to mind. The Internet Movie Data Base has been indispensible; through IMDB and other websites, I have found multiple lists of titles and other helpful information.

Writers often compare working on a big project to being pregnant and giving birth. Having experienced both, I understand the comparison: both a real pregnancy and a major scholarly undertaking require consistency and great labor, and both eventually take on their own lives, often in unexpected ways. This project certainly surprised and delighted me. As often happens with scholarly endeavors, at the beginning of the process I expected certain things to happen. Especially in terms of film, I assumed that I would be studying and writing about the high-profile pregnancy narratives produced by Hollywood: the seamless cautionary melodramas of the 1950s (Written on the Wind, 1956; A Summer Place, 1959), and perhaps the Doris Day romantic comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s (Pillow Talk, 1959; Lover, Come Back, 1961; The Thrill of It All, 1963). I assumed I would study romantic epics—from Doctor Zhivago in 1965 to Cold Mountain in 2003—that include pregnancy narratives of star-crossed lovers.

I was wrong about much of what I expected. Those mainstream films certainly represent pregnancy narratives, and they are all films that I love. But they are not the films that distinguish themselves as significant pregnancy narratives; they do not tell us much about the ways in which pregnancy stories can enrich the narratives through which they move. These conventional movies instead represent set pieces, useful to me as a beautiful control group against which I have been able to examine some wonderful surprises: pregnancy narratives from women’s noir, horror, low-budget B movies, and science fiction. In many of these films, pregnancy behaves like a Trojan horse, opening a narrative to reveal all sorts of human emotions and behaviors that have little to do with pregnancy itself.

Pregnancy in Literature and Film has been a major undertaking for me, one that I would never have been able to realize by myself. I thank my family, who are champions: Kennedy Hutson for his patient loyalty, and Boswell Hutson for the honor of being his mother, but more importantly, for giving me his castoff laptop and the Netflix thing. I thank my teacher Robert Carringer for reading an early draft of part of this. I thank these friends who have allowed me to babble to them about The Scarlet Letter, Leave Her to Heaven, Lolita, and on and on. I am lucky to have them: Stephen Swords, Christopher Weedman, Marjorie Hanft, Randy Beebe, Dana Ringuette, Joe Mari, and Bill Searle. Thanks to Scott Hutson. I am grateful for a sabbatical leave from Eastern Illinois University, and to Jean Toothman and Sarah Miller for their help. Booth Library at EIU has done everything right, as usual. McFarland Press has been especially thoughtful about my work, and I am very grateful to them, as I am to Photofest, which is a national treasure. I thank my beloved students, who have helped me in multiple ways. I am grateful to Coral, Ruby, August, Robin, and Susanna, who all know how they have contributed.

Finally, I am especially indebted to Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Pohler, who all helped me realize, one fateful Saturday night, that when pregnancy dances, we should all celebrate.


[1] Fessler, Ann. The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. NY: The Penguin Press, 2006.

[1] Tina Fey hosted Saturday Night Live on 7 May, 2011. Amy Pohler hosted SNL on 18 October, 2008. Both skits are accessible online.