Bender, Bert 1938-
BENDER, Bert 1938-
PERSONAL: Born January 29, 1938, in Cape Girardeau, MO; son of Walter W. (a welder) and Fern Evelyn (an accountant; maiden name, Stroud) Bender; married Roberta Burnett, 1971 (marriage ended, 1980); married Judith C. Darknall, November 5, 1982; children: (first marriage) Nathan Todd. Education: University of Washington, Seattle, B.A., 1960; attended San Francisco State College (now University), 1965–66; University of California, Irvine, Ph.D., 1973. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Hiking, "sea-related activities."
ADDRESSES: Home—10365 Escondido Rd., Atascadero, CA 93422.
CAREER: Junior high-school teacher in Anchorage, AK, 1962–63; Arizona State University, Tempe, professor of English, beginning 1971, became professor emeritus. Commercial fisherman in Kenai, AK, summers, 1963–93. Military service: U.S. Army, Infantry, 1960–62; became captain; served in U.S. Army Reserve.
Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present, illustrated by Tony Angell, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1988.
The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871–1926, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1996.
Evolution and "the Sex Problem": American Narratives during the Eclipse of Darwinism, Kent State University Press (Kent, OH), 2004.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A memoir of the thirty summers the author spent as a commercial fisherman off the coast of Alaska.
SIDELIGHTS: A professor emeritus of English at Arizona State University, Bert Bender is the author of several literary studies that analyze how nineteenth-century English naturalist Charles Darwin's theories of evolution influenced nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century American literature. Comparing and contrasting a wide range of works by male and female writers who are, in many cases, not typically juxtaposed, Bender shows how principles of social Darwinism apply to the themes illustrated in many literary classics.
Inspired by his experiences as a gill-netter off the coast of Alaska during summers when he was not teaching, Bender's first book, Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present, discusses Darwinism with regard to stories of the sea. Here, as Bender told CA, "I claim that the sea has played a greater role in shaping American literature than is generally known, greater, for example, than that of the frontier. Our novelists have celebrated the sea life not only as a way to adventure and manhood, but as a way of questioning the captain's authority and affirming democratic possibilities among working seamen, as in Dana's Two Years before the Mast and Melville's sea novels. Moreover, novelists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries found the sea to be an essential setting for exploring the meaning of life or 'man's place in nature.' Since Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, American sea fiction reflects a sense that human life has emerged from the sea and that the theories of natural and sexual selection best explain human nature and the meaning of life on earth."
Critics of Sea-Brothers have found Bender's assertion of the preeminence of sea fiction over frontier fiction to be a daring position. "Bender argues persuasively that the idea of the sea journey to wisdom is a far more powerful force in American literature than that of the conquest of the frontier," remarked Victoria Brehm in Philological Quarterly, "and in so doing he has opened debate on one of the more cherished and less examined notions of recent literary criticism. Sea-Brothers is the most thoughtful and comprehensive critique of American maritime fiction yet written, and it will change forever the way we look at the genre by reminding us how necessary this fiction is to any broader consideration of American literature." Vernon Hyles, writing in Studies in the Novel, similarly asserted that Bender's main point in Sea-Brothers is "his most original and iconoclastic position." Hyles concluded, "Sea-Brothers is a fine piece of work, both as a whole or taken in parts according to one's specific interest. I recommend it heartily and without reservation."
"My encounter with Darwinian theory in writing of the sea," Bender further related to CA, "led naturally to a further study of Darwin's substantial contributions to American literary thought, The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871–1926. The theory of sexual selection in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871, provided new ways of grasping the reality of courtship, sexual 'love,' and marriage. This is the first book on Darwin and American literature, and the first to show that the theory of sexual selection was appropriated in various ways by many writers, beginning immediately after The Descent of Man appeared. Seeking to project the 'reality' of American civilization while attempting to further their own values, especially in relation to sexual, racial, and class differences, writers engaged in a widespread social debate that was defined by Darwinian terms. A significant theme is that many women and writers of color felt liberated by Darwinian theory because it greatly complicated the nature of sexual and racial difference and naturalized their own struggles to resist cultural definitions of woman's or the 'black' person's place in the social hierarchy."
Discussing the works of such writers as Edith Wharton, Henry James, William D. Howells, Kate Chopin, and Ernest Hemingway, among others, "Bender's approach casts a number of familiar novels and novelists in an interesting new light," according to Rosemary Jann in her Victorian Studies assessment. Instead of viewing the novels of these authors in Freudian (referring to famed Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud) or naturalistic terms, Bender discusses them in relation to social Darwinism, comparing various pieces of literature in such a way as to, for example, "demonstrate the opposing ways in which the male and female writers interpret Darwinian theories in order to belittle or to aggrandize the abilities of educated female characters," said Jann. Although the critic faulted Bender for being "highly selective" in his choice of examples in an effort to support his theme, Jann concluded that The Descent of Love "makes an important contribution to our understanding of the common context of popular beliefs about evolution." Even more enthusiastically, Judith Weissman contended in the Sewanee Review that Bender's study is "impressive." Especially praising the scholar's work as "genuine intellectual history" written at a time when "much literary criticism is sheer nonsense," Weissman concluded that Bender "succeeds beautifully at the task he has set for himself."
Bender continued his arguments about Darwinian themes in American literature with his follow-up work, Evolution and "the Sex Problem": American Narratives during the Eclipse of Darwinism, published in 2004. Here he examines the works of such luminaries as Jack London, Stephen Crane, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, and several novelists of the Harlem Renaissance to comment on literary themes involving such topics as male violence, heredity, eugenics, sexual difference, Darwin's theory of the mind and the emotions, Freudian sexual repression, and ecology.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Literature, December, 1991, Susan Schmidt, review of Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present, p. 742; March, 1997, Bernice L. Hausman, review of Sea-Brothers, p. 225.
Evolutionary Psychology, Volume 3, 2005, Jonathan Gottschall, review of Evolution and "the Sex Problem": American Narratives during the Eclipse of Darwinism, p. 130.
Journal of American Studies, April, 1991, review of Sea-Brothers, p. 107; August, 1999, Kasia Boddy, review of The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871–1926, p. 355.
Nineteenth-Century Literature, June, 1998, review of The Descent of Love, p. 130.
Philological Quarterly, summer, 1989, Victoria Brehm, review of Sea-Brothers, pp. 383-385.
Sewanee Review, summer, 1997, Judith Weissman, "Darwin and American Literary History," review of The Descent of Love, pp. xcvii-xcix.
Studies in the Novel, winter, 1989, Vernon Hyles, review of Sea-Brothers, pp. 444-445.
Victorian Studies, summer, 1997, Rosemary Jann, review of The Descent of Love, p. 673.