Women and Literature
Women and Literature
Making a Living. Beginning in the 1820s women were an increasingly strong presence in the American literary world. As the American publishing industry developed, women authors found opportunities to profit from their literary efforts. Job opportunities were limited for women in general, and as the novel became increasingly popular, writing became a way for a few educated middle-class women to earn a living. However, since it was commonly believed that men were the legitimate creators of culture, women writers were self-conscious about the public attention that publishing brought them and by the loss of anonymity that came with success. With the novel only grudgingly accepted by American critics, the success of women novelists illustrated a central conflict in American definitions of literary success: did writing a popular and economically successful novel make one a literary success? When Nathaniel Hawthorne complained about the “damned mob of scribbling women” whose works sold far better than his did, he meant to imply that literary success was not—and should not be—related to economic success.
Novelists. Catharine Maria Sedgwick was the first American woman to do well financially through novel writing. Sedgwick’s novels portrayed strong, domestically inclined heroines with much to teach the supporting characters (as well as the reader). Her first novel, A New England Tale (1822), was the story of an exemplary orphan girl, and Sedgwick’s third novel, Hope Leslie (1827), brought her $1, 200 for the first edition of two thousand copies. By 1841 Sedgwick had received over $6, 000 from her publisher for her novels. Other popular women novelists included Caroline Howard Gilman, Carolyn Lee Hentz, and E. D. E. N. Southworth. While Sedgwick and Gilman also treated domestic themes and made larger points about religion and the place of women in American society, Hentz’s and Southworth’s novels tended more strongly toward melodrama and exotic storylines. Hentz, Southworth, and Harriet Beecher Stowe would all publish their best-known works in the 1850s.
Literary Magazines. The growing number of literary magazines brought important publishing opportunities for women writers. Magazines such as Caroline Gilman’s Southern Rose and Sarah Josepha Hale’s Ladies’ Magazine were aimed specifically at women readers and addressed intellectual and literary as well as domestic and household issues. Gilman’s magazine (which began in 1832 as The Rose-Bud, a children’s magazine) was even more successful overall than her novels, would be. In 1837 Hale’s magazine merged with Louis Godey’s Lady’s Book to become Godey’s Lady’s Book, the first national magazine for women. Godey’s mixed intellectual and moral uplift with fashion and domestic information. Other popular magazines, such as Graham’s, Putnam’s, and Peterson’s, also published large amounts of material by women writers. By the late 1830s successful magazines not only paid authors for their work but also established exclusive publishing relationships with their most popular authors. Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger, for example, established a relationship with Fanny Fern that provided well for Fern and for Bonner as well.
Poets. Like women fiction writers, women poets published their work in magazines and in separate volumes alike. Poets such as Lydia Sigourney, Frances Osgood, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Maria Brooks, and Sarah Helen Whitman earned their popularity through their ability to write emotionally affective poetry. Women poets often fell into the stereotype of the poetess, a female poet whose emotionality bordered on hysteria, which kept readers from taking their work seriously. Yet, as Hale, literary editor and poet, wrote: “The path of poetry, like every other path in life, is to the tread of woman, exceedingly circumscribed. She may not revel in the luxuriance of fancies, images and thoughts, or indulge in the license of choosing themes at will, like the lords of creation.” Later in the nineteenth century the reclusive Emily Dickinson’s poetry did the most to shatter this conventional view of women poets.
Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978);
Cheryl Walker, The Nightingale’s Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).