Women's Literature in the 19th Century: American Women Writers

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SOURCE: Simson, Rennie. "Afro-American Poets of the Nineteenth Century." In Nineteenth-Century Women Writers of the English-Speaking World, edited by Rhoda B. Nathan, pp. 181-91. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

In the following essay, Simson argues that the small amount of literary output available by nineteenth-century African-American women is deserving of scholarly attention.

As long ago as 1893 Dr. L. A. Scruggs in his book Women of Distinction (a work discussing noted Afro-American women) made the observation that it was "a painful experience to see how little is known of our great women and their works."1 This neglect is echoed in the words of contemporary scholars. Bert Lowenberg and Ruth Bogin in their recent work, Black Women in 19th Century American Life, commented: "If the black male's words, before the most recent period of ferment, were recorded only spasmodically, those of the black female were still less frequently set down on paper."2 In their introduction to Sturdy Black Bridges, an anthology containing works by and about Afro-American women writers, the editors state:

Only slight attention has been given to Black women in creative literature, thus evoking grave concerns among female artists and scholars.… Recently a number of Black Anthologies and major critical works have been published. It is unfortunate, however, that in most cases, attention accorded Black women writers is sparse.3

This condition of neglect is particularly true of the works of nineteenth-century Afro-American women authors. Their autobiographies, poems, short stories, and novels are not only unread today, but they are virtually unheard of. This situation becomes doubly unfortunate and absurd when we consider the rather uniform inclusion in American literature anthologies of such literary luminaries as Mary Rowlandson, Anne Bradstreet, Sarah Kemble Knight, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Julia Ward Howe. The editors of the fourth edition of the well-known Norton Anthology of American Literature concluded their discussion of Anne Bradstreet by stating: "When all has been said, the principal contribution of Anne Bradstreet to posterity is what she revealed, through herself, of the first generation of New Englanders."4 Based on the obvious omission of nineteenth-century Afro-American women authors from our literary anthologies, we must assume that the editors of these anthologies have felt that Afro-American women did not make meaningful revelations about American society during the nineteenth-century. Perhaps Addison Gayle was correct when he made the following observation in 1975 to Roseann Bell, an editor of Sturdy Black Bridges.

We can go back to the eighteenth century in English literature when criticism first begins its large impetus and males always wrote condescendingly about women writers. This is historic among Black male critics and, I think, all males have probably done so. I suppose the big chance will come when women begin doing critical work of their own on women writers.5

Even though Gerda Lerner, when discussing the "black female literary tradition" in Black Women in White America, skips from Phyllis Wheatly to Frances Harper and mentions no other black female poets of the nineteenth-century, black women were making meaningful literary contributions during this period.

It seems safe to say that the earliest works written by nineteenth-century Afro-Americas were not issued primarily to create a body of literature nor to entertain readers, but rather to arouse a sentiment that would work toward the abolition of slavery. In this category can be placed many slave narratives and pre-Civil War novels such as Clotel, The Heroic Slave, The Garies and Their Friends and Blake. These works were promoted by the abolitionists of the North and thus gained a relatively large white audience. During this period relatively few blacks were educated, and so these early pre-Civil War works were initially read by more whites than blacks. The only black women to achieve widespread recognition during this period were Francis Harper and Harriet Jacobs. While none of the works just mentioned can be classified as great literature, some of them definitely qualify as good literature and are deserving of far more attention than they have received in the past. The works of these writers reflect their dual position as members of a large society as well as of a specific culture within that larger society. This dualism was best expressed by W.E.B. Du Bois in his book The Souls of Black Folk. Wrote Du Bois: "One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."6 A second class of writers appeared after the Civil War. Freed from an overwhelming absorption in the institution of slavery, they were free to explore and diversify their literary approaches as well as content. Their topics ranged from humorous folk tales to bitter satires reflecting the racial climate of post-Civil War America. The white audience interested in their works was smaller than in pre-Civil War days. Many whites preferred to read about the lives of black men from the pens of white racist romanticists like Thomas Dixon. The Civil War was over and for many whites the "race issue" was settled, and the concerns expressed in the works of black Americans no longer held any interest for them. Black authors like Charles Chesnutt and Paul Lawrence Dunbar found acceptance both with the general white populace and the critics (such as William Dean Howells) as long as they focused their talents on producing folk tales and dialect verse. However, white readers and critics turned away from them in dismay when their observations about their environment become harsh and bitter. While no Afro-American woman writers of this period achieved recognition comparable to that attained by Chesnutt and Dunbar, many talented black women turned to literature as a means of presenting their views. Most of their works reached a limited audience. They faced not only the handicap of being female writers, a "d——d mob of scribbling women" as Nathaniel Hawthorne called them, but of being black. A number of them felt it expedient to establish their own journals with black women as editors and these journals formed a major outlet for the stories, poems, and essays of a number of nineteenth-century Afro-American women authors. Among some of the more notable journals of that period were Ringwoods (Julia Costen, editor), St. Matthews Lyceum Journal (M. E. Lambert, editor), Virginia Lancet (Lucinda Bragg, editor), The Boston Courant (Josephine Ruffin, editor), Women's Light and Love (Lidia Lowry and Emma Ransom, editors) and Waverly's Magazine (Victoria Earle, editor). A number of books by Afro-American women were published either privately or by small, relatively unknown publishing companies. For the most part neither the journals nor the books enjoyed a long lifespan, so when they went out of print, the works of many black women were unavailable to the general public and existed only (and still exist only) in the rare bookrooms of specialized libraries scattered throughout the country. This very lack of accessibility has helped to perpetuate the myth that black women of the nineteenth century made few if any contributions to American literature. Their works are simply not available for general study and examination.

For the most part the work of nineteenth century Afro-American women poets conforms to the poetic standards of the nineteenth century. In discussing Frances Harper, the most prolific of the nineteenth-century Afro-American poetesses, Benjamin Brawley in the Negro's Genius observes that her poetry distinctly shows the influence of Longfellow. But Harper's poetry, as well as that of her contemporary Clara Ann Thompson, also shows the influence of black folklore and folk legend; each poetess wrote dialect verse spoken by a wise old narrator. In general, however, most Afro-American poetesses of the nineteenth-century wrote in a style typical of traditional nineteenth-century verse.

While black poetesses concerned themselves about such issues as religion, intemperance, and women's rights, their overwhelming concern focused on racial issues and it was in this area that their poetry achieved its greatest strength. It is true that some of their poetry dealing with racial matters was either overly sentimental and/or melodramatic, but for the most part it was forceful and direct, evoking empathy rather than sympathy for the position of the nineteenth-century Afro-American. In May 1837, Sarah Forten addressed a poem to the interracial Anti-Slavery Free Women of America Society in which she appealed to her audience's sense of sisterhood to unite blacks and whites in fighting for the abolition of slavery.

We are thy sisters, God has truly said,
That of one blood all nations He has made.
O Christian woman! in a Christian land,
Canst thou unblushing, read this great command,
Suffer the wrongs which wrong our inmost heart
To draw one throb of pity on thy part;
Our skins may differ, but from thee we claim
A sister's privilege and a sister's name.

The first book of poetry published by a black poetess in the nineteenth-century, Ann Plato's Essays: Prose and Poetry (1841), contained a tribute to England for its abolition of slavery in the poem "To the First of August."

Lift ye that country's banner high,
And may it nobly wave,
Until beneath the azure sky
Man shall be no more a slave.

One of the earliest poems of Frances Harper, "The Dying Fugitive," appeared in 1859 in the Anglo African Magazine and is a strong statement in favor of the abolition of slavery. We can share the extreme frustration of a goal unfulfilled, a dream forever deferred.

He must die, when just before him,
Lay the long'd for precious prize—
And the hopes that led him onward
Faded out before his eyes.
For a while a fearful madness,
Rested on his weary brain;
And he thought the hateful tyrant,
Had rebound his galling chain.

It is highly unlikely that any literary critic will argue that these three poems are literary masterpieces, but they are strong testimonials to the sentiments of Afro-Americans in pre-Civil War America and thus are as worthy of our attention as the poems of Anne Bradstreet as reflections on early Puritanism.



Victoria Earle Matthews was one of the most vocal and active African American club-women and social reformers of the last decade of the nineteenth century. She co-founded the Woman's Loyal Union and was its first president, served as chair of the executive board of the National Federation of Afro-American Women (NFA-AW), and as chair of the Committee on Union for the Federation leading to its merger with the League of Colored Women. Matthews was national organizer of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and contributed numerous articles to the Woman's Era, the official journal of the NACW. She established the White Rose Home and Industrial Association for young working women and, later, the White Rose Traveler's Aid Society.

Matthews was one of only a few women to deliver a formal address at the 1895 Boston Conference of the Colored Women of America. In 1897 she spoke at the San Francisco convention of the Society of Christian Endeavor at a special program attended by prominent race leaders, including Booker T. Washington. In her speech, "The Awakening of the Afro-American Woman," Matthews recalled past horrors of slavery, including the sexual exploitation of slave women. She indicated how remarkable it was that these women had overcome such enormous obstacles to accomplish as much as they had, with little help from anyone but the white women who traveled South after the war to help educate the masses. She closed with a final admonition that much more remained to be done. Matthews contributed articles to the major New York newspapers and leading African American publications. Along with her journalistic writings and speeches, she authored several short stories and edited Black-Belt Diamonds: Gems from the Speeches, Addresses and Talks to Students of Booker T. Washington (1898), a collection of excerpts from Washington's speeches.

Racial injustice continued to be an issue of concern which was reflected in the poetry of Afro-American writers after the conclusion of the Civil War. Harper, in Sketches of Southern Life (1872), created a wise old ex-slave, Aunt Chloe, who, as narrator, offers the folk wisdom of generations of slaves. Upon the death of Lincoln, Aunt Chloe speculated upon the presidency of Andrew Johnson:

Then we had another President—
What do you call his name?
Well, if the colored folks forget him
They wouldn't be much to blame.

Aunt Chloe felt great disgust with any man who sold his vote, and her friends shared her distress at such behavior on the part of their men-folk.

Day after day did Milly Green
Just follow after Joe
And told him if he voted wrong
To take his rags and go.

But Aunt Chloe had only praise for men

Who know their freedom cost too much
Of Blood and pain and treasure
For them to fool away their vote
For profit or for pleasure.

Like Harper, Clara Ann Thompson created an old character, Uncle Rube, who reflected on the society of his day. In the poem "Uncle Rube's Defense" Uncle Rube expressed his disgust with the stereotyping that white Americans directed toward black Americans.

Ev'ry low truk dat te black man's a doing',
'flects right back on de race, as a whole;
But de low co'se dat de white man's pursuin'
Costs not a blot on his good brudder's soul.
Let de black man do somepin wuth mentionin',
White folks ez still and shy ez a fawn;
Let him do somepin dat's mean and belittlin',
Umph! den de whole race has got it an' gone.

No doubt one of the most outspoken protest poets of the nineteenth century is the little known poetess Josephine Heard, whose single volume of poetry, Morning Glories, was published in 1890. In her poem "Black Samson" she made a sweeping indictment of post-Civil War American society in the treatment of its black population. Her bitter words did not show the conciliatory tone of so much of the literature written during "The Age of Washington" as Robert Bone has called the period of late nineteenth-century Afro-American literature. Nor did she seek to camouflage her criticisms in the guise of folk wisdom and folk dialect. Her tone was straightforward and direct, and even the most obtuse reader could scarcely miss her sharp message:

O, what cruelty and torture has he [the Black Samson] felt?
Could his tears, the heart of his oppressor melt?
In his gore they bathed their hands,
Organized and lawless bands—
And the innocent was left in blood to wilt.

But the Black Samson of Heard was not going to lie sleeping forever; he was not a pitiful victim, but rather a courageous man ready to lose his life, if need be, fighting for what he believed in. He was not Harper's dying fugitive for whom the reader cannot help but shed tears of pity, nor was he Stowe's Uncle Tom stoically ready to die for his principles, but the Black Samson was a fighter:

The Black Samson is awaking,
And the fetters fiercely breaking,
By his mighty arm his rights shall be obtained!

Traditionally whites have had a harder time dealing with black fighters than with black victims, with realistic black figures than with black folk figures, so Aunt Chloe was a lot more popular with nineteenth-century audiences than the Black Samson was.

Heard had great confidence that the Black Samson would be successful and this confidence is reflected in her poem "They are Coming." At the beginning of the poem "they" (her fellow black citizens) are coming "slowly," then "proudly," and finally "boldly." In their ranks

There are Doctors, Lawyers, Preachers;
There are Sculptors, Poets, Teachers—
Men and women, who with honor yet shall shine.

This joy of pride in accomplishment is also reflected in Cordelia Ray's two poems "In Memoriam: Frederick Douglass" and "In Memoriam: Paul Lawrence Dunbar." Published in her collection Poems (1910), both poems possess a sense of triumph in accomplishments achieved in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable odds. Ray's pride in Douglass is clearly evident when she writes:

… what matter then
That he in chains was held, what matter when
He could uplift himself to noblest heights!

Dunbar's creative genius was an equal cause of celebration of the black race.

Who was this child? The offspring of a race
That erst had toiled 'neath slavery's galling chains,
And soon he woke to utterance and sang.

It was a long journey from the helpless fugitive of Frances Harper to the glorious talent of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and that journey has been well documented by the pens of Afro-American poetesses of the nineteenth-century. Surely if we can learn of the Puritans from Anne Bradstreet and of the early Native Americans from Mary Rowlandson, both of whom are routinely included in American Literature anthologies, then we can learn of the early Afro-American from early Afro-American women writers.

As stated earlier Afro-American women wrote of issues other than race. Christianity played an important role in the lives of the nineteenth-century Afro-American, but it must be clearly understood that this was not the version of Christianity promoted by the white man. Throughout the days of slavery and even after, the white man twisted the scriptures to suit his purposes. His abuse of Christianity was initiated to serve three purposes: first, to soothe his own gnawing conscience about the fact that he was enslaving his fellow man; second, to convince the world that his actions were compatible with the will of God; and third, to convince the slaves themselves that they were inferior beings. His purposes succeeded in diminishing order; he did a good job of brainwashing himself, less of a job in brainwashing the rest of the world, and a poor job of brainwashing the slaves. Even after slavery some segments of the white Christian church continued to preach the gospel of black inferiority. But blacks established their own relationship with the Christian faith. Even during the days of slavery, when it was illegal for slaves to read and write, there were those who managed to learn and they read the Bible and informed the others of the distortions that were being perpetrated by the whites. Many blacks followed the example of Frederick Douglass, becoming devout believers in the Christianity of Christ, but rejecting the Christianity preached to them by the whites.

This dual concern, devout belief in an honest Christianity and total rejection of a hypocritical Christianity, is reflected in the works of nineteenth-century Afro-American women. This dualism is perhaps best reflected in Clara Ann Thompson's poem, "His Answer."

He prayed for patience: Care and sorrow came
And dwelt with him, grim and unwelcome guests;
He felt their galling presence night and day;
And wondered if the Lord had heard him pray,
And why his life was filled with weariness.
He prayed again and now he prayed for light
The darkness parted and the light shone in;
And lo! he saw the answer to his prayer—
His heart had learned, through weariness and care,
The patience that he deemed he'd sought in vain.

The true Christian, according to Thompson, finds his spirituality through God directly and not in his relations with his fellow man here on earth. When he prays for relief from the care and misery imposed by others, his prayers appear to go unanswered, but if his prayers are for spiritual enlightenment he will be blessed. He will not perceive Christ through an intermediary, but will do so directly. It is only in such a perception that Christianity is possible, since any form of Christianity that rooted its faith in God as presented by a people who sanctioned slavery was not acceptable to a black person.

Frances Harper's poetry likewise expressed her faith in the Christian religion. Although she expressed skepticism and downright rejection of the white man's Christianity in her novel Iola Le-Roy, she reflected a deep faith in the Christianity of Christ in her poetry. One of her earliest poems, "Gone to God," published in the Anglo African Magazine of 1859, is a eulogy of a woman who has died and whose soul has gone to heaven. Subsequent poems, such as "A Grain of Sane," "Go Work in My Vineyard," "Renewal of Strength," "The Night of Death" and "The Refiner's Gold" all attest to Harper's strong faith in Christianity.

This faith in Christianity is also seen in Josephine Heard's lines on the death of Abraham Lincoln in her poem "Solace":

The grave no terror hath, and death no sting,
For him who fully trusts in Christ the King.

Nineteenth-century women were frequently the victims of alcohol abuse. Usually unable to fend for themselves economically, they were dependent on their husbands, fathers, or brothers for support. Temperance thus became a significant issue for a number of nineteenth-century women, including a few Afro-Americans. The only black poetess who devoted a considerable amount of her energies to this cause was Frances Harper. She lectured widely on the evils of intemperance, and several of her poems dealt with that subject. In "The Total Pledge," a reformed alcoholic takes a drink when asked by his bride to make a toast at their wedding; it was not long thereafter that she wept over a drunkard's grave. In "A Little Child Shall Lead Them," Harper depicted the death of a drunkard's child as the only factor which could influence him to reform. In "Save the Boys" she illustrated how it was too late to save a drunkard, but not too late to save his sons, and in "Nothing and Something" she chronicled how people become alcoholics and criminals.

Like many nineteenth-century women, black women were concerned about the position of the female in their society. Their poetry concerned itself not only with love and marriage, but also with women's rights. Frances Harper rejected the double sexual standard of her day which "excuses all in the male and accuses all in the female,"21 and she elaborated her views in a poem entitled simply "The Double Standard."

Crime has no sex and yet to-day
I wear the brand of shame
Whilst he amid the gay and proud
Still bears an honored name.
Can you blame if I've learned to think
Your hate of vice a sham,
When you so coldly crushed me down
And then excused the man.

Alice Dunbar Nelson, wife of the famous poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, in her poem "I Sit and Sew" drew a vivid contrast between the task of sewing, acceptable for a woman, and the task of fighting, acceptable for a man. The narrator of "I Sit and Sew" longs to participate in battle, to live the active life of the male, but her task as a female is to passively sit and sew.

I sit and sew—a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams
The panoply of war, the martial tread of men.
Grim faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—
But I must sit and sew.
I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men, My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But I must sit and sew.
The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch.
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain.
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam.
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?

Lest it be believed that nineteenth-century Afro-American poetesses did not write of themselves as lovers, such is not the case. Frances Harper, Cordelia Ray, and especially Josephine Heard wrote some very fine love lyrics. Heard's "The Parting Kiss" reflects a particular charm.

We were waiting at the station,
Soon the cars would surely start,
Hearts beat high with love's emotion,
For we knew we soon must part.
On dark lashes seem to glisten
Tiny crystal tear drops shine;
To the fond voice glad I listen,
While teary eyes look into mine.

Black women writers of nineteenth-century America in their works offer us the opportunity to explore a dimension of understanding offered by no other group. As Julia Cooper pointed out in A Voice From the South (1892), black women face a special dilemma in American society:

The colored woman of today occupies, one may say, a unique position in this country.…She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem.25

Her unique position cannot be completely comprehended by either her black brother nor her white sister and certainly not by the white male. Thus if we wish to understand her unique position in American society we must study her own words as reflected in her writings. Few critics will claim literary greatness for any of the writers mentioned in this paper, but much of their writing was good if not great, and as long as we study good literature as well as great literature, our study should include Afro-American women authors of the nineteenth century.


  1. L. A. Scruggs, Women of Distinction (Raleigh, N.C.: L. A. Scruggs Publisher, 1893), p. vi.
  2. Bert Lowenberg and Ruth Bogin, Black Women in 19th Century Life (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), p. 5.
  3. Roseann Bell, Bettye J. Park, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Sturdy Black Bridges (New York: Anchor Books, 1979), p. xxviii.
  4. Sculley Bradley, Richard Beatty, E. Hudson Long, and George Perkins, The American Tradition in Literature (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1974), p. 34.
  5. Bell, Parker, and Guy-Sheftall, p. xxiv.
  6. W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk included in Three Negro Classics, ed. John Hope Franklin (New York: Avon Books, 1973), p. 215.
  7. Sarah Forten quoted in M. A. Majors, Noted Negro Women (Chicago: Donohue and Hennebury, 1893), p. 194.
  8. Ann Plato, Essays: Prose and Poetry (Hartford: n.p., 1841), p. 115.
  9. Frances Harper, "The Dying Fugitive," The Anglo African Magazine, vol. I (May, 1859), 253-54.
  10. Frances Harper, Sketches of Southern Life (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Son, 1872), p. 12.
  11. Ibid., p. 15.
  12. Ibid., p. 16.
  13. Clara Ann Thompson, Songs From the Wayside (Ross Mogre, Ohio: n.p., 1904), p. 4.
  14. Josephine Heard quoted in M. A. Majors, p. 263.
  15. Ibid., p. 264.
  16. Ibid., p. 265.
  17. CordeliaRay, Poems (New York: The Grafton Press, 1910), p. 161.
  18. Ibid., p. 166.
  19. Thompson, p. 133.
  20. Josephine Heard quoted in M. A. Majors, p. 267.
  21. Frances Harper, The Sparrows Fall and Other Poems (n.p., n.d.), p. 13.
  22. Ibid., p. 13.
  23. Alice Dunbar Nelson, quoted in Robert Kerlin: Negro Poets and Their Poems (Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1935), pp. 145-46.
  24. Josephine Heard, Morning Glories (Philadelphia: n.p., 1890), pp. 13-14.
  25. Anna Cooper, A Voice From the South (Ohio: The Al-dine Printing House, 1892), p. 134.


Coultrap-McQuin, Susan. "Why Try a Writing Career?: The Ambiguous Cultural Context for Women Writers of the Mid-Nineteenth Century." In Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 2-13. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

In the following excerpt, Coultrap-McQuin details the second-rate treatment that women writers in the nineteenth century received, detailing one incident involving the Atlantic where women writers were excluded from a dinner party which celebrated the anniversary of the literary magazine.

On December 17, 1877, H. O. Houghton and Company, publishers of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, hosted a dinner party to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their literary magazine and the seventieth birthday of one of its major contributors, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Among the sixty guests were such famous writers as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Held in the East Room of the fashionable Hotel Brunswick in Boston, the event included a seven-course dinner, served with various wines and followed by lively speeches marking the historic occasion.1 But one group of Atlantic contributors was missing. Women had not been invited to the celebration, even though they were a considerable percentage of the contributors to the Atlantic in the 1870s, had been a significant part of the American literary community since before the 1850s, and were good friends with many of the Atlantic writers who attended the party, especially with its guest of honor, John Greenleaf Whittier.

Although absent from this important dinner in literary history, women authors were very popular and prominent in the nineteenth century, particularly during and after the 1850s. Statistics clearly reveal their increasing visibility as the nineteenth century passed. Before 1830 about one-third of those who published fiction in the United States were by women. During the antebellum years, almost 40 percent of the novels reviewed in journals and newspapers were women, which suggests that an equally high percentage were being published. Best-seller lists reveal that by the 1850s women were authors of almost half of the popular literary works. Among them was Susan Warner's Wide, Wide World (1851), the first of many books of "women's fiction" with sales that went far beyond 100,000 copies. Another, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), surpassed the 300,000 mark within the first year of publication. By 1872 women wrote nearly three-quarters of all of the novels published. In the same year, patrons of the Boston Public Library, called for books by E.D.E.N. Southworth, Mary Jane Holmes, and Caroline Lee Hentz more frequently than any other works, and Mary Jane Holmes received a thousand fan letters a week. Women were hardly invisible as writers.2

Among the most successful writers between the 1840s and the 1880s were the five women whose careers are examined in depth in later chapters: E.D.E.N. Southworth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Abigail Dodge (Gail Hamilton), Helen Hunt Jackson (H. H. and Saxe Holm), and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Ward). But there were many other women writers from those years whose careers and writings should not be forgotten. Rose Terry Cooke, for instance, so impressed her peers that she was given the lead story in the premier issue of the Atlantic in 1857. Harriet Prescott Spofford, short-story writer and poet, intrigued the nation with her story "In a Cellar," published in the Atlantic in 1859, and continued to be prominent in literary circles for the rest of the century. Rebecca Harding Davis has been credited with introducing realism to the Atlantic with her "Life in the Iron Mills," in 1861. Outside the pages of the Atlantic, women were equally successful. Louisa May Alcott, who had published some early work in the Atlantic, earned her popular following with the publication by Roberts Brothers of Little Women in 1868. The poetry of Louise Chandler Moulton was considered among the finest in the second half of the century. Sara Payson Parton (Fanny Fern) and Sara Jane Lippincott (Grace Greenwood) had thousands of readers for their essays on social and domestic topics, as did Maria Cummins for her novels. The list of well-known women writers could go on.

The prominence of women writers and their absence from the Atlantic dinner reveal a major paradox confronting literary historians of the nineteenth century: How can we explain women's persistence and success as writers in the face of attitudes and behaviors that could render them invisible? What ideas and social circumstances sustained their literary work in spite of the frequent devaluation of it? To answer those questions, we need to examine some cultural beliefs and social circumstances in nineteenth-century America that both created the possibility of woman writer and devalued her efforts. By doing so, we will begin to discover some reasons why women pursued literary careers.

At the outset, it is important to recognize that women writers caught in the paradox of their situation were often quite outspoken on their own behalf. Not long after the Atlantic dinner, the following "bagatelle" appeared in a western newspaper:

Mr. Houghton's Mistake

We are glad that the lady contributors to the Atlantic, who did not attend the Whittier dinner were not disappointed. Indeed, they had intended all along not to be present, and they so indicated to Mr. Houghton in letters written the very day before the dinner. "I hear it intimated," writes Mrs. Stowe, "that I am to be selected to sit at the right hand of Mr. Whittier. Now, my dear Mr. Houghton, while I'm deeply grateful for the compliment, I cannot accept. I believe in the largest freedom for everybody, and I am sure the gentlemen who participate in the festivities would not be pleased to have their programme embarrassed by the presence of ladies. He, he! I suppose you, know what I mean. One of these days, perhaps the ladies of the Atlantic will have a dinner, and I think they are selfish enough to desire to be alone."

Mr. Houghton read the letter and said, passing his hand through his hair, "I think I have forgotten something. I detect sarcasm in this."

"I am glad, Mr. Houghton," wrote Harriet Prescott Spofford, "that you have decided not to call the ladies from their sylvan solitude. I am deeply gaged in studying the peculiarities of some rushes that grow upon the banks of the beautiful river that rolls on by my door, crystallized at present, by the way—I mean river—in the mellowest moonlight that ever sifted its gold upon a beautiful world; so I couldn't attend anyhow. Thank you for sending no invitation. It would have embarrassed me greatly.

"Have you heard that Mrs. Stowe is about to give a dinner? Are you aware that there is to be a new ladies' magazine? But I cannot write more. Thank you again, and good-bye."

"I am quite confident," said Mr. Houghton, looking worried, "that there is an inadvertence somewhere. It's very singular I didn't [sic] think of these ladies before." He turned wearily and opened a letter from Gail Hamilton [Mary Abigail Dodge].

"Well, my boy," wrote this lady, "so you're going to give a dinner, are you? To Mr. Whittier, the dearest and best for whom my soul longeth? And without us? I didn't think it of you, Mr. Houghton. I was about to say I didn't think anything of you, but I won't. You can thank your true goodness for that. O, say nothing of that last check. Seriously, however, I don't blame you. If there's anything unpleasant in this world, it is a woman in a wide house—I mean in a banquet hall. I will not stop to argue the wine question; I have no liquid by me to create the necessary inspiration. I suppose it would do no good either—you men are determined to have your own way always, and ours are often as possible. I write to say that I won't come, and to insist that Mr. Whittier and the rest shall not break their hearts over it. Sufficient is it on these occasions to break bread, and, perhaps, also heads. I have just seen a circular in behalf of a new ladies' magazine. Have you seen it? Excuse me now. I have an engagement to spank the Administration at this very moment. Do you know, by the way, that Mrs. Spofford is about to give a grand dinner to the lady contributors of the Atlantic?"

"Alas! for my stupidity!" remarked Mr. Houghton, his face growing pale, and his knees knocking together. "This great moral earthquake will be after me next."

"Oh, Mr. Houghton," wrote H. H. [Helen Hunt Jackson], enthusiastically, "I am so pleased to hear of the honor to grand old Mr. Whittier. My pleasure is only exceeded by my joy that I am not to be there. I should be highly honored by being permitted to be in such company, of course, but I am timid, and I fear that literary men do 'cut up' dreadfully—you will pardon the expression—on these occasions. Do you know, Mr. Houghton, that Gail Hamilton talks of starting a magazine? and they do say that there is to be a grand literary reunion at her house, or rather at the house of Mr. Blaine. I shall not be able to send you anything for some time to come."

"Merciful Heavens!" exclaimed Mr. Houghton, "this must be a conspiracy. They are all of them pleased, and yet they all seem to be contemplating the worst kind of retaliation. I do not understand this!"

He turned with a sigh to a letter from Philadelphia. "You will accept my regrets," said Rebecca Harding Davis. "I cannot possibly be present. I have not received my invitation, but of course it has been delayed in the mail. However, none of that brilliant gathering will feel my absence. I am not so presuming as to suppose that such a slight vacancy in so immense a place will be noticeable. And I do know, Mr. Houghton, that gentlemen delight to be by themselves at times. I hear Helen Hunt and Louisa M. Alcott have put their heads together in behalf of a ladies' magazine and I understand that Rose Terry is to give a dinner to several well-known writers of the gentler sex. Such a magazine might be profitable, and I know the dinner would be delightful.

"Now this is the dreadful," said Mr. Houghton, striking the desk with his clenched hand. "I have actually been applying the paper-cutter to my own nose. It is the stupidest thing I ever did in my life. Why, oh! why could I not have seen this result before?" He thought very fast a moment, and then his face brightened and he laughed right out. "I have it!" he exclaimed. "Two months hence there shall be a dinner to the lady contributors of the Atlantic Monthly. It shall be given in honor of Gail Hamilton's seventieth birthday."3

Henry O. Houghton's mistake in not inviting "lady contributors" reflected the paradoxical nature of nineteenth-century beliefs about women writers. On the one hand, Houghton often published and paid well for literary works by women that accorded with is Victorian sense of morality, didacticism, and literary excellence; on the other hand, he never considered women's literature to be as important as men's. A rather typical gentleman of his time, he believed in male superiority and the more honorable place of women in the home. No doubt he felt he could relax more with men and wine than with women and water (which he served at a breakfast for Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1880 when he did invite women).4 In many respects, Henry Houghton exemplified the ambiguous response of nineteenth-century American society to the woman writer.

"Mr. Houghton's Mistake" illustrates the variety of responses women showed to those attitudes. Whether the article was actually written by one or more of the women parodied in it (the humor and style suggest Mary Abigail Dodge), or by another humorist, it demonstrates women's ability to define themselves beyond their culture's most limiting values and expectations. It is absolutely true, of course, that women's lives and careers were controlled by their society's patriarchal perspectives; even after building successful careers, women had to respond to social circumstances, stereotypes, and assumptions about women and women writers that were largely created and perpetuated by men. Nevertheless, women were not uniformly molded by those social expectations; they developed a variety of responses, such as those illustrated in the letters to Houghton—responses that ranged from Spofford's poetic conformity to Dodge's abrasive defiance. Even when faced by cultural prescriptions and social institutions that undervalued women's capabilities and achievements in comparison to men's, women demonstrated remarkable individuality and determination in their pursuit of a literary career. "Mr. Houghton's Mistake" is a good reminder that patriarchal perspectives did not completely define women's options nor their views of themselves in the world. If patriarchal views had been wholly accepted, the article would never have been written.

The article also makes the important point that, by virtue of their connections with one another and their popularity with their audiences, women were not without power in the literary arena. "Mr. Houghton's Mistake" demonstrates, even if through fiction, that there was a network among the women writers that sustained and encouraged each others' efforts. Futhermore, these writers had an audience familiar enough with their works to understand the humorist's allusions to spanking the Administration and meeting in Mr. Blaine's house. (See Chapter 5 on Mary Abigail Dodge.) Collectively at least, and in many cases individually, women writers were important to the economics of the literary marketplace; if they decided to start a new magazine, it would have to be taken seriously. In fact, their threat (or those of the humorist) seem to have had some impact on Houghton himself, although they did not prevent the same sort of discrimination against women writers from happening again and again. Although Houghton never gave dinner for Mary Abigail Dodge, he was careful to include women in his next big celebration, the Holmes breakfast in 1880, and he honored Harriet Beecher Stowe similarly in 1882.5

In short, the position of women writers in the mid-nineteenth century—say, from the 1840s to the 1880s—was paradoxical: they had a place in the literary world, yet that world often rendered them invisible. The explanation of the paradox lies, first, in the ambiguous nature of cultural messages to and about women. While the ideology of woman's sphere in the nineteenth century could restrict women's participation in society, other messages about ideal Americans and about authorship sometimes did accommodate women. The changing social circumstances of women, particularly middle-class ones, also provided opportunities for fuller public participation, despite messages that woman's place was in the home. Both cultural prescriptions and social circumstances provided the context within which women writers pursued their careers.

The subjects of this study grew up in antebellum America, a time of great possibilities created by industrial and urban growth, westward expansion, and improved communications. They were aware of voluntary associations, utopian experiments, and reform crusades, including those for abolition and women's rights, that were changing the ways people ordered their private and public lives. And they probably heard much debate about individualism, equality, and self-government, for there was not unanimity on what those ideals meant or to whom they applied.6 In addition, they, like their brothers, were encouraged to adopt ethical views that historians have come to label "Victorian."

To simplify greatly, we can say that American Victorianism encouraged moral, didactic, and patriarchal approaches to life. Victorians promoted strict sexual codes, social responsibility, and genteel, patriarchal social standards. They stressed hard work, deferred gratification, sobriety, and conscientiousness—qualities that were essential to an industrializing society. They also encouraged competition but warned that too much of it would destroy the rational social order.7 Victorians urged conformity to genteel social standards as the humane, democratic route to status and success. Sentimentalism and emotional expression, according to them, were inappropriate in the business world but acceptable in literature, the church, and the home—all three areas seen primarily as the province of women.

The ideal American who attempted to conform to these views was said to have "character." A person of character felt a sense of obligation to promote the general welfare of society as well as to improve the self—educationally, culturally, and morally. In their words, Victorians wanted "well-informed minds, pure hearts, and refined manners."8 With that end in mind, they worked to master their weaknesses through self-discipline and restraint. Character building, a lifelong process, was supposed to begin in the (ideal middle-class) home under the direction of a devoted mother.9

Though espoused by the majority of Americans (the dissenters coming particularly but not entirely from outside the white middle class), Victorian ideals were most thoroughly articulated by northern, middle-class, Protestant males and carried the stamp of their class, race, and gender.10 These men assumed that everyone should adopt their values, and, in fact, their ideas ultimately permeated much of nineteenth-century society. As public education became more common, male and female students across the country learned lessons reflecting Victorian beliefs. In addition, the rapidly expanding publishing industry, as demonstrated in the next chapter, became a mouthpiece for the expression of Victorian values. Orators and community programs took Victorian values to rural hamlets, spreading the worldview still further.

While the values of American Victorianism were derived primarily from the values of white males and were meant to apply primarily to men in society, they were also heard by and had an influence on women. We can see this in the women writers studied in this book. E.D.E.N. Southworth, for example, argued strongly in defense of the moral rectitude of her writings, as did most other Victorians. Mary Abigail Dodge urged women to develop their character more than their looks. Harriet Beecher Stowe felt it appropriate to speak out against Lord Byron's sexual immorality. Other women writers expressed Victorian views when they encouraged genteel manners, hard work, and the social importance of familial ties. To some extent anyway, Victorian perspectives were shared by women and men.

But Victorians also expected men and women to be essentially different and to have separate "spheres" of activity; women, for example, were thought to be more sentimental and emotional and less interested in competitiveness and the public arena than men were. Although the ideology of separate spheres could be restrictive to women, it also gave them an area of authority (the home) and an expertise (domesticity and morality) that some of them eventually used to justify an expanded role in society. Within their separate sphere women developed bonds with other women that nourished a rich female culture and spawned the collective activity of nineteenth-century women in voluntary associations and reform crusades. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of separate spheres usually emphasized women's dependence and subordination.11

Like other nineteenth-century values, the belief in separate spheres was both a cause of and a response to what was actually happening to women and men in their lives. As America industrialized, adult activities were more frequently segregated by sex than they had been in earlier times.12 The separation between home and business meant that the control of economic resources shifted from the home to employed males in the marketplace, leaving women and children in the middle-class or affluent home, who did not have income-producing jobs, in a more subordinate and dependent position. The ideology of separate spheres seems to have arisen to justify these middle- and upper-class circumstances, though the concept was used as an ideal against which to judge people in all classes. Such a prescription was not simply imposed by men to justify the patriarchal social order, although men certainly did argue for separate spheres to that end. Women themselves, seeking to cope with the social changes, often embraced the ideology of separate spheres and argued that their position was one of significance, not subordination. Others in varying degrees chafed against its restrictions and demanded equal rights.

But what exactly was a nineteenth-century woman supposed to be? Actually, there was no single view of womanhood, but a continuum of views ranging from conservative to more liberal perspectives.13 The conservative view was widespread in the media of antebellum America, which included books on etiquette, sermons, literary gift books, and annuals; those who supported this view insisted that "true women" were naturally domestic, submissive, and morally pure. The more liberal perspective, which was definitely a minority view in antebellum America, although one that increased in popularity as the century passed, was expressed by proponents of women's education, legal rights, suffrage, and career opportunities; this group maintained that "true women" were normally superior to men and valued family relations, but could and should be as self-reliant and competent as men. According to the conservative view, women were emotional and had few rational capabilities; according to the more liberal view, women were capable of affection and intelligence. The conservatives believed that women were assigned by God and nature to their separate sphere of activity and should rejoice in that. The liberals felt that the restrictions on woman's sphere, imposed only by social circumstances, should be eliminated, while the values of the sphere—nurturance, love, and morality—should be spread throughout society.

The conservative view has been called the "Cult of True Womanhood" because of what appears from a twentieth-century perspective to be an obsessive, almost ritualistic repetition of very narrow views of women.14 The liberal view might be called the "Vision of New Womanhood" because it often provided the justification for women's participation in many new areas of society, including the literary marketplace, in the nineteenth century. In between the two poles were various arguments, including those for honoring Domesticity—the role of the mother in the home. What all the views shared in common was a belief in women's morality, spirituality, and nurturance; they can be distinguished by their disagreements over (1) whether those values restricted women to the home or justified their participation throughout society; and (2) whether they made women superior to, subordinate to, or separate but equal to men.

True Womanhood, the conservative view, influenced most writings about nineteenth-century women, especially, but not exclusively, before the Civil War. For example, Mary Jane Holmes's minister described the private life of this best-selling writer in its terms, saying she "possesses in a high degree, those Christian graces and virtues which alone give lustre to mental accomplishment.…She prefers the quiet of home life.…Her piety is deep, serene and unostentatious." With a similar vision of purity, piety, and domesticity in mind, Harriet Prescott Spofford praised the poet Louise Chandler Moulton as "a being of absolute uprightness, incapable of untruth, faithful to her ideals, ingenuous, confiding, unsuspicious, without guile, caring nothing for place or power, for social rank and position, or for wealth; of childlike nature throughout life,' a triumphant woman, but always a child." Indeed, the image of True Womanhood was so appealing that even advocates of expanding woman's role in society, like Sara Jane Lippincott (Grace Greenwood), sometimes felt compelled to use it, saying, for instance, "true feminine genius is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood. A true woman shrinks instinctively from greatness."15

Despite the fervor of these claims, none of the above descriptions accurately reflect or describe the authors themselves. Holmes was a smart, determined, and ambitious writer; Moulton, a woman capable of using literary friendships to her own advantage in building her career; and Lippincott, a proponent of woman suffrage. Yet so luminous was the ideal of the True Woman that other characteristics of women often fell into deep shadow and were not seen or remarked upon at all. Thus, behaviors demonstrating ambition or assertion or the use of literary influence were often denied or ignored, and, if seen, were criticized resoundingly. In other words, while there is ample evidence that women themselves did not wholly conform to prescriptions of True Womanhood, nevertheless, those prescriptions exerted a strong influence on what was seen, understood, and said about women's lives. True Womanhood was the ideal against which most women's activities, including their literary ones, were judged.

Being woman was the primary fact and being womanly the major glory, according to proponents of True Womanhood. A woman of her time, Ellen Olney Kirk, called it "the essential need of being womanly" against which other characteristics and motives faded. From this perspective being a True Woman was a vocation in itself, more distinguished than any other. According to its most conservative proponents, therefore, being a True Woman was incompatible with being a woman writer. As one such commentator said, "If women were wise they would understand that they have a mission quite as grand as that of literary authorship. It is the mission of keeping alive for men certain ideas, and ideals too, which would soon pass out of the world." The True Woman's special responsibility was to be guardian of the cultural, religious, and moral values of Victorian society in America. She was to maintain the noncommercial values of love, hope, and charity in a secular age fascinated with business, competition, and endless expansion. With her innocence and charms, woman was to create a home life that was a refuge for men and children from the cruelty and unpredictability of the world.16

Literary critics of the period, like most other social commentators, not only accepted but also preached the conservative vision of True Womanhood. While they commended male characters in novels for displaying individuality, they praised female characters who were True Women: pious, pure, domestic, and pleasing to others.17 For example, a critic in the Christian Examiner (September 1852) said of the main character in The Sunny Side that she was "the good man's crown" because she was "the cheerer of her husband in despondency, the kind and wise guide of her children in the right way, with modesty prompting the wish to shrink from publicity, but high principle curbing the indulgence of that wish, she appears the true pastor's wife, ready when occasion calls to be the friend and counsellor of those around her, but finding her peculiar sphere of duty in her own home." Like twentieth-century advice columnists, nineteenth-century literary reviewers, both male and female, encouraged female readers to pattern their lives after those heroines who best conformed to the role of True Woman. Reviewers praised most highly those novels that kept women in their sphere, rather than legitimizing their discontent with it. They also created idealized descriptions of literary women, like those quoted above, as models for other women to follow. Finally, they usually argued that "women ought to write not as individuals, but as exemplars of their sex." The conservative message of True Womanhood was widespread.

Despite its popularity, True Womanhood as an ideal was criticized in its own time by liberals espousing a Vision of New Womanhood. The most radical of the critics, like the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, argued that women were, most importantly, human beings like men with aspirations for achievement and only incidentally wives and mothers with their special responsibilities. Moderate critics like Catharine Beecher saw womanhood as primary but would not concede that this made women weaker or less important than men.18 Actually, most liberals agreed with conservatives that women were prepared to nurture and care for others because they were morally superior, but liberals also argued that women could and should move beyond the home into volunteer and career opportunities to make society a better place in which to live. Many thought men should imitate women's piety, purity, and gentleness; conversely, women in their sphere or beyond it should be as intelligent, self-reliant, and courageous as men. This Vision of New Womanhood sometimes called for blending masculine and feminine characteristics as the nineteenth century defined them, but it usually did not go so far as to say that women and men could be the same. As Mary Abigail Dodge (Gail Hamilton) wrote, "They make a great mistake, who think a strong, brave, self-poised woman is unwomanly. The stronger she is, the truer she is to her womanly instincts."19

Women themselves varied in their attitudes toward their society's prescriptions for womanhood, but whatever their view, the values they were socialized to accept did not make them wholly distinct from their male counterparts. With men they were expected to share Victorian beliefs in, for example, moral purity, self-improvement, hard work, genteel behavior, and, in some cases, self-reliance. When articulating any of the shared values, women might be heard as women or as Victorians like the men. This is an important point because it begins to explain why women were ambivalently accepted in the literary world and also how they might step beyond the prescriptions of separate spheres. The rhetoric of separate coupled with that of Victorianism helped to create an ambiguous intellectual context for women's participation in society beyond the home: one in which at least middle-class white women were both insiders (Victorians) and outsiders (women), or, as the 1877 Atlantic dinner illustrated, both prominent writers and uninvited guests. While this intellectual context made responses to women contradictory, it simultaneously created the possibility that some women would believe they had something to say to the world in regard to either those shared values or their separate sphere.


  1. This event is usually remembered for Clemens's speech about Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes. See Ballou, The Building of the House, 218-19.
  2. Statistics in this paragraph can be found in Dexter, Career Women of America, 97; Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers, 100; Hart, The Popular Book, 306-7; Tebbel, History of Book Publishing, 2:170; Garrison, "Immoral Fiction," 81; Reynolds, The Fiction Factory, 38.
  3. Reprinted in Derby, Fifty Years among Authors, 283-85. The final joke was that Mary Abigail Dodge (Gail Hamilton) was only fifty-five years old at the time.
  4. Scudder, Henry Oscar Houghton, 136, 150; Ballou, 268.
  5. For an example of continued discrimination, see "Our 'Forty Immortals.'" Houghton, however, had been somewhat sensitized. He defended himself in his opening remarks at the Holmes breakfast, claiming he had been too shy to ask the "ladies" to attend before. Others in attendance also commented on the presence of women. See "The Holmes Breakfast."
  6. Bartlett, The American Mind, 32-72; Sara M. Evans, Born for Liberty, 67-92.
  7. Baym, for example, finds that, in the reviews of literary works, individualism was applauded only when expressed on behalf of social stability. Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers, 193. On sentimentalism in Victorian culture, see Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture.
  8. Said by a character in the work of Catharine Sedgwick quoted in Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage, 67. For a fuller discussion of Victorianism, see Howe, "American Victorianism as a Culture," and the special issue of American Quarterly in which it appears.
  9. See Ryan, "The Empire of the Mother."
  10. This phenomenon persisted through the Gilded Age. See Tomsich, Genteel Endeavor.
  11. See Sara M. Evans, esp. 70-76; Woloch, Women and the American Experience, 116; Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity.
  12. See Kessler-Harris, Out to Work.
  13. An excellent discussion of the connections between True Womanhood and New Womanhood is found in Hersh, "The 'True Woman.'"
  14. Welter, "Cult of True Womanhood."
  15. Quotes in this paragraph are from a passage quoted in Derby, 574; from Spofford, Introduction, xviii-xix; and from a passage quoted in Wood, "'Scribbling Women,'" 5.
  16. Quotes in this paragraph are from Kirk, "Women Fiction Writers of America," 2003, and "Literary Women," 610. See also Jeffrey, "The Family as Utopian Retreat."
  17. Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers, 97-107. The quotes that follow in this paragraph are from reviews quoted in Baym, 102, and from Baym, 249. The Sunny Side was written by the mother of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Ward), who is discussed in Chapter 7. It should be pointed out, as Baym does (p. 104), that reviewers did not understand the subversive implications of some of the nineteenth-century heroines any more than those describing True Women saw the real women behind the expected image. See also Baym, 172.
  18. Hersh, 273-74; Sklar, Catharine Beecher.
  19. Hamilton, "Men and Women," in Country Living, 123. Hersh (p. 276) also makes this point.

Works Cited

Ballou, Ellen B. The Building of the House: Houghton Mifflin's Formative Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Bartlett, Irving H. The American Mind in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. New York: Thomas V. Crowell Company, 1967.

Baym, Nina. Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Derby, James C. Fifty Years among Authors, Books, and Publishers. New York: G. W. Carleton and Co., 1884.

Dexter, Elisabeth Anthony. Career Women of America, 1776-1840. Francestown, N.H.: Marshall Jones Company, 1950.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Avon, 1977.

Epstein, Barbara Leslie. The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981.

Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: The Free Press, 1989.

Garrison, Dee. "Immoral Fiction in the Late Victorian Library." American Quarterly 28 (September 1976): 71-89.

Hamilton, Gail [Mary Abigail Dodge]. Country Living and Country Thinking. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865.

Hart, James D. The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

Hersh, Blanche Glassman. "The 'True Woman' and the 'New Woman' in Nineteenth-Century America: Feminist Abolitionists and a New Concept of True Womanhood." In Woman's Being, Woman's Place: Female Identity and Vocation in American History, edited by Mary Kelley, 271-82. G. K. Hall and Company, 1979.

"The Holmes Breakfast." Atlantic Monthly 45, no. 268 Supplement (February 1880): 1-24.

Howe, Daniel Walker. "American Victorianism as a Culture." American Quarterly 27, no. 5 (December 1975): 507-32.

Jeffrey, Kirk. "The Family as Utopian Retreat from the City: The Nineteenth-Century Contribution." Soundings (1972): 21-41.

Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Kirk, Ellen Olney. "Women Fiction Writers of America." In What America Owes Women, edited by Lydia Hoyt Farmer, 194-204. Buffalo, N.Y.: C. W. Moulton, 1893.

"Literary Women." The Living Age (June 25, 1864): 609-10.

"Our 'Forty Immortals.'" The Critic and Good Literature 4 (April 12, 1884): 169-70.

Reynolds, Quentin. The Fiction Factory, or From Pulp Row to Quality Street. New York: Random House, 1955.

Ryan, Mary P. "The Empire of the Mother: American Writing about Domesticity, 1830-1860." Women and History 2, 3 (1982).

Scudder, Horace E. Henry Oscar Houghton: A Biographical Outline. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1897.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.

Spofford, Harriet Prescott. Introduction to The Poems of Louise Chandler Moulton, by Louise Chandler Moulton, v-xix. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1909.

Tebbel, John. A History of Book Publishing in the United States. 4 vols. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1975.

Tomsich, John. A Genteel Endeavor: American Culture and Politics in the Gilded Age. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1971.

Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860." American Quarterly 18 (Summer 1966): 151-75.

Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Wood, Ann D. "The 'Scribbling Women' and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote." American Quarterly 23 (Spring 1971): 3-24.


AAS: American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.

AHS: Andover Historical Society, Andover, Mass.

BC: Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine

BPL: Boston Public Library, Boston, Mass.

BYU: Brigham Young University Library, Provo, Utah

CC: Colorado College: Tutt Library, Colorado Springs, Colo.

CHS: Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Ill.

CrU: Cornell University: John M.Olin Library, Ithaca, N.Y.

CU: Columbia University: Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York, N.Y.

DU: Duke University: William R. Perkins Library, Durham, N.C.

EI: Essex Institute: James Duncan Phillips Library, Salem, Mass.

HC: Haverford College Library, Haverford, Pa.

HL: Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

HSP: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa.

HU: Harvard University: Houghton Library, Cambridge, Mass.

JL: Jones Library, Amherst, Mass.

LC: Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

LSU: Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.

MHS: Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Mass.

MNH: Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minn.

NPL: New York Public Library: Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations, New York, N.Y.

PU: Princeton University Library, Princeton, N.J.

RH: Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Fremont, Ohio

RS: Radcliffe College: Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Cambridge, Mass.

SC: Smith College Library: Sophia Smith Collection, Northampton, Mass.

S-D: Stowe-Day Foundation, Hartford, Conn.

SU: Stanford University Libraries: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford, Calif.

TC: Trinity College: Watkins Library, Hartford, Conn.

VC: Vassar College Library, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

UV: University of Virginia: Special Collections Department, Manuscripts Division, Clifton Waller Barrett Library, Charlottesville, Va.

YU: Yale University: Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, Conn.


SOURCE: Pryse, Marjorie. "Origins of American Literary Regionalism: Gender in Irving, Stowe, and Longstreet." In Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women's Regional Writing, edited by Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer, pp. 17-37. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.

In the following essay, Pryse argues that Harriet Beecher Stowe helped pioneer the literary genre of regionalism that allowed her and other women to seize greater narrative freedom beyond the traditional space allotted to women.

Any attempt to construct a narrative of the origins of regionalism must begin by acknowledging the problematic status of such an attempt in a critical climate where both "origins" and "regionalism" are themselves contested terms. In a survey of this problem, Amy Kaplan builds her discussion of late-nineteenth-century regionalism on the post-Civil War cultural project of national reunification. For Kaplan, this project involved forgetting a past that included "a contested relation between national and racial identity" as well as "reimagining a distended industrial nation as an extended clan sharing a 'common inheritance' in its imagined rural origins" ("Nation" 242, 251). My own project in this essay takes up the concept of origins from an earlier historical point than does Kaplan. In her first published fiction, "A New England Sketch" (1834) (or "Uncle Lot," as she later retitled it when she included it in The Mayflower [1843]), Harriet Beecher Stowe associates regionalism with remembering that American literary culture emerged from a contested relation in which men were victorious, that, for Stowe, the values of women's sphere offered a moral ground for the construction of nation, and that any subsequent reinvention of national origins that did not take into account the contest over men's and women's "spheres" of influence would indeed serve as cultural "forgetting."

Philip Fisher complicates our understanding of the term "regionalism" by defining it as a series of "episodes" in American cultural history that have in common a politicized "struggle" within representation," an ongoing cultural civil war that serves as "the counterelement to central myths within American studies" (243, 233). For the nineteenth century, sectional voices split along geographical lines; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, massive immigration between 1870 and 1914 produced "a regionalism of languages, folk customs, humor, music and beliefs" set against processes of Americanization; "the regionalism of our own times … is one of gender and race" (242-43). Suggesting that such a counterelement makes a critical move from myths (of a unified America) to rhetorics (as sites of cultural work), Fisher identifies Harriet Beecher Stowe as one of the "masters" of "collaborative and implicational relations between writer or speaker and culture" (237). For critics interested in how literature accomplishes what Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs described as "cultural work," Stowe appears to have joined the late-twentieth-century conversation over the relationship between literature and culture.

Far from viewing Stowe herself and the particular form of regionalism she took for her fiction as a "diminished thing," a "subordinate order" (to cite James M. Cox's dismissive critical assessment of regionalism in Columbia Literary History of the United States [764-65]), we can view her work as engaged in a rhetoric of cultural dislocation, a project of inventing alternatives to national views on slavery, women's education, the profession of literature, and women's roles in nation building. Joan Hedrick observes in the preface to her recent biography of Stowe that the hostility to Stowe's writing that judged her work "to be amateur, unprofessional, and 'bad art'" emerged "in the 1860s between the dominant women writers and the rising literary establishment of men who were determined to displace them" (Harriet Beecher Stowe ix). As I shall demonstrate, although Stowe began writing before the Civil War and appears to equate regionalism with a geographical concept—and memory—of New England life in her first published work, she was from the beginning engaged in the kind of rhetorical contestation Philip Fisher associates with "new Americanist" concepts of regionalism. For Stowe, this cultural work involved gender and the role of women in the nation—a rhetorical struggle that remains unresolved.

In writing her first sketch Stowe discovers that the process of conversion, a distant forerunner of what feminists in the 1970s termed "consciousness raising," can provide the narrative intention for a work of fiction, thereby allowing ministers' daughters (both Stowe herself and Grace Griswold in the sketch) to imagine expanding their authority in literary and domestic spheres. My own understanding of conversion in Stowe is similar to that of Jane Tompkins, who writes in her analysis of Uncle Tom's Cabin that for Stowe, "historical change takes place only through religious conversion" but that such conversion for Stowe has "revolutionary potential" (133, 145). Tompkins argues that Stowe pushes her beliefs "to an extreme and by insisting that they be applied universally, not just to one segregated corner of civil life, but to the conduct of all human affairs, Stowe means to effect a radical transformation of her society" (145). In "Uncle Lot," conversion becomes a model for narrative form as well as a transformative theme: Stowe is attempting to "convert" her (male) readers to the power of women's narrative authority.

In presenting conversion as both the source of action and the goal of fiction in "Uncle Lot," Stowe anticipates the empathic point of view characteristic of women regionalist writers and their narrators, thus originating the cultural and literary developmental line of the regionalist tradition. If for the Beechers conversion required a "private change of heart" (Sklar 27), the conversion of evolving American literary culture would require a cultural change of heart. And in this way, from her earliest published sketch, Stowe attempted to transform the direction of American fiction with the same passion that her sister Catharine addressed to the transformation of the profession of teaching; for both sisters, teaching and storytelling were forms of preaching, and women were suited to practice all three. By the time Harriet Beecher came to view herself as a writer, she already knew that American women wrote and published their work. Yet creating a legitimate arena within which American women might exert national influence would require for Stowe not the overt confrontation with paternal authority which had characterized her sister's experience of conversion, during which Catharine proved unable or unwilling to achieve conversion on her father, Lyman's, terms (Sklar 31-38), but the subtle, persuasive, affectional process of eliciting inner change. For women to achieve a position in American literary culture, Stowe's early work indicates, men, especially those men like Washington Irving who were already producing an "American" fiction, must also be "converted" to those same qualities that Catharine Beecher had argued "placed women closer to the source of moral authority and hence established their social centrality" (Sklar 83). Such an argument requires fuller elaboration and a more detailed and historicized reading than we have previously granted Stowe's first sketch and its rhetorical strategies. For while literary historians have recognized the contributions of humor of the Old Southwest, another "minor" literary tradition, to the development of American fiction, we have yet to acknowledge regionalism as either a narrative tradition in its own right or one that substantially influenced the direction of American literature.1

Although "Uncle Lot" has been ignored by literary historians, critics, and theorists alike, the sketch marks a significant moment in the development of American literature in the nineteenth century, and I read it in the context of this moment. Remaining within a critical regionalism that continues to define itself along the lines of Philip Fisher's "struggle within representation," I trace evidence of both conflict and influence that established Stowe from the beginning, even before the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, as a writer for whom civil war was as viable a cultural concept as it became an economic and political one by the 1860s.

"Uncle Lot" locates Stowe's early rhetorical position on the question of women's potential contribution to American authorship, and the position involves cultural battle lines and opposing sides. I suggest that we may view literary regionalism as the emergence of the "Ichabod Crane school" of American narrative, despite Crane's ignominious defeat at the hands of Brom Bones, and that we can identify Stowe's sketch as her attempt to "convert" American readers to the values of what Irving had termed, albeit disparagingly, the "female circle" and the "sleepy region." In the process Stowe creates the possibility of regionalism itself as a literary form capable of conferring literary authority on American women. What we might term the "Brom Bones school" emerges through the work of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet in Georgia Scenes (1835) and in the fiction of the Old Southwest humorists of the 1840s and 1850s, who respond to the question of gender either by relegating women characters to the source and object of sexual humor or by omitting women from their tales altogether. Stephen Railton's extensive discussion of southwestern humor and its "national audience of men" (91) makes a clear case for the gendered separation of early-nineteenth-century American fiction, suggesting that "gentlemen" themselves felt "excluded and powerless" in American society but "could find vicarious compensation in the rough world of the humorists, where it is women who do not matter, except as occasional objects of unfrustrated resentment" (103-04). The women writers of domestic and didactic scenes of American life, Catharine Sedgwick, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, and Stowe's sister Catharine Beecher, who influenced both Stowe and later writers in the regionalist tradition, occupied entirely different rhetorical and cultural territory from the humorists. Even the editors who published the works of these writers—William T. Porter and his Spirit of the Times, and James T. Hall and the Western Monthly Magazine—take up opposing or "separate" positions on the topic of women as cultural subjects. We can view the humor of the Old Southwest and early regionalism as manifestations of two possible but mutually exclusive gender-specific directions for the development of American fiction before the Civil War.

Although "Uncle Lot" announces a departure in American fiction from the sketches of Stowe's male predecessors and contemporaries, her own female successors would more fully delineate the features of regionalism and more explicitly link these features to women's lives in nineteenth-century America than Stowe herself did. Conversion based on "private change of heart" (Sklar 27) in Stowe reemerges as the "collaborative and implicational relations between writer or speaker and culture" (Fisher 237), to extend Fisher's formulation beyond Stowe herself, and becomes a feature of regionalist narrative.

Later in the century, beginning with Alice Cary's Clovernook sketches of the early 1850s and including such writers as Rose Terry Cooke, Celia Thaxter, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Zitkala-Śa, Grace King, Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Sui Sin Far, and Mary Austin, American women writers would refine regionalism as an approach to narrative that would develop parallel to but divergent from the techniques and forms of local color fiction. Judith Fetterley and I have made this argument in the introduction to American Women Regionalists, our collection of some of the central works in the regionalist tradition, and an analysis of the cultural moment in which "Uncle Lot" first appears provides early evidence that regionalism and "local color," though often conflated, do represent different articulations of and attitudes toward regional subjects.

Without Stowe's own later work, "Uncle Lot" would not assume the significance it does, but Stowe further elaborated the themes of "Uncle Lot" in her most important fiction. Uncle Tom's Cabin, as I have indicated, further develops the theme of conversion. The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862) establishes women's development and education as a contested site (see Fetterley, "Only a Story"). And in great late works, Oldtown Folks (1869) and Sam Lawson's Old-town Fireside Stories (1872), Stowe continues to propose regionalism as a direction for American fiction. Sam Lawson, Stowe's narrator in these works, is a more successful and benign version of Rip Van Winkle. Stowe's persistence in developing these themes gives her first published sketch renewed significance in our own century, as we attempt to trace the origins of literary authority for American women writers and attempt, as well, to fairly assess their contribution to nineteenth-century American literature. Writing regional sketches in particular gave Stowe a way of educating her contemporaries. Stowe makes it possible for her readers to take a second look at characters others might find laughable or without literary value, such as Uncle Lot himself, or, later, in The Pearl of Orr's Island, Aunts Roxy and Ruey—rural, female, elderly, and otherwise disenfranchised persons. Reading "Uncle Lot" in its various contexts thus opens up, to use Stowe's own language in the sketch, a "chestnut burr" of genre in American fiction; the sketch kept alive for Stowe the possibility that her female successors might experience the authority of authorship, thereby "converting" her own readers to the idea that women's voices and women's values can influence her own postrevolutionary and our own postmodern American culture.

Two conclusions become possible from reexamining Stowe's first sketch within the context of early-nineteenth-century writers' responses to gender: first, that while some women began to make an issue of women's roles and rights after 1835,2 the question of whether American fiction itself would follow lines confirmed by the cultural ideology of "separate spheres" remained as yet unanswered in the 1830s, so that ultimately our analysis of "Uncle Lot" presents a moment not unlike our own, in which gender as a cultural construct was much more fluid than it would be for at least the next century (or in our case, the previous century); and second, that the very consciousness of gender and its relation to narrative for early-nineteenth-century American writers created an opening for the development of "separate genres" or narrative traditions within which women writers might develop their authority as storytellers. Regionalism has its origins both in this as-yet-indeterminate relationship between gender and genre and at the same time in a consciousness of gender in Stowe's early work and the writing of her male and female contemporaries.

"Uncle Lot" makes for interesting reading in its own right: it is the first published sketch by an important American writer; it coincides with the influential Beecher family's move to Cincinnati and thus presents New England life and values to a western audience; and it is a work which has remained in the archives of American literary history.3 But it becomes an even more interesting text read as the young Harriet Beecher's awareness of an emerging American fiction and her attempts to redirect that fiction by revising Washington Irving. An analysis of the significance of "Uncle Lot" as a cultural moment therefore begins with a discussion of "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

When Rip Van Winkle comes down from the mountain and finds his new place in his postrevolutionary village as a "chronicle of the old times 'before the war'" (40), Washington Irving creates a vocation for the American artist. At the beginning of the tale Rip has "an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labour" (Irving 30), preferring instead to spend his time telling ghost stories to children, but he awakens from his twenty-year sleep to discover that the storyteller in the new republic has an important role to play. In "Rip Van Winkle" Irving avoids prescribing a form for the American story, but he does suggest that it will have a content different from English narrative; like the image of George Washington on the sign in front of the Union Hotel, American fiction may derive from English and European models but is also "singularly metamorphosed" (Irving 37). However, despite Rip's altered perception in the tale, Irving makes it clear that certain things have not changed. George is still a George, not a Dame; Irving allows Rip a "drop of comfort" when he discovers that he has survived two wars at once, the American Revolution and the tyranny of "petticoat government," for Dame Van Winkle is dead. And Irving spares Rip any complicity in her death; she has broken a blood vessel "in a fit of passion at a New-England pedlar" (Irving 39). Angry women do not survive to tell the story of the "old times 'before the war.'" Dame Van Winkle cannot be a candidate for the American artist; such would be a singular metamorphosis indeed.4 For Irving the American storyteller, like the American hero, must be male.

By granting the postrevolutionary American artist a cultural role with secular rather than divine authority (George Washington replaces King George), Irving asserts the separation of literature from theology as the political ground for an American story. Irving's Knickerbocker tales reveal the gender anxiety that this shift created for early-nineteenth-century male American writers.5 In their separation from Puritanism as a cultural base, turning away from the writing of sermons and toward the writing of fiction, Irving's male contemporaries split off that anxiety, which Irving figures as the psychocultural castration image of the headless horseman. They projected "headlessness" onto women writers and asserted masculinity itself as evidence of divine authority. Irving's narrator thus fiercely refuses to take women—the already "castrated"—seriously. And just in case his readers remain insufficiently convinced that Dame Van Winkle is dead and worry that she might return to haunt them or pose a threat to Rip's postrevolutionary authority, Irving resurrects her in a literary way as Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," then frightens "her" out of town, not needing the Freudian and Lacanian theories of our own century to make the point that gender anxiety for men signifies the fear of absence, castration, headlessness.6

In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving removes the undesirable qualities that characterized Dame Van Winkle from his portraits of the Dutch wives and projects them instead onto the character of Ichabod Crane. During Ichabod's reign over his "little literary realm," the schoolroom, the pedagogue uses "a ferule, that sceptre of despotic power" and "the birch of justice reposed on three nails" to enforce his limited government (Irving 283). Like Dame Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane in the schoolroom becomes someone to escape, and Irving describes the scholars' early dismissal as "emancipation" (284). However, outside the schoolroom, Ichabod undergoes a transformation and becomes the embodiment of Rip rather than Dame. He has a "soft and foolish heart towards the [female] sex" like his counterpart in Irving's earlier tale. He becomes the playmate of his own charges and the congenial companion of their mothers: he would often "sit with a child on one knee, and rock a cradle with his foot, for whole hours together" (Irving 276). He seems initially content to become one of the region's "native inhabitants," deriving pleasure from visiting, "snugly cuddling in the chimney corner," filling the role of "travelling gazette," and expressing his desire for the "comforts of the cupboard" (Irving 273, 278, 276, 275). And within the "female circle," he enjoys the position of "man of letters" (Irving 276). Yet Irving does not grant him Rip's place as American artist; the extracts from Cotton Mather that Ichabod contributes to the storytelling at Van Tassel's castle do not appear to be successful in competing with the ghost stories Brom Bones tells.

Ichabod Crane will not serve as Irving's image of the American artist; neither will he provide a model for the American hero. For Irving reveals him to be a fraud—not a real contender for the love of Katrina Van Tassel but instead a glutton whose desire for Katrina derives from greed and gorging. Most startling of all, Ichabod turns out to be no settler after all but rather to have fantasies of sacking the "sleepy region" in order to invest "in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness," toward which he would set off, Katrina and the children on top of a wagon and "himself bestriding a pacing mare" (Irving 280). Too much a member of the "female circle," as Irving defines women's culture, to bring off this quintessentially masculine vision, Ichabod becomes by the end of the tale merely a debased version of it, an unsuccessful suitor, an "affrighted pedagogue," an "unskilful rider" (Irving 292, 294). Reminding us that women had produced "more than a third of the fiction published in America before 1820," Lloyd Daigrepont suggests that Irving "instilled in Ichabod Crane the characteristics of those writers who dominated the American literary scene" in the early days of the Republic—what he calls a "burgeoning popular taste for the excessive emotionalism of the sentimental tale, the novel of sensibility, and the Gothic romance"—and that in the conclusion of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving "symbolically portrayed their defeat" (69-70).

Irving creates Brom Bones instead as Crane's triumphant adversary and as an image of American manhood. "Brom Bones … was the hero of the scene," a man who has tamed Daredevil, a man "in fact noted for preferring vicious animals,…for he held a tractable well broken horse as unworthy of a lad of spirit" (Irving 287). As Daniel Hoffman observes, Brom Bones "is a Catskill Mike Fink, a Ring-Tailed Roarer from Kinderhook" (89). Brom Bones above all represents masculinity, a quality absent in Irving's characterizations of both Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, and this masculinity gives him authority over Ichabod. The "burley, roaring, roystering blade" has a "bluff, but not unpleasant countenance," "more mischief than ill-will in his composition," and "with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humour at bottom" (Irving 737). The excesses of the "female circle" may threaten the cultural order with "petticoat government," but the excesses of masculinity merely contribute to our national health—we all have a good laugh at Ichabod Crane's cowardice, incompetence, and basic cultural impotence. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" turns the folktale into a tall tale: sobered by the seriousness of his own attempt to reflect American identity in the Republic's fiction, Irving rejects as "sleepy" any literary authority the Dutch wives might claim and establishes the "roaring blade" as the literary descendant of Rip Van Winkle.

Like many other writers in the 1830s, Stowe begins "Uncle Lot" by reworking Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Most of these writers, however, as Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham observe, imitated what they term the "ingredients of a typical sketch of Southwest humor: the physically awkward, ugly, and avaricious Ichabod; the good-natured but rowdy Brom Bones and his friends, who love a practical joke; the desirable plum, Katrina Van Tassel." Cohen and Dillingham report that "it would be difficult to estimate the number of Southern tales directly influenced by 'Sleepy Hollow,'" and they cite some examples: Joseph B. Cobb's "The Legend of Black Creek," William Tappan Thompson's "The Runaway Match" and "Adventures of a Sabbath-Breaker," and Francis James Robinson's "The Frightened Serenaders" (xii). Thus Stowe was not alone in modeling a work of fiction on "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."7 However, Stowe's text critiques Irving, thereby establishing the context for regionalism, an approach to the representation of rural and regional people and values that involves respect and empathy and grants voice to regional characters in the work, an approach that differs markedly from that of the "humorists," who created such characters as objects of derision rather than subjects of their own agency.

Stowe's text specifically reveals similarities between her village of Newbury, "one of those out-of-the-way places where nobody ever came unless they came on purpose: a green little hollow" ("Uncle Lot" 2), and Irving's "little valley, or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world," a "green, sheltered, fertile nook" (272, 279). Stowe notes the "unchangeability" of Newbury, particularly in its "manners, morals, arts, and sciences" ("Uncle Lot" 2); Irving describes the "population, manners, and customs" of his "sleepy region" as "fixed" (274). Both authors introduce their characters as representatives of the larger citizenry. Irving's Ichabod Crane "was a native of Connecticut, a state which supplies the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest" (274), and Stowe describes James Benton as "one of those whole-hearted, energetic Yankees" who possessed a "characteristic national trait" ("Uncle Lot" 3). Like Ichabod Crane, James Benton is a newcomer to the village of Newbury, he "figured as schoolmaster all the week, and as chorister on Sundays," he makes himself at home "in all the chimney-corners of the region," devouring "doughnuts and pumpkin pies with most flattering appetite," and he generally "kept the sunny side of the old ladies" ("Uncle Lot" 4, 6). James Benton holds what Stowe describes as "an uncommonly comfortable opinion of himself" ("Uncle Lot" 3); Irving characterizes as Ichabod's "vanity" his belief that in his performance as chorister "he completely carried away the palm from the parson" (276). Both tell stories, and both have, as Stowe writes of James Benton, "just the kindly heart that fell in love with everything in feminine shape" ("Uncle Lot" 6).

There is thus a great deal of evidence to suggest that Stowe begins "Uncle Lot" by invoking "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." However, Stowe imitates in order to revise. For Stowe, there is no threat of castration, nothing to "lose"; what seems revolutionary about "Uncle Lot" is not its explicit content—since unlike Irving's tales, "Uncle Lot" reinforces the values of a theology based on inner feeling and a literature congruent with theology—but rather the demonstration of a woman's authority to be the writer of the tale.8 Unlike Irving, Stowe identifies women's values not as debased but as central to the "private change of heart" that must precede cultural conversion, a conversion of domestic ideology that would acknowledge women's moral centrality and women's role in creating American culture, and she asserts the centrality of feeling in American culture by transforming Ichabod Crane into James Benton, a hero willing to acknowledge women's authority at least in the domestic sphere.9 "Uncle Lot" thereby links place—Newbury as invocation and reinvention of Irving's "sleepy region"—with values of domestic ideology, conversion, and women's authority that together lay the foundation for her successors in the regionalist tradition. Regional "place" becomes more or less a feature of the fiction and a sign of preindustrial, even prepatriarchal authority for the women of faculty that move throughout Stowe's own work and the later herbalists, healers, and empathic visitors that populate sketches and stories by later women regionalist writers.

Stowe claims that her "main story" involves a romance between her hero, James Benton, and Uncle Lot Griswold's daughter, Grace. However, like Irving in his portrait of Katrina Van Tassel, Stowe gives her readers only an occasional glimpse of Grace; instead she focuses on the process by which male characters in the sketch become converted or transformed in various ways. Stowe places Uncle Lot at the thematic center of her sketch. She describes him as a "chestnut burr, abounding with briers without and with substantial goodness within" but "'the settest crittur in his way that ever you saw'" ("Uncle Lot" 7, 12). Initially Uncle Lot expresses an aversion to the young hero, James Benton, so in order to "win" Grace's favors, James must first elicit Uncle Lot's recognition of what James believes to be Uncle Lot's inner feelings. Thus the "conversion" of Uncle Lot's opinion of James replaces courtship as Stowe's organizing principle in the narrative; James tries to reach Uncle Lot behind the defenses he has created, the overlays of his "chestnut burr," and to convert him into a person capable of expressing feeling, that "substantial goodness within." In addition, James Benton achieves his own spiritual conversion, and conversion to the ministry, by falling in love with Grace's minister brother, George, then, upon young George's untimely death, replacing him within the family as Uncle Lot's "son." Marriage with Grace at the end of the sketch merely ritualizes this "son" relationship. Thus, despite Stowe's claim that Grace figures as her heroine, she pays very little attention to Grace herself.

However, unlike Irving's portrait of Katrina, what characterization Stowe does provide underscores Grace's intellectual capacity and moral superiority, features congruent generally with the ideology of domesticity and specifically with Stowe's sister Catharine's vision of women. Catharine appears to have believed that conversion was a much less strenuous task for women than for men, that women only needed to be educated in the schools she proposed, where they would "learn proper social, religious, and moral principles and then establish their own schools elsewhere on the same principles" (Sklar 95), and that women would then be in a position to assert their influence on the nation. As Katharine Kish Sklar writes, "Catharine Beecher not only wanted to 'save' the nation, she wanted women to save it" and engaged in a campaign to transform teaching from a men's profession to a profession "dominated by—indeed exclusively belonging to—women" (96, 97). Catharine Beecher herself took over much of the care of her younger siblings, including the then-four-year-old Harriet, after their mother, Roxana, died, and it was Catharine who supervised Harriet's education from the time she was about thirteen (Sklar 60).

Given her sister's powerful model, we can view Stowe's portrait of Grace Griswold as suggesting that her sketch does not need to convert Grace, who is the already-converted, and therefore does not need to focus on Grace's development as part of the sketch's "plot." Stowe describes Grace as follows:

Like most Yankee damsels, she had a longing after the tree of knowledge, and, having exhausted the literary fountains of a district school, she fell to reading whatsoever came in her way. True, she had but little to read; but what she perused she had her own thoughts upon, so that a person of information, in talking with her, would feel a constant wondering pleasure to find that she had so much more to say of this, that, and the other thing than he expected.

("Uncle Lot" 9)

Grace already represents grace; she possesses the moral character to which the men in Stowe's sketch must aspire in order to demonstrate their own spiritual conversion, which becomes manifested for James in his success at winning over Uncle Lot, then winning a congregation and a wife, and for Uncle Lot in his ability to express his feeling for James Benton. The men in particular must experience that "private change of heart" which characterized conversion for Lyman Beecher (Sklar 27). Within the ideology that asserted women's moral centrality, it does not surprise readers that after speaking very little throughout the sketch, Grace asserts herself in the sketch's final scene, when she tells Uncle Lot, a visitor to her house following her marriage to James, "Come, come, father, I have authority in these days, so no disrespectful speeches" ("Uncle Lot" 31).10

Thus conversion, rather than the confrontation and defeat that characterize "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," gives Stowe's narrative its direction, and conversion figures as an aspect of plot as well as of theme. Stowe gives James Benton the task of trying to "convert" Uncle Lot; conversion, not seduction, becomes her hero's test. In the scene which depicts this "conversion," James Benton arrives for an unannounced visit to Uncle Lot's house with the ostensible goal of winning Uncle Lot's affection. Stowe writes:

James also had one natural accomplishment, more courtier-like than all the diplomacy in Europe, and that was the gift of feeling a real interest for anybody in five minutes; so that, if he began to please in jest, he generally ended in earnest. With great simplicity of mind, he had a natural tact for seeing into others, and watched their motions with the same delight with which a child gazes at the wheels and springs of a watch, to "see what it will do."

("Uncle Lot" 16)

James wishes to open up the "chestnut burr" that characterizes Uncle Lot's defenses against feeling, and he uses powers of empathy—his "natural tact for seeing into others"—to help Uncle Lot recognize and reveal the "latent kindness" he holds within his "rough exterior" ("Uncle Lot"16).

Stowe reverses Irving's condemnation of women, suggesting that instead of annihilating what Irving calls "petticoat government" at the end of "Rip Van Winkle," American society might benefit from genuine government, at least in the domestic sphere, by women; and instead of frightening Ichabod Crane out of town, as Irving does in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," she creates her own hero in Ichabod Crane's image, then "converts" him from his prankish boyishness into a man of deep feeling, into a man, in Catharine Beecher's sense, who becomes more like a woman as the sketch progresses and ends by submitting to Grace's authority.

In Stowe's world, Dame Van Winkle might exert genuine influence, might even speak, as does Stowe herself in assuming authorship; in "Uncle Lot," Stowe reinforces the nineteenth-century view of women's interest in feeling and moral character, while the masculine behaviors of Brom Bones disappear from the fiction. Thus Dame Van Winkle survives in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe not as a shrill-voiced termagant but as a woman capable of using her verbal facility in order to assert, in Grace's closing lines, "authority in these days" ("Uncle Lot" 31). Irving has to justify the exclusion of women from the province of storytelling; Stowe wants not to exclude men but to include women in the profession of literature (even though, ironically, she never created a female narrator in her work). Nevertheless, the fact that "Uncle Lot" has remained unremarked for most of this century attests to the apparent victory of Irving's position. At least as literary history has recorded it, Brom Bones inspired an entire "school" of tall tale fiction by the Old Southwest humorists, whereas Ichabod Crane disappeared into the "sleepy region."

In reading "Uncle Lot" to the Semi-Colon Club, Stowe had the good fortune to attract the attention of editor James Hall of the Western Monthly Magazine. One of Stowe's biographers, in describing James Hall's influence, writes that he advocated "cheerfulness, morality, and regionalism" as a literary aesthetic, was "a chivalrous admirer of women writers," and encouraged payment for contributors to American periodicals (Adams, Harriet Beecher Stowe 35-36).11 In awarding his fiction prize to Harriet Beecher's first New England sketch, he was also implicitly urging her to counter the portrait of American life that the frontier appeared to encourage—as he knew very well. In Letters from the West, Hall had recorded the telling of yarns by an old keelboatman named Pappy, whom he had encountered while traveling down the Ohio on a flatboat (W. Blair 70);12 and as editor of The Western Souvenir, issued in Cincinnati in 1828, "the first of American gift books from beyond the Alleghenies" (Thompson 95-96), Hall achieved the distinction of having been the first editor to publish a lengthy account of the career of the legendary Mike Fink (W. Blair 81-82). Like Washington Irving, Hall appears to have been interested very early in the tall tale; but unlike Irving, he would choose, as editor of the Western Monthly Magazine, to encourage his contributors, especially women, to write about other regional material than the portraits of frontier life that would survive in American literary history as humor of the Old Southwest.13

Hall contrasts sharply with his contemporary, William T. Porter, whose sporting magazine, the Spirit of the Times, first published in 1831, provided gentlemen interested in the leisure pursuits of horse racing, hunting, and listening to tall tales with a way of gratifying their fantasies of upper-class superiority (since much of the humor Porter published derived from "the foibles and follies of the lower classes" [Yates 881]) and of ratifying their belief in masculine values and male dominance. Unlike Hall, whose interest in developing western material inspired his work, Porter was a commercialist, interested more in the culture of the sporting world than in literature. He initially catered "to the wealthy slaveholding sportsmen and their friends and allies, who 'ruled' racing" (Yates 17). With the decline of horse racing by the end of the 1830s, Porter began to include the early local color fiction literary historians term humor of the Old Southwest. As Norris W. Yates observes, "The bulk of [Porter's] later readers belong to a new and larger economic and social class—a class which may have shared the values and interests but not the economic resources of the old" (21). Thus the values and interests of the slave-holding sportsmen and their allies contrast decidedly with the values and interests of the audience for and contributors to Hall's Western Monthly Magazine. The readers who allowed the Spirit of the Times to flourish for more than thirty years may not have been able to prevent women from speaking out in public meetings, but by excluding morality from the province of humor they attempted to exclude the particular sphere of women's influence in nineteenth-century culture from fiction and effectively defined storytelling as a masculine occupation. The writers who contributed to William T. Porter's sporting magazine continued to develop American literature as a masculine enterprise. To the extent that humor of the Old Southwest establishes Brom Bones as the American hero, this particular literary genre describes a direction for fiction that women writers could not and did not follow.14

Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and his colleague on the Augusta Sentinel, William Tappan Thompson, both of whom published their sketches in the 1830s, were the only Old Southwest humorist writers who treated female characters in their fiction (W. Blair 74).15 Of these two, Longstreet in Georgia Scenes (1835) had the greater influence.16Georgia Scenes is an important text to examine in establishing gender consciousness as a feature of early American fiction, for while it reaffirms Irving's perspective and establishes further precedent for the humorists' exclusion of women, it also suggests a lingering fluidity in the relationship between gender and genre in the 1830s. At the same time, Georgia Scenes suggests that Old Southwest humor evolved in part from suppressing the possibility of female literary authority. In Longstreet's preface to Georgia Scenes he tells us "that when he first wrote and published the sketches which went into the volume, he was 'extremely desirous' of concealing his authorship; and that in order to accomplish his purpose, he had used two pseudonyms. For sketches in which men are the principal actors, he says, he uses the name Hall; for those in which women are the most prominent, he writes under the name Baldwin" (Meriwether 358; Longstreet v).

James Meriwether writes that "the dominant figure of the book is Hall;… Baldwin simply serves as a foil to the ultimately much more masculine and successful Lyman Hall" (359). In Baldwin's sketches, the narrator becomes a moralist who stands back from the action, contrasting "country girls" with their urban counterparts and condemning women who become "charming" creatures and lead their husbands to early graves. By contrast, in Hall's sketches, Hall participates in the action, proves himself to be a crack shot, and establishes himself as a man's man. A third character who appears in the sketches, Ned Brace of "A Sage Conversation," establishes storytelling as one of many contests, like gander pulling, horse swapping, or horse racing, in which boys or men can prove their masculinity. Both Ned Brace and Lyman Hall achieve a less ambiguous masculinity than does Baldwin.

In suggesting Baldwin's ultimate ineffectuality, Longstreet, like Irving in his portrait of Ichabod Crane, links Baldwin to the world of women that he simultaneously mocks. The "country girls" of "The Dance" are so "wholly ignorant" of urban fashion that "consequently, they looked, for all the world, like human beings" (14); thus Longstreet manages to make fun of both country and urban "girls" in the same jest. In "The Song," piano player Miss Aurelia Emma Theodosia Augusta Crump has hands that engage in conflict at the keyboard, and "anyone, or rather no one, can imagine what kind of noises the piano gave forth" as a result (Longstreet 70). Longstreet's portraits of women characters, primarily in Baldwin's sketches, led his biographer Kimball King to remark, "It is hard to understand how a man who appears to have had close, satisfying relationships with his wife and daughters, all sensible, intelligent women who led exemplary lives, could portray their sex so unflatteringly, unless his bias were actually a pose, a part of his writer's mask" (80). However, the emerging gender consciousness of the 1830s makes this explicable; Longstreet, like Irving, associates storytelling with masculinity and political power, for Hall ends the volume, in "The Shooting-Match," by proving his marksmanship and thereby earning the potential votes of the country people. The people promise to support him if he "offers" for anything; "Long-street makes it clear that the judgment of these people is to be respected and if Hall will accept such responsibilities he will be an able and successful public official" (Meriwether 361), such as Longstreet himself later became in his career as a judge, preacher, and college president. Baldwin, on the other hand, clearly lacks the shooting ability to qualify as either effective storyteller or political man; as he demonstrates in his failure to execute the humorous "double cross-hop" step of his first sketch in Georgia Scenes, he cannot even dance (Longstreet 21).

In Baldwin's most powerful sketch, "A Sage Conversation," the three aged matrons who relate anecdotes to each other prove Longstreet's point, for they seem unable to understand the meaning of the very anecdotes they are attempting to tell and thus do not succeed in the actively masculine pursuit of contriving and telling stories. Baldwin opens "A Sage Conversation" with the assertion, "I love the aged matrons of our land. As a class, they are the most pious, the most benevolent, the most useful, and the most harmless of the human family" (Longstreet 186). Nevertheless, the women cannot solve the riddle of Ned Brace's story concerning "two most excellent men, who became so attached to each other that they actually got married" (Longstreet 188), and although the women light their pipes and sit around the fire until late in the night, their talking never rises above the level of what one of them calls "an old woman's chat" (Longstreet 196). Although they may look like men, engaging in pipe smoking and late-night conversation, the women are innocents on the subject of cross-dressing, recalling women who "dress'd in men's clothes" and followed their true loves "to the wars," and one of them concludes that "men don't like to marry gals that take on that way" (Longstreet 191). They miss the humorous potential of their own material; they prove themselves incapable of sustaining the line of a narrative longer than a brief comment or two; they suggest that their only expertise lies in the realm of herbal remedies; and throughout, they demonstrate the general inability of women to be storytellers.

James M. Cox suggests, with irony, that in the final "showdown" between Stowe and the frontier humorists, Stowe "wins"; that in Uncle Tom's Cabin, she turns the bear hunt characteristic of much of southern and frontier humor into a man hunt; and that she "killed" the humorists by raising the question of serious moral culture. He claims that he does not wish to "put down Mrs. Stowe" but argues that it was ultimately Samuel Clemens who found the form of genius for the materials of native American humor ("Humor" 591-92). It is difficult to imagine how Stowe or any other woman writer of the 1830s and 1840s could have written the kind of American humor Cox refers to here, since in order to do so she would have had to achieve that humor at women's expense and ironically agree to take only masculine culture, with its sport, jests, frolics, and put-downs, seriously.17 Cox views Clemens as the product of the implicit conflict between Stowe and the Old Southwest humorists, implying that the local color school of American fiction, including Bret Harte and Hamlin Garland, emerged from the same origins as Old Southwest humor.18 For Cox, Stowe and Longstreet appear to sketch alternative directions in American fiction, and Hall's sketches in Georgia Scenes (if not Baldwin's) support this point. Hall's narratives create further variations on the theme of masculine dominance, serve to reify the distinctions between men and women characteristic of "separate spheres," and contribute to dividing early-nineteenth-century American fiction along the lines of humor at others' expense, exemplified by Old Southwest and local color "schools," and empathy for others, in the tradition of literary regionalism, primarily exemplified by women writers.19

With the publication of "A New England Sketch" or "Uncle Lot," Stowe joined an emerging group of women who had begun to publish in magazines—Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Sedgwick, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, among others—and who, by their very success as publishing authors, underscored the issue of gender in nineteenth-century literary culture. In her delineation of woman's fiction, however, Nine Baym suggests that Stowe's interests in slavery and religion were "issues transcending gender" and that they "set her apart from the other American women writing fiction in her day" (15). Stowe certainly knew Sedgwick's A New England Tale (1822), the novel Baym credits with inaugurating the genre of woman's fiction; Sklar notes that it had created controversy within the Beecher family and that Catharine in particular had attacked Sedgwick, a convert to Unitarianism, as having betrayed her social position and the Calvinist tradition (44-45). It was perhaps in recognition of Sedgwick as well as an attempt to distance herself from the controversy that led Stowe to change the title of "A New England Sketch" to "Uncle Lot." Yet if Stowe chooses not to model herself on Sedgwick, more is at stake than a defense of her family's social standing and theological allegiance; she also chooses not to write in the formal tradition of Sedgwick. Instead, she raises questions of region that Sedgwick, despite the regional flavor of her title, does not address.20 Stowe's interests in "Uncle Lot" suggest that as early as 1834 there existed the possibility that women would create not a single major tradition but two—women's fiction and regionalism—that would develop independently of each other, yet share some common themes, concerns, and influences. Thus, while Stowe responds to Irving in "Uncle Lot," she also drew her inspiration from her female contemporaries. Critics have identified several works by women with the roots of the regional tradition in American fiction, in particular Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Sketch of Connecticut. Forty Years Since (1824), Sarah Josepha Hale, Northwood: A Tale of New England (1827), Eliza Buckminster Lee, Sketches of a New-England Village in the Last Century (1838), and Caroline Kirkland, A New Home—Who'll Follow?; or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839), in addition to Sedgwick's A New England Tale.21



Best known for her three books that illuminate a distinct phase of American settlement of the West, A New Home—Who'll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839), Forest Life (1842), and Western Clearings (1845), Caroline M. Kirkland established a reputation as an energetic and opinionated exponent of the woman's view of an era dominated by male writers. While most of her fellow women writers of the period were specializing in fiction, Kirkland preferred the realm of literary journalism, contributing numerous articles to periodicals and working as a magazine editor—all during a time when women were rarely involved in the business end of publishing. Though her work, like that of many other antebellum American women writers, was labeled "sentimental" and dismissed by early scholars, her realism as and her simple, frank style earned praise and attention from later scholars.

Kirkland was born Caroline Matilda Stansbury in New York City. She attended a Quaker school and began teaching in Clinton, New York. In the late 1820s, she married William Kirkland, and with him founded a girls' school near Utica, New York. In 1835, the Kirklands moved to Detroit, where together they headed the Detroit Female Seminary. In 1837 they purchased eight hundred acres of land sixty miles west of Detroit, where they founded the village of Pinckney—the village that would serve as the model for Kirkland's town of Montacute in A New Home. The Kirklands returned to New York City in 1843, and following William's death in 1846 Kirkland earned money through teaching and writing, serving as editor of the Union Magazine of Literature and Art until 1850. Among many other literary achievements, Kirkland compiled three collections of her magazine articles, The Evening Book (1852), A Book for the Home Circle (1853), and Autumn Hours (1854).

Stowe herself, in The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), would bring female characters and values into the center of a regional novel. In this book in particular, Stowe demonstrates the influence of Sigourney, who published the memoir Sketch of Connecticut in Hartford the same year thirteen-yearold Harriet Beecher moved there to become a student at her sister Catharine's Hartford Female Seminary.22 In Sketch of Connecticut, Madam L. tells Farmer Larkin, a regional character who makes a brief appearance, that she doesn't recollect the names of his children. He replies, "It's no wonder that ye don't Ma'am, there's such a neest on 'em. They're as thick as hops round the fire this winter. There's Roxey and Reuey, they're next to Tim, and look like twins. They pick the wool, and card tow, and wind quills, and knit stockins and mittins for the fokes in the house; and I've brought some down with me to day, to see if they'll buy 'em to the marchants' shops, and let 'em have a couple o' leetle small shawls" (Sigourney 118). This passage provides evidence that Stowe had read Sketch of Connecticut before she began The Pearl of Orr's Island, for she names her own characters Roxy and Ruey in that novel after the daughters of Farmer Larkin. The model Sigourney created in her New England farmer with his Connecticut speech rhythms also served to influence Stowe's own portrait of Uncle Lot, the one character in her first sketch who speaks in dialect. In her analysis of Sketch of Connecticut, Sandra A. Zagarell argues that Sigourney's writing "was quite directly concerned with the foundations and organization of public life," and that both she and Sedgwick (in Hope Leslie [1827]) "addressed a major political topic of the day, the nature of the American nation" ("Expanding" 225). Thus Sigourney becomes a model for Stowe in two ways: she offers regional characters for Stowe's later meditation and expansion in "Uncle Lot" and The Pearl of Orr's Island, and she also confirms for Stowe that women have an inalienable claim to an evolving American political and cultural vision. Sigourney explores, as Stowe would later do, the possibilities of literary authority for women.

"Uncle Lot," unlike A New England Tale, does not inaugurate a genre. Regionalism, in contrast to woman's fiction, begins inchoately, reflecting uncertainty on the part of both male and female writers in the 1830s concerning the ways in which the gender of the author might inscribe the formal concerns of the work. For by the 1830s the direction of critical judgment concerning women writers, though clearly forming, was not yet set. Stowe's vision of Uncle Lot as the "settest crittur you ever saw" and the challenge she sets her hero to convert Uncle Lot to the expression of feeling establishes her perspicacity in implicitly predicting that gender itself would remain a "chestnut burr" within American culture, that is, a briery issue difficult to open but yet containing its own reward. Genre is also a "chestnut burr" in the emerging world of "separate spheres."23 What Stowe begins to explore in the regionalism of "Uncle Lot" is the possibility that the limits of genre can indeed be transformed or, to use a word more in keeping with the ideology of "woman's sphere," "converted" to the cultural work of developing a form for women's narrative voice.


  1. Numerous scholars and critics are working to define the tradition of regionalism and to explicate its features and significance. Most scholars link regionalism with the development of the fictional sketch in nineteenth-century American literature. See Jeffrey Rubin Dorsky for a discussion of Irving's development of the sketch form. See also Sandra Zagarell, "Narrative of Community: The Identification of a Genre," in which she identifies a "department of literature" she terms "narrative of community" and includes numerous American writers often described as regional in this "department." See also Josephine Donovan, New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition; Perry D. Westbrook, Acres of Flint: Writers of Rural New England, 1870-1900 and The New England Town in Fact and Fiction; and introductory essays on regional writers in Elizabeth Ammons, ed., "Introduction"; Judith Fetterley, ed., "Introduction"; and Marjorie Pryse, ed., "Introduction," Stories from the Country of Lost Borders; see also critical essays on Cary, Cooke, and Stowe in Fetterley, ed., Provisions: A Reader from 19th-Century American Women; see also Pryse, "Introduction," The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories; and Pryse, ed., Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Lawrence Buell notes some disagreement with the tendency of what he calls the "feminist revisionary scholarship" to identify the regionalist tradition as female. In his own work, he examines regional representation in American literature, arguably a broader survey but one which does not locate itself within the boundaries of prose fiction, although he does acknowledge that "the staple of regional prose, however, continued to be the short sketch or tale" (296). In Buell's survey of the field of regional representation, he finds that it "looks considerably more androgynous once we survey the whole panoply … So although I agree that the conception of social reality that underlay New England regional poetry and prose lent itself to feminist appropriation and became, in the postwar era, increasingly a woman's construct,… provincial literary iconography [is] a project in which writers of the two sexes participated together" (302-03). See Louis Renza for a discussion of the ways "minor literature" (such as regionalism) in Jewett demonstrates pressures to become "major literature," and see Richard Brodhead for "a different account of the regionalist genre from what feminist studies have proposed" (Cultures 144).
  2. See Nancy Cott. She locates the origins of nineteenth-century American feminism within the decade of the 1830s and asserts that the development of feminism actually depended on the ideology of "woman's sphere."
  3. Stowe herself collected "Uncle Lot," originally titled "A New England Sketch," in The Mayflower, or Sketches of the Descendents of the Pilgrim (1843), a work with a limited circulation and out of print by 1855. Following the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the collection was reissued, with additional sketches, and this collection then became part of the Riverside Edition of Stowe's works. However, the sketch has not appeared in anthologies of American literature and remains unknown except by Stowe scholars. John Adams included the sketch in his edition of Stowe's work (see Adams, ed., Regional Sketches: New England and Florida), and the sketch appears in Fetterley and Pryse, eds., American Women Regionalists 1850-1910.
  4. For further explication of the significance of the silencing of Dame Van Winkle, see Fetterley, The Resisting Reader 1-11.
  5. For a general discussion of gender unease in early-nineteenth-century American culture and the relationship between the minister and culture, see Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, although Douglas's work has been superseded by others. See in particular Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. For an argument that manhood produces its own anxiety for nineteenth-century writers, see David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance.
  6. Railton discusses the "psychic underside" of early-nineteenth-century American men's public selves and suggests that "it reveals their instinctual doubts about the sacrifices that the role of gentleman in a democracy exacted of them" (102).
  7. See also John Seelye, "Root and Branch: Washington Irving and American Humor." Buell notes that "probably the single most important American prose work in teaching native writers to exploit regional material for literary purposes was Washington Irving's The Sketch-Book" (294).
  8. Biographical evidence suggests that Harriet Beecher was writing with her father as well as with Washington Irving in mind. Although she initially called her most interesting character in "A New England Sketch" Uncle Timothy Griswold, changing his name when the story reappeared as "Uncle Lot" in The Mayflower, there would have been no confusion in the Beecher family that "Uncle Tim" was based on Harriet's father Lyman's Uncle Lot Benton. Lyman Beecher's mother had died two days after his birth, he had been raised by a childless aunt and uncle instead of in his father's household, and he had apparently entertained his own children with numerous tales about his childhood with Uncle Lot (Rugoff 4, 219). Thus James Benton, who becomes the "adopted" son of Lot Griswold in the sketch, serves as Harriet's portrait of her father as a young man. By choosing to write a sketch based on her father's own tales from childhood, to become like Lyman Beecher a storyteller, Harriet implicitly expressed her desire to model herself on her father, but she carefully disclaimed the ambitiousness of this desire, describing her work, in a letter to her brother George, as "a little bit of a love sketch …, a contemptible little affair" (Boydston, Kelley, and Margolis 62). Thus we can see her hiding behind the "love sketch" as a story more suitable than others a woman might tell, even though her interest in conversion in the sketch clearly identifies her as the daughter of Lyman Beecher, the Congregational minister known in the early 1800s for his power as a revivalist and the man who produced seven sons, all of whom became ministers.
  9. Although the senior Beecher had definite views about gender differences, often lamenting that Harriet, with her intelligence, had not been born a boy and therefore a potential minister, he appears to have made no distinctions between young men's and young women's potential for experiencing conversion, and Lyman Beecher taught both daughters and sons that conversion involved a "private change of heart" rather than merely a social and public acknowledgment of belief (Sklar 27).
  10. In collecting "Uncle Lot" for The Mayflower, Stowe changed the original wording of Grace's closing lines. In "A New England Sketch," Grace tells her father, "I'm used to authority in these days" (191). The change, with its echo of biblical usage, serves to reinforce Grace's moral authority to speak.
  11. Hall appears early in the history of the Beecher family's move to Cincinnati. Prior to the publication of "Uncle Lot," Hall's Western Monthly Magazine had published an essay titled "Modern Uses of Language," signed "B," and attributed to Catharine although written by Harriet (Boydston, Kelley, and Margolis 50-51). Sklar notes that Catharine viewed the Western Monthly Magazine as a potential outlet for her educational ideas, and that she included its editor James Hall among the trustees for the Western Female Institute, the school she opened in Cincinnati (110). Hall continued as a friend of the Beechers until he engaged in a defense of Roman Catholics in open conflict with Lyman Beecher's position on Catholicism, with the result that the Western Monthly Magazine lost its influential supporters and suffered financial failure, and Hall retired into banking (Flanagan 66-67).
  12. Hall describes "Pappy" as a "humourist" who "would sit for hours scraping upon his violin, singing catches, or relating merry and marvellous tales" (182).
  13. Ironically, in Flanagan's biography of James Hall, he writes that "Hall sketched women infrequently and on the whole rather badly" (143).
  14. Caroline Kirkland may have been viewed as an exception; she was one of the few women, if not the only one, whom Porter published in The Spirit of the Times; Porter reprinted Kirkland, but she did not contribute original material (Yates 60).
  15. William Tappan Thompson collected his Major Jones letters in 1843 as Major Jones's Courtship, the same year Stowe collected her own sketches in The Mayflower.
  16. Alone among the major Southwest humorists, Longstreet did not publish his work in the Spirit of the Times (Blair 85).
  17. See Blair's discussion of early American humor, especially 18-19.
  18. Guttman terms "Sleepy Hollow" "a prefiguration of the tradition of Mark Twain and the frontier humorists" (171).
  19. After Augustus Baldwin Longstreet graduated from Yale in 1813, he entered law school in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he attended sermons by the Reverend Lyman Beecher and visited in the Beecher home. "He also found time to visit Miss Pierce's School for Young Ladies, where he frequently regaled the young women with his droll accounts of rural Georgia in his 'country boy' pose. His first practice as a raconteur began during the Connecticut years" (King, Augustus 12), with women, and likely the Beecher family, as his audience. The young Harriet would not have directly benefited from hearing Longstreet's stories (she would have been hardly three years old), and yet it is one of the delightful coincidences of literary history that the two writers who would each begin to develop alternative possibilities for the treatment of American materials that Irving sets out in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"—Longstreet with his southern humor and male world of sporting stories, Stowe with the "sleepy" regionalism of "Uncle Lot"—would both have "met" in Litchfield, Connecticut.
  20. Buell terms A New-England Tale "really more an expose than an exposition of provincial village culture, too heavily committed to a Cinderella plot … and anti-Calvinist satire … to accomplish much by way of regional mimesis" (295).
  21. See discussions of Hale and Sedgwick in Nina Baym, Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America 1820-1870; see discussions of Sigourney and Sedgwick in Sandra A. Zagarell, "Expanding 'America': Lydia Sigourney's Sketch of Connecticut, Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie."
  22. John Adams in Harriet Beecher Stowe terms Sketch "a true forerunner of Mrs. Stowe's work" (31). As an adolescent, Harriet met, knew, and very likely read Sigourney, her sister's dear friend in Hartford.
  23. Tompkins suggests that even Hawthorne, in some of his earliest sketches collected in Twice-Told Tales (1837) ("Little Annie's Ramble," "A Rill from the Town Pump," "Sunday at Home," and "Sights from a Steeple"), began as a "sentimental author" long before he would become the genius of the American romance and damn the "scribbling women" (10-18). Buell focuses on the iconographic representation of region rather than the relationship between regional representation and genre; he does observe that "the staple of regional prose, however, continued to be the short sketch or tale" (296).


SOURCE: Sizer, Lyde Cullen. "Introduction: My Sphere Rounds Out: Northern Women and the Written War, 1850-1872." In The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, pp. 1-15. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

In the following essay, Sizer argues that controversies leading to and following the American Civil War encouraged many women authors from the North to reject their exclusion from public affairs and to use their writings to influence public opinion.

And I shall not confine myself to my sphere. I hate my sphere. I like everything that is outside of it,—or, better still, my sphere rounds out into undefined space. I was born into the whole world. I am monarch of all I survey.

—Gail Hamilton (Mary Abigail Dodge), Skirmishes and Sketches (1865)

The start of the Civil War found Chicagoan Mary Livermore in Boston tending her sick father. "It was a time of extreme and unconcealed anxiety," she wrote in 1889, when "the daily papers teemed with the dreary records of secession." Nevertheless, she and her father were amazed and heartened at Boston's swift response, and this minister's wife and mother of two joined the swelling tide of activism. "If it be a question of the supremacy of freedom or slavery underlying this war," she remembered thinking, "then I pray God it may be settled now, by us, and not be left to our children. And oh that I may be a hand, a foot, an eye, a voice, an influence, on the side of freedom and my country!"1 Livermore's memoirs, which chronicled her work in the U.S. Sanitary Commission, testified to the breadth and depth of her contribution to the Union cause.2 The war, for her, was a life-changing event, impacting on her views, her work, and her subsequent life. Given the dramatic quality of this change, Livermore was not so much representative as suggestive of the war's transformative possibility for writers and actors alike.

Writing of Livermore and others in 1882, the authors of the History of Woman Suffrage confidently asserted that the Civil War had "created a revolution in woman herself, as important in its results as the changed condition of the former slaves, and this silent influence is still busy." This revolution occurred after men left for the battle-field, when "new channels of industry were opened to [women], the value and control of money learned, thought upon political questions compelled, and a desire for their own personal, individual liberty intensified." The history of the war, they further argued, "which has never yet been truly written—is full of heroism in which woman is the central figure."3

Such celebrations of women's achievements in wartime began with the first shots at Fort Sumter and had become the sentimental norm by the 1880s and 1890s. Among the writers of this alternative history of the war there was agreement: "woman" had offered "a hand, a foot, an eye, a voice, an influence, on the side of freedom and [her] country," and this offering had created "a revolution in woman herself." The majority of the writers on the subject, with some important exceptions, were middle-class white women primarily from the Northeast.4 The texts, illustrations, and narratives, and through them the explanations of the war's meaning they offered to the public and to posterity, filled popular magazines, pamphlets, autobiographies, and novels throughout the war period to the 1870s, when they almost entirely disappeared until a new flowering returned in the 1880s.

For all the celebration of women's participation and its corresponding emancipatory effect, however, a few women writers described the actual consequences of the war in grim terms. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, who came of age as a writer during the war, perhaps more accurately captured its meaning when she remembered in her 1897 autobiography a country "dark with sorrowing women."5 In the North alone 320,000 men were killed, and thousands more were maimed or died later from wounds or illness brought home from the front. It was unlikely that any woman was without a relative, friend, or acquaintance lost to the war.

These were not only emotional costs. The war created widows but few jobs to help them survive. As historian J. Matthew Gallman puts it, this was no "earlier generation of 'Rosie the Riveters' moving into new branches of heavy industry"; those jobs open to women tended to be female defined, low paying and too few, sought by desperate women who were compelled by their circumstances to take lower and lower wages or compensation. Without savings, and even with them, many women had to depend on kin and neighbors to support themselves and their children. The number of children in New York City almshouses alone, Gallman reports, "jumped by 300 percent during the war."6 Northern wartime newspapers regularly included stories, both actual and fictional, of women who had been found starving and ill, their soldier husbands killed in the war or simply unable to support them.

Many women faced a profoundly difficult postwar life. African American women, if freed from bondage by the war's end, soon were enmeshed in economic peonage in the South and squeezed by the lack of economic opportunity in the North, often limiting them solely to demeaning and low-paying domestic work.7 Women's suffrage organizers, hopeful that the war would prove a revolution in man as well as woman, hoped in vain. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed by the states in 1870, explicitly included only African American men as new voters despite women's patriotic efforts throughout the war.8

The public social conventions of womanhood were not discernibly loosened in the decades that followed; in fact, the reverse may be true. White middle-class women were more likely to teach in high schools, clerk for the government, and nurse in hospitals after the war, but these gains were in many cases won before the war, or represented only a small advance overall for women seeking employment. Greater numbers of women flocked to the factories of the postwar North, but it is likely this would have happened despite any wartime advances. In any case, conditions in many places worsened as Yankee workers were replaced with immigrants.9

It is true that some women who had participated in the war went on to create careers for themselves afterward—Mary Livermore, for example, became a lecturer and her family's main source of income, while Clara Barton founded the Red Cross—yet these were the exceptions. The rule remained: women in the mid-nineteenth century had few options for employment or for public or political power. If the war had produced a revolution in "woman's sense of herself," it had produced no immediate corresponding revolution in society or in material conditions. Why, then, the widespread incantations of the war's transformative meaning?

One can begin to understand the gap between public rhetoric and social reality by considering that the Civil War was a time when middle-class women came to believe that they had an acknowledged stake in a national ordeal of overwhelming importance, a personal stake in national politics. By the end of the war, many believed they had a right to a place in the history books, and they continued to believe this even after they became aware that their stories might never be written by the male scholars of the war. Despite economic and social reversals, despite the constricting fabric of conventional society, a personal and cultural vision of possibility evolved and was remembered. Although it was necessarily a limited and constructed vision, it was no less real for that.

The contours of this vision of woman's role in society during wartime emerged early in the newspapers, magazines, and novels of the war period. This written and public women's war became the site for cultural struggle over the meaning of the many divisions in Northern society. Within the dominant ideology of separate spheres, which prescribed appropriate behavior for both women and men, Northern women writers debated, contested, and confirmed their understanding of their role in wartime, as well as in national society, in more general terms. In the literary mass market they actively engaged in what Jane Tompkins calls "cultural" and Mary Poovey calls "ideological" work, finding an appropriate place of power and autonomy despite societal limitations.10 Here they acted in their own arena of cultural politics, remaking and interpreting societal norms to achieve their own ends.

The work of women writers during the Civil War era was intended to move their readers: to shore up traditional ideas, to rearrange them, or to change them altogether. This idea, that minds can be worked upon by words, stories, and images, was related to the prewar insistence upon the power of moral suasion. It represented the ongoing power of the concept for middle-class women readers in the North, which, given an expanded literate public, was quite an audience. This work was emphatically political—meaning that it participated in the power relations in society—if it was rarely directly partisan: it entered a terrain of national concern, offering an interpretation of the nation's needs and fears.11

This effort toward creating a consensus—what I call a rhetoric of unity—was a common aspiration of Northern women writers during the 1850s. It was a claiming of a common purpose as the sections firmly defined themselves against each other: to wage a war successfully they had to see themselves in some sense as fundamentally different. In the early war years, this work was crucial to the Union effort to motivate a fractured populace to concerted effort. This rhetoric of unity, most successful in 1861 and early 1862, was no longer as effective by midwar, given the strains of the conflict. Afterward, women (and men) again adopted it for varying political purposes and in varying ways, using it largely to center the nation around ascendant middle-class capitalist values.

Political Work

Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion through language, only works when it draws upon a powerful common longing; without such longing, it is utterly ineffectual. The war formally began after a decade in which Northern women expressed a growing desire to be respected, understood, and valued by their society for their public as well as their private opinions.12 This effort toward meaningfulness and a new form of self-respect was also in many cases a drive toward greater class and racial control. It represented an effort to define a universal womanhood that could provide both credibility and power to women, yet it defined women in ways that would most—or only—benefit the middle-class whites for whom such a definition was possible.

The wartime and the postwar period drew special attention to men specifically and to gender arrangements generally. Such a phenomenon was not unique to the Civil War. War, of course, tends to dramatize societal understandings of gender difference.13 As political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain argues, "[T]o men's wars, women are back-drop.…Women's involvement in war seems to us … inferential, located somewhere offstage if war is playing."14 For women struggling to express a political voice, the war posed immediate and real challenges, even as it created opportunities.

In Civil War stories written by women, it was almost always a woman who played what the authors of History of Woman Suffrage later called the "central figure." Instead of accepting their offstage relation to war, they described the war's crucial events as happening where they were located, be it at home well away from the fighting, in a hospital in Washington, D.C., or on the battlefield itself.15 And as Elshtain argues, "[T]o tell the tale gives power to the teller; he or she is implicated in the narrative and honored as a risk taker, for such one must be to tell this story." Women gained new social power in telling such stories.

Moreover, these stories have particular meaning for the culture, both now and then. In moments of national definition, trauma, and change, the power of the teller increases exponentially. "[S]ocieties are, in some sense, the sum total of their 'war stories': one can't think, for example, of the American story without the Civil War, for that war structured identities that are continually rein-scribed."16 If the Civil War was, as Shelby Foote suggested in Ken Burns's documentary film series The Civil War, the "crossroads of our being," how did women imagine that crossroads?

The tools of contemporary cultural theory can help the historian reconstruct the diverse meanings that once resided at this imaginative crossroads. The first step in this process is to recognize the complexity, even the ambiguity, of what may now seem to be simple texts. The elegies scattered throughout mainstream newspapers, as sentimental and lachrymose as they tended to be, had political implications, however muddled. As theorist Stuart Hall writes, "Popular culture is one of the sites where … [a] struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged; it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance."17 This culture of the powerful was not only capitalism but also the accepted gender conventions of society, and the two were at times in conflict. Women's writings revealed a constant tension between "consent and resistance" to that society.18

Within the stories, poems, and narratives of the war, as well as within this rhetoric of unity itself, there was no real political consistency. That this would be true, however, is consistent with much popular or mass culture at that time and since. Writing of another "contested terrain," that of the nineteenth-century dime novels, historian Michael Denning argues that "these stories, which are products of the culture industry—'popular,' 'mass,' or 'commercial' culture—can be understood neither as forms of deception, manipulation, and social control nor as expressions of a genuine people's culture, opposing and resisting the dominant culture. Rather they are best seen as a contested terrain, a field of cultural conflict where signs with wide appeal and resonance take on contradictory disguises and are spoken in contrary accents."19 In the stories of wartime women, conventional and transgressive messages spar even within the same text, where a yearning for self-expression is coupled with a rhetoric of unity that flattens difference. Rather than opposing the dominant culture and its ideologies of womanhood, writers manipulated those ideologies, first one way and then another, along a spectrum of cultural politics contained within accepted bounds.

These political negotiations took place in a variety of cultural forms, including poems, stories, novels, narratives, essays, and letters to the editor. None of these forms ipso facto established a singular meaning. As historian George Lipsitz persuasively argues, genre implies no inherent message. "Popular culture has no fixed forms," he writes, "individual artifacts of popular culture have no fixed meanings: it is impossible to say whether any one combination of sounds or set of images or grouping of words innately expresses one unified political position."20 Poems and short stories, domestic and realist novels, narratives and essays all demonstrated ideas in conflict rather than particular visions in themselves.

Lipsitz's work also helps explain the complicated relationship between cultural forms and politics. In some sense, of course, all writing is inherently political: it expresses a set of assumptions, a viewpoint or viewpoints, each of which can be analyzed in terms of political ideology and meaning.21 "Culture," Lipsitz argues, "can seem like a substitute for politics, a way of posing only imaginary solutions to real problems, but under other circumstances culture can become a rehearsal for politics, trying out values and beliefs permissible in art but forbidden in social life."22 This concept of cultural expression as political rehearsal is central to understanding what women undertook in writing about the Civil War. In some instances, this approach was practiced explicitly; in other instances, it was practiced covertly.23 In all these cases, women revealed through their cultural work their political understanding of society. They "tr[ied] out beliefs and values" that would be impermissible in stark unadulterated form—in Congress, for example—with a woman speaker.24

What I identify as the political work of women, then, was neither direct, nor purely radical or conservative, nor consistent in its messages, nor specific to a genre. Rarely in the North did any true consensus hold, even in the edited arena of public writing. For all that, however, certain patterns emerged, if only in the breach. Women writers used the opportunity to speak in the pages of literary magazines, political and religious newspapers, novels and stories, to change the way the nation saw the task it was undertaking. They wrote out of a collective longing for a meaningful place in the polity, even if it meant denying a similar place to another woman. This was their political work.

Separate Spheres Ideology

In order for women to write publicly, they had to begin with some obeisance to separate spheres ideology, whether or not that ideology had any material relevance to their lives. Whatever concerns beyond the limits or possibilities of this ideology they might hold—about the conditions of the working class, about the indolence of the rich, about the baleful influence of the Slave Power, about racial stereotypes, or about religious adherence among soldiers far from home—were refracted through an apologia for speaking or writing for the public.

Two ubiquitous themes emerged during the prewar years in the public writing of women, although they were never agreed upon. The first of these was slavery, and, after 1863, race. Throughout the war, an important minority of women writers insisted that the moral meaning of the war could only be the end to slavery, and that women were appropriately called upon to enter politics and to make that happen as the natural arbiters of morality. A few African American women, Charlotte Forten and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper among them, wrote both with and against the grain of gender convention to affirm and interpret their roles as women and as African Americans in white society. Yet the majority of writers on issues of slavery and race at this time were white, and their varying political perspectives shaped their understanding of the meaning and urgency of emancipation.

Secondly, a new recognition of class difference and the limits of gender solidarity emerged during the late 1850s. This strengthened throughout the war, particularly after 1863. Not surprisingly, class issues took on new relevance for middle-class women concerned about national unity as well as eager to establish a vision of universal womanhood. Most ended the war with a stronger sense of the middle-class values they deemed most crucial to the nation's recovery, thereby criticizing both ruling-class and working-class women. For a few major young writers these distinctions were ones to overcome. Class injustices became the defining problem in their writing during and especially after the war, heralding a new movement into the social protest novel of the 1870s and 1880s.25

With few exceptions, all of these themes were explored by Northern middle-class women within an overarching framework of separate spheres ideology. Women described the world in terms of complementary arenas of power, some of which were seen as possibly permeable (class and, to varying extents, gender) and others of which were not (race). This ideological construct, which grew in influence with the shifts in economic life in New England and the Northwest in the early years of the century, had solidified as the central social matrix of the emerging Protestant middle class by the 1830s. Within this construct men and women were understood to occupy distinct social spaces.26 Men were to dominate and control a public "sphere," while women were to supervise and inhabit a private "sphere." Although the ideology implied parity, there was an assumed hierarchy of importance and power: public life was where change happened and was the arena of history. Private life, by contrast, was a timeless arena of domesticity and piety, where women took on a familial rather than individual identity. Men made history; women made families.27

By the early 1850s, however, the social arrangements that limited women were under challenge. In 1848 a group of women gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, to protest the legal, political, and societal liabilities of womanhood. Despite public ridicule, they continued to meet, give lectures, and organize petitions throughout the 1850s. Other reformers, some of whom were connected to this movement, published magazines, including the Una and Sibyl, directed toward reform of conventional social norms.

A few individual writers questioned separate sphere ideology explicitly. "Men and Women," an essay published in the National Era in 1859, was an ironic but nonetheless critical piece of this literature. In it, Mary Abigail Dodge, or Gail Hamilton, laughingly scorned the tired "platitudes" concerning "woman's opportunities for self-sacrifice, moral heroism, silent influence, might of love, and all that cut-and-dried woman's-sphereism." Give women rubber boots to walk in the rain, take away their constricting clothes (and, by implication, codes), she wrote, and free them from themselves, and you will give them more power than any platitudes. Her mother, it seemed, was shocked by her writing and the criticism it generated. In a private letter, Dodge was anything but conciliatory and remained frank about her purposes as a writer. "I wish you to understand that if I write much I shall probably meet with a great deal of opposition," she wrote, "for I shall express views which run counter to popular conviction, so if you faint now, you will have a catalepsy by and by when worst comes to worst."28

As Dodge implied, popular conviction supported separate sphere ideology. In a typical letter to the editor of the New York Ledger in 1860, for example, "Gula Meredith" wrote of "Woman's True Position" in no uncertain terms. "Woman can best understand woman's nature," she wrote, "and it is against our nature as against our reason to be seen in the Pulpit, at the Bar or the Polls. Woman's sphere is to elevate, to purify, to teach, and her empire is home."29 Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular Godey's Ladies Book, would surely have agreed.

The ideology of separate spheres was understood and applied in widely divergent ways, however. Dodge said as much in "A Spasm of Sense," an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly during the war. "But without any suspicious lunges into that dubious region which lies outside of woman's universally acknowledged 'sphere' (a blight rest upon that word!)," she wrote ironically, "there is within the pale, within the boundary-line which the most conservative never dreamed of questioning, room for a great divergence of ideas."30 Dodge was right: what any study of the North from the 1850s to the 1870s reveals is a divergence of ideas, yet ideas still limited by boundary lines.

Tangled within separate sphere ideology were assumed ideologies of class and race. As with gender, there was an implied hierarchy of value, even at the same time that middle-class white women proclaimed a universal womanhood. For example, when Gula Meredith argued that women could only work in professions that kept them largely in the home, she excluded many women even while professing to speak for all.

The ideology of separate spheres was intimately connected with its material and economic context. Meant to explain and justify the new lives of women in an industrializing region, separate spheres played a crucial part in middle-class formation.31 The ideology itself allowed for a standardization of domestic values controlled by the middle class, which Catharine Beecher in her 1841 Treatise on Domestic Economy so clearly understood.32 As historian Christine Stansell argues, "Within the propertied classes, women constituted themselves the moral guardians of their families and their nation, offsetting some of the inherited liabilities of their sex. Laboring women were less fortunate."33 That middle-class women owed their position to fortune rather than to virtue went unacknowledged by most of the women writers of the period. To acknowledge that notion, of course, would be to undercut their claims to universal moral authority.

By writing on issues of great national concern and by professing to speak for all women, middle-class white women writers were continuing the work of class formation, the political work central to their understanding of the war. Their stories, essays, and narratives constructed an appropriate standard of behavior meant to create and sustain national unity. At the same time, these women were protecting their own claim to legitimacy and respectability despite their stepping, if only with their words, into a public and, by implication, a political arena.

The ideology of separate spheres also assumed whiteness. In their writing, white women rarely if ever extended their assumptions to encompass black women, who were by implication thought literally beyond the pale of respectable womanhood.34 At the same time, antislavery writers insisted that a natural sense of universal womanhood meant a shared sisterhood, albeit a sister-hood of unequals. As with gender and class, here was an implied and unquestioned hierarchy. White middle-class women were to succor their bereaved and wronged sisters, both African American and white working class, and thereby give themselves power and legitimacy. This rhetoric of unity was not democratic, despite its claim to a kind of democracy.

African American women were well aware of the racial limitations of the ideology of separate spheres. As historian James Horton has shown, the Northern antebellum African American community in Philadelphia found it impossible to accommodate to this ideology on a daily basis. With remunerative labor for African American men severely limited, and that for women generally domestic and thus outside the home, the result was an added yoke of oppression.35 Literary historian Hazel Carby has argued that African American women explicitly challenged the ideology of separate spheres by reconstructing a new vision of womanhood that affirmed their racial community.36 African American women exposed the fortune and privilege that allowed white middle-class women their claims of moral authority, and claimed their own moral authority through their experience of injustice.

The political work of Northern women writers, white or African American, rich or poor, was in writing an alternative history and narrative of the war. This story was written through a matrix of gender, class, and racial assumptions. If the white mainstream ideology of separate spheres was not broken by the war, at the end of the war it was severely bent and adjusted; its reimposition in the postwar years, enabled by a celebratory story of patriotic women now eager to return to domesticity, was never complete. The public war dialogue on women, African American slavery, and class demonstrated both the ideology's inherent elasticity and its clear limitations. Yet for many the war served as a transformative moment, a revolution in the understanding of woman herself.

In some sense, women—other than those few hundred that historians estimate cross-dressed and fought as men—could never truly understand what Walt Whitman called the "real war."37 (Nor could he, never having faced combat.) In letters home, North and South, soldiers reiterated again and again how impossible the job of translating the horror and chaos was, even as they kept trying to do just that.38 The reasons Union soldiers gave to their kin and friends for fighting, despite that horror, were in general not those women offered in letters or—what is under scrutiny here—more public documents. This was not, in general, because of an acknowledged "timorous nature," as historian James M. McPherson finds one post-war novel suggesting; women publicly described their work during wartime as requiring enormous courage, if only the courage to let their loved ones live up to their expressed ideals.39

Women, these sources suggest, had a complicated relationship to the ideals of republicanism that both motivated men to fight and sustained men even through the dark endless days of the midwar and the grueling bloodbaths of 1864. In many ways women clearly participated in the value systems expressed by the war-torn North, and they wondered publicly whether the North could sustain the character necessary for republicanism. Their work celebrated sacrifice, and often claimed that such sacrifice was necessary to reestablish virtue in a wavering nation.40 In a sense, white middle-class women's effort to create a rhetoric of unity was part of a larger national effort toward consensus. As historian Earl J. Hess argues, "Northerners … stressed the viability of free government, seeing proof that ideological consensus could unite individualistic people in a common cause, focus their energy on a central purpose, and give them the motivation and strength to endure."41 Particularly for women like Lydia Maria Child, Jane Swisshelm, Mary Abigail Dodge, and others trained (or self-taught) in the tradition of republicanism and liberalism, these were powerfully motivating ideas.

Other women did not demonstrate the same confidence in the power of republicanism, liberty, or the belief in progress to sustain them. Women's relationship to republicanism was uneasy, given their subordinate status within it: as dependents, at least ideologically, their voices were not meant to be heard in a national public context, just as their political ideas, represented by the vote, were not accepted. Similarly, the ideology of individualism, held in tension with republicanism, was problematic as well. Embraced by some, it was emphatically rejected by others as a kind of dismissal of the connections and responsibilities of family and community. As a result, women had diverging positions on the reigning ideologies supporting the Union war effort, even as they claimed a public space in the discussion of the war's necessity and purpose.

This is not to say that Northern women were not patriotic—many, given their work, sacrifice, and words, decidedly were—but their relationship to war, fought at a distance, claiming family members to whom they were deeply committed, and based on an ideological system within which they fit at times poorly, was distinct from men's. For women there seemed to be no ruling consensus on the meaning of Union, or on the cause of the strife. For many of them—with crucial exceptions—the question was not always how to justify the sacrifice but how to endure it.

That uneasy relationship to the national struggle can help explain women's constant reference to their "place": even to speak in support of the ideological meaning of the war effort was to disturb its internal logic, and yet not to intervene in the crisis consuming the nation seemed to lack virtue as well. Their rhetoric of unity, then, was a kind of offering: women would be a virtuous backbone for the battlefront, stalwart in the face of loss, not quite dependent, if never independent, yet claiming space in the national crisis. The problem was, however, that this ideological offering could not sustain the material and political differences among Northern women: its rhetoric only briefly had resonance for the wider public.



Child was a best-selling author of novels, books of advice for homemakers, and literature for children who garnered even more attention for her antislavery literature. Abolitionism was a highly controversial and often unpopular position in the l830s when Child published her antislavery works, but she was unapologetic about her principles and continued to produce political tracts despite initial damage to her financial success and her reputation. Nevertheless, Child's novels and advice books, generally praised in reviews, sold very well and were reprinted multiple times. Her first novels, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times (1824) and The Rebels; or, Boston before the Revolution (1825), depicted Massachusetts in the early colonial period and the revolutionary era, respectively. Child's nonfiction books included a series of advice books, including The Frugal Housewife (1829), The Mother's Book (1831), and The Little Girl's Own Book (1831), as well as collections of biographical sketches of such women as Germaine de Staël, and a compendium of facts titled The History of the Condition of Women (1835). Child's The Juvenile Miscellany (1826-34), a children's periodical she created and published, was also popular.

In 1828, Child married David Lee Child, a prominent lawyer, member of the Massachusetts Legislature, and a dedicated abolitionist. Child continued to publish books, providing financial security for she and her husband until 1833, when she published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, a solid, thorough, and ultimately very influential argument for emancipation. Feminist studies of Child have focused upon the apparently conservative impulses of her advice books as reinforcing women's domestic roles, as well as her life of activism and her antislavery writings as examples of ground-breaking challenges to nineteenth century gender norms.

This book explores two separate and related histories of the war in order to illuminate the revolution Northern women writers claimed for their sex. First, this is a history gleaned through literary works designed for public consumption, focusing on political issues in the writing of Northern women from 1850 to 1872. This history suggests a gradual and contested shift from sentimental to realistic writing, demonstrated within as well as between texts. Women writers continued to see their work as moral activism throughout the period, periodically changing the objects of their struggles but not their commitment to moral suasion itself. During this period in literary history as well, women writers moved from what literary critic Susan K. Harris calls the exploratory to the later didactic novel, a move that meant a changed understanding of womanhood and social possibility, as well as a discernible lifting of some of the boundaries of woman's sphere, if only fictionally.

Secondly, and equally as important, this work offers an intellectual portrait of nine popular women writers by following them and their work through the war years and afterward. These include Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Gail Hamilton (Mary Abigail Dodge), Louisa May Alcott, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. Among the dozens of women writers who broached the war topic—some popular and others virtually unknown—these nine seemed both exceptional and representative, covering varied audiences and overlapping generations. An analysis of the lives and writing of these women demonstrates the transformation in thinking and writing that the Civil War meant for working writers. The war moved writers of an older generation to a more active politics while helping to establish the new confident voices of a younger generation coming of age during the late 1850s and early 1860s.

These nine were exceptional, for Northern women, primarily because they were writers, earning their living and often supporting their families on income from published work. They were also exceptional in their politics: it is very unlikely that Northern women as a whole were as committed to the end of slavery as these writers were. Yet they were also, in a sense, representative, or at least resonant for their readers: these were women whose work was sought out and eagerly awaited, reprinted in numerous magazines and newspapers, and referred to in lesser-known novels in an offhand way, as if the readers would immediately see and understand the references. If these were not the politics of the readers, they were at least positions readers wanted to know about and ponder. Their work appeared, also, in the more progressive venues: to publish a woman writer on any issue approaching politics was a kind of political statement by editors and publishers. Given these venues—papers like the New York Ledger, magazines like Atlantic Monthly—the politics of these nine women were representative.

The Civil War and the sectional issues that preceded it offered women writers the opportunity to enter into debates of national significance. Even if using the back door of cultural documents, women joined a political dialogue. Their heroines, whether autobiographical or fictional, were meant to inspire and influence their readers; even the most sensationalist works had didactic—and political—purposes. These writings demonstrated an ongoing and consistent effort to redefine in an outward motion the limits of women's sphere. As essayist Mary Abigail Dodge wryly wrote in 1865, "I shall not confine myself to my sphere. I hate my sphere. I like everything that is outside of it,—or, better still, my sphere rounds out into undefined space. I was born into the whole world. I am monarch of all I survey."42 This book explores how the writings of women reached out into public life during this tumultuous time, "round[ing] out into undefined space," and touching their hearts, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, "with fire."43

  1. Livermore, My Story, 85, 92.
  2. The U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC) was organized early in the war as a voluntary association designed to help the Army Medical Bureau. Given official sanction in June 1861, it was staffed almost entirely by women, although led largely by men. Among other related tasks, the commission gathered money, food, and supplies of all kinds and distributed them to the soldiers.
  3. Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, 23.
  4. The experience of white and black Southern women during and just after the war is the subject of numerous and useful twentieth-century books and articles; see, among others, Bynum, Unruly Women; Clinton, Tara Revisited; Clinton and Silber, eds., Divided Houses; Forbes, African American Women; Hodes, White Women, Black Men; Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom; Jones, Labor of Love; Rable, Civil Wars; and Whites, Civil War.
  5. Phelps, Chapters from a Life, 97.
  6. Gallman, North Fights, 107, 105.
  7. See, especially, Forbes, African American Women; Jones, Labor of Love, and Lebsock, Free Women.
  8. See Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, eds. History of Woman Suffrage; DuBois, Woman Suffrage and Feminism and Suffrage; Flexner, Century of Struggle; and Newman, White Women's Rights.
  9. See Dublin, Women at Work, ch. 9, and Kessler-Harris, Out to Work, ch. 4.
  10. For the notion of "cultural work" undertaken through literature, I am indebted to Tompkins, Sensational Designs; a similar understanding of "ideological work," also tremendously useful, is from Poovey's Uneven Developments.
  11. My understanding of the parameters of the word "political" has been deeply shaped by Joan Scott. See Scott, Gender and the Politics. Rebecca Edwards argues that this expanded understanding of politics does not represent how nineteenth-century Americans thought. During the Civil War and in the decades before and after it, however, middle-class women who were writing for a public audience at times explicitly claimed their work to be political; at others they coyly claimed it not to be while it made demands about the direction of national politics (see, for example, Mrs. Bird in Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the most political of novels). See Edwards, Angels, 9. In any case, if the women writers studied here did not consistently claim politics as their domain, they nonetheless participated in political discussions, writing for a public audience about issues of national concern in order to make change.
  12. My understanding of rhetoric and its power has come to me through Plato's Gorgias and its explication by my colleague in the Philosophy Department at Sarah Lawrence College, Michael Davis.
  13. See Elshtain, Women and War, and Joan Scott, "Rewriting History," in Higonnet et al., eds., Behind the Lines, 26. See also Faust, "Altars of Sacrifice," 1200, as well as Faust, Mothers of Invention.
  14. Elshtain, Women and War, 165.
  15. This theme of locating the central story with women rather than men is common to much women's fiction in the mid-nineteenth century. See Baym, Women's Fiction.
  16. Elshtain, Women and War, 22, 166.
  17. Hall, "Notes," 76. See also Jameson, "Reification and Utopia."
  18. On this point see Baym, Novels, 27.
  19. Denning, Mechanic Accents, 3.
  20. Lipsitz, Time Passages, 13.
  21. As Elshtain says, "Politics is the work of citizens, human beings in their civic capacities" (Women and War, 227).
  22. Lipsitz, Time Passages, 16.
  23. Lydia Maria Child's and Harriet Beecher Stowe's "letters to the editor" of the National Anti-Slavery Standard and the Independent, respectively, are frank expressions of politics; didactic stories funded by religious societies and the earlier mentioned death poetry tended to be more covert.
  24. Significantly it was during the Civil War that the first woman did speak in the congressional halls. Anna Dickinson, a young and popular political lecturer, spoke to assembled legislators in the House of Representatives in 1864, spontaneously recommending President Abraham Lincoln for reelection during the course of her talk.
  25. See Harris, Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels.
  26. The literature on this ideology and its relevance to daily social life in the nineteenth century is vast. Of particular note are the following in order of appearance in the historical dialogue: Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1800-1860," American Quarterly 18 (1966): 151-74; Sklar, Catharine Beecher; Cott, Bonds of Womanhood; Douglas, Feminization of American Culture; Epstein, Politics of Domesticity; Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct; Kerber, "Separate Spheres"; Cogan, All-American Girl; and Harris, Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels.
  27. The degree to which this ideology applied to lived experience has been challenged by historians. Mary Ryan, for example, in Women in Public, makes the argument that women led public lives despite conventional dicta.
  28. Dodge, ed., Gail Hamilton's Life, I:280.
  29. "Meredith," "Woman's True Position," New York Ledger 16, no. 37 (Nov. 17, 1860): 4.
  30. Gail Hamilton, "A Spasm of Sense," in Hamilton, Gala-Days, 271; the essay was first published in the Atlantic Monthly.
  31. See Blumin, Emergence of the Middle Class, ch. 5. My understanding of class formation has also been informed by Stansell, City of Women, and Wilentz, Chants Democratic. For the impact of domestic ideology on ideas about women and work, see Kessler-Harris, Out to Work, 53.
  32. See Sklar, Catharine Beecher, 165.
  33. Stansell, City of Women, ix. For the relationship of working women to the ideology of separate spheres, see also Alexander, "We Are Engaged," and Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence.
  34. See Newman, White Women's Rights.
  35. Horton, "Freedom's Yoke." See also Forbes, African American Writers.
  36. See Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood.
  37. See Leonard, All the Daring of a Soldier.
  38. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, 12.
  39. Ibid., 77.
  40. Hess, Liberty, Virtue and Progress, 17, 50.
  41. Ibid., 107.
  42. Hamilton, Skirmishes and Sketches, 432.
  43. Quoted in McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 487.

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Women's Literature in the 19th Century: American Women Writers

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Women's Literature in the 19th Century: American Women Writers