A Preliminary Sketch of the Early History of U.S. Women's Short Stories

Article excerpt

My uncompleted research over the last 26 years has thus far turned up 839 U.S. women who published at least one volume of short stories between 1827, when Sally Wood published Tales of the Night in Portland, Maine, and mid-1993. My list of women who published at least one story between 1822 and 1993 is more than twice as long-more than 1800 women writers. Many of these women published enough stories to have filled several books, but their stories are, as yet, uncollected. (That is one of the ways that women's work is lost-it is published in ephemeral forms and never put between the covers of a book. The stories of writers such as Ada Jack Carver, Edwina Stanton Babcock, Pauline E. Hopkins, and Eliza Leslie should be available to contemporary readers.)

Despite this abundant and prolonged productivity, women's stories have been consistently under-represented and mis-represented in historical considerations and representations of the genre. In anthologies that include any stories by women (about one fourth of anthologies include no women at all), the ratio between women and men writers ranges from one in seven (Tillie Olsen's figure) to one in eleven (based on my study of 200 anthologies). Additionally, the themes that women most typically address in their short fiction are not represented; rather, the atypical stories, those that most closely resemble men's stories in their subject matter, or are written in a male voice, or most closely adhere to patriarchal myths about women are available. Furthermore, the short story genre itself has undergone a loss of status, currently being viewed by many in the literary world as an apprenticeship genre, preparation for fiction writers on their way to tackling the greater task of writing novels. This, despite the fact that many of our greatest writers accomplished their greatest work in this genre.

The genre occupied a position of high honor among readers, and its practitioners were highly esteemed by publishers from the 1820s until the Civil War and then, again, from the period following that war to the period roughly corresponding with the overlapping burst of growth of the film industry-- when many of the most talented or promising writers turned to script writing-and the Great Depression of the early twentieth century. After World War II, the genre diminished in popularity for a variety of reasons; hence, stories by women have been further slighted because of the widespread ignorance of and indifference to the genre itself in the later half of the twentieth century. U.S. women's short stories are, therefore, still largely unread, unknown, unexplored, and unavailable.

The short story was developed by a great many writers, women and men alike, from our nation's ethnic, racial, regional, and religious variety, and from all classes and sexualities. However, the earliest stories thus far uncovered were written by privileged Protestant white women who had educational and, often, in their early lives, financial advantages far greater than most. Nevertheless, as adults these women wrote from financial necessity; they tried all the genres-from poetry to domestic management, childrearing and etiquette advice, children's literature, Sunday School literature, essays, plays, and novels-- which might have enabled them to earn a "respectable" living. The fact that so many of them settled on the short story as the literary form in which to develop their greatest skills had as much to do with the popularity of the genre and their consequent greater financial opportunities as it did with creative inclination. This conjunction of opportunity, need, and talent combined in the nineteenth century to produce the greatest assemblage of women's short stories ever written.

Catherine Maria Sedgwick, her sister-in-law Susan Sedgwick, Lydia Maria Child, Eliza Leslie, and Sarah Josepha Hale began publishing stories in the middle 1820s. The Atlantic Souvenir for 1826, the first U. …