Book Reviews -- Domestic Novelists of the Old South: Defenders of Southern Culture by Elizabeth Moss

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Domestic Novelists of the Old South: Defenders of Southern Culture. Elizabeth Moss. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1992.

In Domestic Novelists of the Old South, Elizabeth Moss tours the Action of Caroline Gilman, Caroline Hentz, Maria McIntosh, Mary Virginia Terhune [Marion Harland] and Augusta Evans, arguing that their work constitutes a special category of southern domestic fiction. She contends that these five writers "developed a compelling, if not altogether convincing, defense of slavery in terms of southern culture that reflected their perceptions of southern society and women's place within it" (10).

Moss's thesis depends on the claim of distinctiveness. Although southern domestic fiction has roots in both domestic fiction it departs in important ways from both traditions. Unlike plantation fiction, the work of these women focuses not on the planter-cavalier but on his "lady-wife" (20). And unlike the domestic fiction of non-southern women, these novels "evidence none of that preoccupation with restructuring society pivotal to northern domestic fiction (19).

The second of these differentiations is the more important, providing the key to the essential unity of theme in the novels of these five women. If northern domestic novelists criticized the new materialism of Jacksonian American and "used their Action to protest its implications for women" (19), southern domestic novelists located this materialism specifically in the North and developed a new, distinctly regional and fundamentally conservative message: "southern women of privilege must take an active role in protecting their region from northern encroachment; only through the efforts of the planter class, specifically planter-class women, could the northern threat [of materialism, and later abolition] be averted" (23).

Moss's argument for a genre of southern domestic fiction faces two complications. First, she must deal with the fact that the five women in question belong to two different generations. The first generation, which includes Gilman, Hentz and Terhune (born between 1794 and 1803), grew up in post-Revolutionary America; sectional differences existed but the faith in union prevailed. Terhune and Evans (born in 1830 and 183) came to adulthood as the exacerbation of sectional differences threatened secession and civil war. Moss manages this problem well, dealing clearly with the changes that occurred in the work of the second generation. …