Narrative in the Professional Age: Transatlantic Readings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

By Jennifer Cognard-Black | Go to book overview

Introduction

LATE IN HER LITERARY CAREER, THE AMERICAN WRITER ELIZABETH STUART Phelps engaged in a business dispute with the Century's editor Richard Watson Gilder. Phelps denied Gilder's charge that she expected too much for her work, asking, "Have you not welcomed this contributor for thirty years? I know my prices are not small, …[b]ut I think I have always accepted what you offered me, in payments without comment-have I not?" 1 Yet Phelps also rejected the notion put forward by Gilder that she must think more of "monied value" than of the moral worth of her fiction. In keeping with her life-long conviction about the affinities between art and morality, Phelps insisted to Gilder that a writer could produce a "successful union of art and ethics." 2

Although this exchange is brief, Phelps's response to Gilder encapsulates much of her aesthetic theory and simultaneously reveals its inherent reliance on a market economy. At the same time Phelps argues for social morality ("ethics") as a corollary to aesthetics ("art"), she understands that the efficacy of such a communal, aesthetic value ("union") is necessarily commercial ("successful"). Importantly, Phelps depends on the descriptor "successful" to link art, ethics, and the market. By avoiding economic adjectives such as "profitable" or "gainful" and by choosing a word that carries the double meaning of lucrative and popular, Phelps both masks and admits that this "union" requires artistic and moral taste in tandem with an acquisitive sensibility. 3 In essence, she displays the same double consciousness when discussing her own merit as an author. While acknowledging that her fiction certainly has a price, Phelps believes her artistic worth is based on a service model rather than a wage-labor one. Indeed, Phelps invokes her thirty years of service to the Century and silent acceptance of payment as the criteria that guarantee her a position above haggling over market cost; in other words, she simultaneously acknowledges her high price as testament to her work's value while insisting on an illusion of disinterested or payless cooperation that distinguishes a high-culture artist from one who

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