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

Afterword

TO RAISE THE QUESTION OF THE RELATION OF STOWE, ELIOT, AND PHELPS TO such concepts as "professionalism," "femininity," "aestheticism," "transatlanticism," and "reading" is to embark on a problematic journey. First, the very notions of these concepts are hard to understand or explicate fully. Each encompasses a broad cultural arena; for instance, we know from a myriad of feminist historians that the idea of Victorian femininity permeated everything from the parlor to politics, slavery to imperialism, theater to portraiture, midwifery to mercantilism. Further, each concept has behind it an excess of historians and literary critics who debate its meaning. Nineteenth-century femininity alone has been understood to mean both an essential, inborn trait and a societal construct; it has been touted as a sort of personal or group power and, of course, as an instrument of political oppression; it has been relegated to middle-class, white, heterosexual status and been called integral to the formation of working-class, homosexual, and/or racial identities; and it has been located in contradictory places-madonnas and whores, privileged whites and black slaves, prepubescent bodies and full, maternal figures. In addition, even if historians and literary critics establish certain parameters for defining each of these abstractions, their application to specific authors and their texts still proves a difficult task. Not only is one constrained by the limits of cultural criticism-the impossibility of reconstructing precise discursive or ideological formations no matter how detailed or involved ones research, not to mention the hindrance of occupying a late-twentieth-century worldview-one is also curtailed by just how far any claim can be made that, say, writers like Stowe or Eliot took such-and-such a stance in relation to professionalism or aestheticism or the process of reading each other's novels. The cultural critic is forever caught between the desire to attribute certain literary threads to this or that social movement and the snares of presuming any sort of authorial intention.

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