Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Colonial Revival

By Lockwood, J. Samaine | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January 2012 | Go to article overview
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Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Colonial Revival


Lockwood, J. Samaine, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


"It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer," writes the narrator of "The Yellow Wall-Paper." "A colonial mansion," she continues, "a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity--but that would be asking too much of fate!" (166). In opening "The Yellow Wall-Paper" with a reference to middle-class enthusiasm for ghostly colonial homes, Charlotte Perkins Gilman situates her story within late-nineteenth-century colonial revival discourses about old houses and their offer of intimacy with Anglo-American history. Gilman's take on colonial houses, however, radically revises the historical narratives those structures were imagined to bear forth. In most late-nineteenth-century tales of colonial homes, moderns do, indeed, stumble upon stories of "romantic felicity" (166), from liaisons between colonial youths to tales of patriots' heroic lives. (1) But Gilman's narrator finds quite the opposite in her old mansion: hard-to-read traces of a brutal, gendered history that renders impossible a nostalgic view of the national past.

To date, literary scholarship on "The Yellow Wall-Paper," while voluminous, has tended to focus on the story either as a self-contained feminist critique or as a historicized protest against nineteenth-century attitudes about female sexuality, health, and labor. (2) The prominence of "The Yellow Wall-Paper" within Gilman studies and its role as a representative feminist text (if not the representative feminist text of the nineteenth-century United States) has, moreover, often led scholars to treat it as an isolated work, and this has tended to obscure the story's place within larger literary and historical contexts. In this essay I demonstrate that "The Yellow Wall-Paper" was the last in a sequence of three imaginative works that Gilman wrote in early 1890 that explore gender in relation to racialized national and regional histories. These include the short story "The Giant Wistaria" and the unpublished play "In the Name of the King! A Colonial Romance" (co-written with Grace Ellery Charming Stetson) (3) While "In the Name of the King!" has been among the Schlesinger Library's holdings since 1983, until now it has not been recognized as a part of Gilman's body of work and, accordingly, has received no critical attention. As this essay demonstrates, however, it clearly merits consideration by those seeking to understand the range of Gilman's writing and to historicize her most famous story.

In late February and early March 1890, just days after she participated in a colonial revival tea in Pasadena, California, Gilman noted in her diary that she and Stetson had begun work on a "Colonial play" (Diaries 412). This play, set in Salem, Massachusetts, became "In the Name of the King!" Although it was never, to my knowledge, produced, this drama marks the beginning of Gilman's exploration of white New England women's historical legacy, an intellectual terrain she continued to chart in "The Giant Wistaria" and "The Yellow Wall-Paper." In fact, less than a week after beginning to write this play, Gilman recorded in her diary that she was working on "The Giant Wistaria," a tale that explores the connections between a colonial New England woman's ghost and young urbanites of the late nineteenth century who rent a colonial mansion in the New England countryside (Diaries 412, 413). And, by early June, Gilman was writing another story that featured women from the past haunting the colonial mansion of the present: "The Yellow Wall-Paper." (4)

Recognizing Gilman's engagement of colonial revival discourse has three significant outcomes. First, it gives new insight into Gilman's historical thinking about gender in the United States. (5) Second, it verifies Gail Bederman's claim that "[Gilman's] feminism was inextricably rooted in ... white supremacism" (122). As Alys Eve Weinbaum points out, it has tended to be the scholarship on Gilman's nonfiction writings that have explored and historicized the racist and nativist aspects of Gilman's theories (77).

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