"Tattooed Still:" the Inscription of Female Agency in Elizabeth Stoddard's the Morgesons

By Putzi, Jennifer | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June 2000 | Go to article overview

"Tattooed Still:" the Inscription of Female Agency in Elizabeth Stoddard's the Morgesons


Putzi, Jennifer, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


Recent critics of Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons (1862) inevitably take note of the scars that mark Cassandra Morgeson's cheek. These scars, most critics claim, are symbolic of Cassandra's burgeoning sexuality, as it is evidenced in her passionate, yet unconsummated, relationship with her married cousin, Charles. The carriage accident in which Charles dies puts an abrupt end to the adulterous relationship, but also results in the scars that figure so prominently in Cassandra's sense of self throughout the remainder of the novel. At the very least, critics see the scars as "an emblem of the encounter" with Charles (Matlack 290). Sybil Weir claims that Cassandra's scars "signify her victory over a society which proclaimed women sexual imbediles and which would automatically condemn Cassandra for loving adulterously" (435). Weir points out that Cassandra's scars, "the visible evidence of her sexual past," become part of her fiance's attraction to her (435). Susan K. Harris adds that Cassandra's "scars ultima tely aid rather than hinder her in finding a husband and signify her discovery of her own capabilities" (163).

Despite these affirmative interpretations of Cassandra's scars, the marked female body is not always read as a consistently positive symbol in The Morgesons. Tattooed on the arm with the initials of her lover, Cassandra's friend, Helen, has been interpreted as a woman eager to be possessed by a man. For example, Sandra A. Zagarell notes that "Helen exhibits the yearning to be defined through a man which had marked Cassandra's own ambivalent attraction to Charles, for Helen has tattooed her fiance's initials onto her wrist" (50). Many other critics ignore the issue of Helen's tattoo, apparently regarding it as irrelevant to the rest of the novel. However, critics who dismiss the theme of tattooing overlook an essential element of The Morgesons: Cassandra's assertion that her scars are a form of tattoo. Taking this assertion as my point of departure, I propose that the female body has been misread in The Morgesons. With an understanding of the history of tattooing and the radical textual potential of tattoos, we can recognize in Stoddard's use of the marked female body a more thorough exploration of female sexuality, identity, and agency in mid-nineteenth-century America.

Positioned within a history of tattooing in the United States, Stoddard's decision to "tattoo" her female characters appears remarkable. Due to the popularity of travel narratives during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most Americans were aware of the practice of tattooing, as well as the fact that women in indigenous cultures were frequently tattooed. The description of tattoos became commonplace in travel writing beginning with the posthumous publication of the journals of Captain James Cook in 1784. Cook is said to have introduced the word "tattoo" into the English language, from a Polynesian word meaning "striking" or "beating." Cook is also known for having returned from the South Pacific with Omai, a tattooed islander who was exhibited throughout England until his return home in 1776 (Bogdan 297). Similar exhibitions of tattooed indigenous people were staged in American museums and freak shows throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. White men with tattoos--usually men who had been sailors--began exhibiting themselves in the United States in the 1840s. During the Civil War, soldiers and sailors procured the services of traveling tattoo artists such as Martin Hildebrandt (Sanders 16). Yet other than a brief fad among the upper classes in both England and America, Western white women did not, in general, participate in the phenomenon. It was not until the 1880s that the infamous "tattooed lady" became a regular feature of the American subculture of fairs and carnivals: Nora Hildebrandt, the daughter of Martin Hildebrandt and the first known tattooed lady, appeared in 1882, twenty years after the publication of The Morgesons (Mifflin 10). …

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