American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

Nina Baym


Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of
American Fiction Exclude Women Authors

This paper is about American literary criticism rather than American literature. It proceeds from the assumption that we never read American literature directly or freely, but always through the perspective allowed by theories. Theories account for the inclusion and exclusion of texts in anthologies, and theories account for the way we read them. My concern is with the fact that the theories controlling our reading of American literature have led to the exclusion of women authors from the canon.

Let me use my own practice as a case in point. In 1977 there was published a collection of essays on images of women in major British and American literature, to which I contributed.1 The American field was divided chronologically among six critics, with four essays covering literature written prior to World War II. Taking seriously the charge that we were to focus only on the major figures, the four of us--working quite independently of each other--selected altogether only four women writers. Three of these were from the earliest period, a period which predates the novel: the poet Anne Bradstreet and the two diarists Mary Rowlandson and Sarah Kemble Knight. The fourth was Emily Dickinson. For the period between 1865 and 1940 no women were cited at all. The message that we--who were taking women as our subject--conveyed was clear: there have been almost no major women writers in America; the major novelists have all been men.

Now, when we wrote our essays we were not undertaking to reread all American literature and make our own decisions as to who the major authors were. That is the point: we accepted the going canon of major authors. As late as 1977, that canon did not include any women novelists. Yet, the critic who goes beyond what is accepted and tries to look at the totality of literary production in America quickly discovers that women authors have been active since the earliest days of settlement. Commercially and numerically they have probably dominated American literature since the middle of the nineteenth century. As long ago as 1854, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained to his publisher about the "damn'd mob of scribbling women" whose writings--he fondly imagined--were diverting the public from his own.

Names and figures help make this dominance clear. In the years between 1774 and 1799--from the calling of the First Continental Congress to the close of the eighteenth century--a total of thirty-eight original works of fiction were published in this country.2 Nine of these, appearing pseudonymously or anonymously, have not yet been attributed to any author. The remaining twenty-nine are the work of eighteen individuals, of whom four are women. One of these women, Susannah Rowson, wrote six of them, or more than a fifth of the total. Her most popular work, Charlotte (also known as Charlotte Temple), was printed three times in the decade it was published, nineteen times between 1800 and 1810, and eighty times by the middle of the nineteenth century. A novel by a second of the four women, Hannah Foster, was called The Coquette and had thirty editions by mid- nineteenth century. Uncle Tom's Cabin, by a woman, is probably the all-time biggest seller

____________________
"Melodramas of Beset Manhood" by Nina Baym. Copyright 1981, Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission.
1
Marlene Springer, ed., What Manner of Woman: Essays on English and American Life and Literature ( New York: New York Univ. Press, 1977).
2
See Lyle Wright, American Fiction 1744-1850 ( San Marino, Calif: Huntington Library Press, 1969).

-431-

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