Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook

By Denise D. Knight | Go to book overview

ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS (1815-1852)

Cynthia J. Davis


BIOGRAPHY

When Rebecca Harding Davis died in 1910, not one literary journal noted her passing ( Olsen152). An obituary in the New York Times appeared under this header: "Mother of Richard Harding Davis Dies at Son's Home in Mt. Kisco, aged 79" ( Olsen153). Thankfully, such neglect has been corrected in the past few decades: Davis has not only been rediscovered but even canonized (while her journalist son's star has plummeted). This has not, however, been the case with Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, another woman writer ultimately eclipsed by her more famous child. Although Phelps's daughter took her mother's name in hopes of perpetuating her memory--and although, of course, no one would want to marginalize this rightly famous daughter--it is regretfully true that one reason Elizabeth Stuart Phelps ( 1815-1852) has not retained her rightful place in literary history is that Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Ward) ( 1844-1911) has, albeit with the best of intentions, usurped it.

Literary scholars seem only to have contributed to this confusion. Rutgers Press's edition of The Story of Avis lists the author's name as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and not as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, the latter name being the conventional means of distinguishing the daughter from her mother. Carol Farley Kessler's Twayne critical edition on the daughter's career also refers to its titular subject without appending her married surname.

In certain respects, the lives and not just the names of mother and daughter are similar. Both married fairly late for their respective time periods, both were writers, both explored the conflicts experienced by women who had artistic aspirations in their fiction. But in other ways--for which the mother might have

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