Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist

Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist

Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist

Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist

Synopsis

"In Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist, Barker demonstrates how popular woman writers - Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Jessie Fauset - used the female visual artist as their artistic alter ego to renegotiate the boundaries between high and low culture. In their challenge to a gendered, racialized evolutionary aesthetics as embodied in the female copyist as an icon of cultural reproduction, these women writers enact in a fictional format what many recent feminists address at the theoretical level: a resistance to essentialist definitions of women's nature and to "universal" standards of high culture." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

In the last decade, a radical shift has taken place in the study of nineteenth-century American women novelists. First and foremost, their work is now being taken seriously, and, as a result, a full array of theoretical approaches—postmodern, feminist, psychoanalytic, cultural materialist, multiculturalist—are employed to analyze a group of writers often categorized under the dubious title of the “literary domestics.” This appellation denotes not only the ostensible subject matter of these writers—the female world of domesticity—but also connotes their second-class status as domestics who must enter the literary establishment through the back door. Despite the theoretical sophistication brought to bear in analyzing these popular writers, the one topic that is still virtually ignored is the issue of their aesthetic seriousness. I turn to the issue of aesthetics not in order to condemn nineteenth-century women writers or to champion formalist standards but to reconnect women writers' own views on aesthetics with the cultural and ideological significance of their work. Rather than assume a fundamental break between sentimental and modernist writers, I will articulate the aesthetic genealogy between nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women writers.

My assertion is that even among the most popular of the literary domestics there always were those who thought of their work as artistic, who defended that claim in their fiction, and who engaged in a literary debate with both male and female writers. the basic dilemma these women writers faced in asserting their own artistry, however, was that they were virtually excluded from the sphere of high culture. As both Richard Brodhead and Jane Tompkins have persuasively argued, in the late nineteenth century the American literary establishment selfconsciously set out to create a literary elite based on the distinction be-

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