Our Sisters' Keepers: Nineteenth-Century Benevolence Literature by American Women

Our Sisters' Keepers: Nineteenth-Century Benevolence Literature by American Women

Our Sisters' Keepers: Nineteenth-Century Benevolence Literature by American Women

Our Sisters' Keepers: Nineteenth-Century Benevolence Literature by American Women


American culture has long had a conflicted relationship with assistance to the poor. Cotton Mather and John Winthrop were staunch proponents of Christian charity as fundamental to colonial American society, while transcendentalists harbored deep skepticism towards benevolence in favor of Emersonian self-reliance and Thoreau's insistence on an ascetic life. Women in the 19th century, as these essays show, approached issues of benevolence far differently than their male counterparts, consistently promoting assistance to the impoverished, in both their acts and their writings.
These essays address a wide range of subjects: images of the sentimental seamstress figure in women's fiction; Rebecca Harding Davis's rewriting of the "industrial" novel; Sarah Orne Jewett's place in the transcendental tradition of skepticism toward charity, and her subversion of it; the genre of the poorhouse narrative; and the philanthropic work and writings of Hull House founder Jane Addams.

As the editors of Our Sisters' Keepers argue, the vulnerable and marginal positions occupied by many women in the 19th century fostered an empathetic sensitivity in them to the plight of the poor, and their ability to act and write in advocacy of the impoverished offered a form of empowerment not otherwise available to them. The result was the reformulation of the concept of the American individual. Contributors include: Jill Bergman, Debra Bernardi, Sarah E. Chinn, Monika Elbert, Lori Merish, Terry D. Novak, James Salazar, Mary Templin, Karen Tracey, Whitney A. Womack


While this book deals with connections between nineteenth-century women, the idea of this project derived from a connection established between two twenty-first-century women. Finding ourselves in Montana after completing our respective Midwest graduate school experiences, we stumbled upon each other by accident and discovered, to our amazement, that we were “scholarly sisters”: with similar training, similar interests, and similar attitudes toward our field of nineteenth-century American women writers.

The result of this discovery was a panel on “Theories of Poverty Relief by Late-Nineteenth-Century Fiction Writers,” which we organized for a conference held by the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW), in San Antonio in February 2001. Two of our contributors, Karen Tracey and Monika Elbert, were also on that panel, and the idea for this book was born. The collaboration process has been somewhat surprising and highly enjoyable. We found our different strengths complemented each other’s, and while most of our writing has been done separately, drafting and redrafting each other’s prose, on occasion we wrote side by side at one computer, grappling for the right words.

In addition, then, to each other, there are a number of people whom we would like to acknowledge who have helped this project come to fruition. We would like to mention our early mentors who inspired our . . .

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