Reclaiming Authorship: Literary Women in America, 1850-1900

Reclaiming Authorship: Literary Women in America, 1850-1900

Reclaiming Authorship: Literary Women in America, 1850-1900

Reclaiming Authorship: Literary Women in America, 1850-1900


There was, in the nineteenth century, a distinction made between "writers" and "authors," Susan S. Williams notes, the former defined as those who composed primarily from mere experience or observation rather than from the unique genius or imagination of the latter. If women were more often cast as writers than authors by the literary establishment, there also emerged in magazines, advice books, fictional accounts, and letters a specific model of female authorship, one that valorized "natural" feminine traits such as observation and emphasis on detail, while also representing the distance between amateur writing and professional authorship.

Attending to biographical and cultural contexts and offering fresh readings of literary works, Reclaiming Authorship focuses on the complex ways writers such as Maria S. Cummins, Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Abigail Dodge, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Constance Fenimore Woolson put this model of female authorship into practice. Williams shows how it sometimes intersected with prevailing notions of male authorship and sometimes diverged from them, and how it is often precisely those moments of divergence when authorship was reclaimed by women.

The current trend to examine "women writers" rather than "authors" marks a full rotation of the circle, and "writers" can indeed be the more capacious term, embracing producers of everything from letters and diaries to published books. Yet certain nineteenth-century women made particular efforts to claim the title "author," Williams demonstrates, and we miss something of significance by ignoring their efforts.

Susan S. Williams is Associate Professor of English at The Ohio State University and author of Confounding Images: Photography and Portraiture in Antebellum American Fiction, also published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.


When I first began this study of female authors, I had in mind relating the key term “authorship” to some other critical category: realism as a literary mode, or the formation of women’s professional life in the United States, or the nineteenth-century literary marketplace and its production of cultural hierarchies of taste. and indeed, this book takes up all of these categories in one way or another, thinking in particular about realism as an authorial practice as well as the way in which the women studied here constructed their professional relations to the marketplace. But in the end I have realized that I am ultimately most interested in the category of authorship itself: how it was defined and what it teaches us about American literary history in the second half of the nineteenth century.

My approach to this topic is largely historical, focusing on the complex ways in which five nineteenth-century women—Maria Susanna Cummins, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Abigail Dodge, Elizabeth Keckley, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps—foregrounded the issue of authorship in their manuscript and published writing. Their understandings of this term were necessarily influenced by the literary culture of which they were part, including ongoing debates about romance and realism, literary nationalism, literary property and copyright, and professionalism. These debates were shared by male and female authors alike, and for that reason I situate these women authors alongside their male counterparts, understanding Alcott and Dodge in the context of Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, or Phelps in the context of William Dean Howells. Yet, this is fundamentally a study of female authorship. By grouping these women together, I hope to give them increased critical visibility while also highlighting their various models of authorship.

In offering case studies of women authors, this book follows the scholarly trend, over the past several decades, of studying nineteenth-century women’s writing as a distinct literary tradition. Much of this scholarship, inspired by seminal works such as Nina Baym’s Women’s Fiction (1978) and Josephine Donovan’s New England Local Color Literature (1983), focuses on sentimental and domestic fiction in the antebellum period and on regionalism in the postbellum period. This work has had the important . . .

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