The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers

The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers

The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers

The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers


The American literary canon has been the subject of debate and change for at least a decade. As women writers and wrtiers of color are being rediscovered and acclaimed, the question of whether they are worthy of inclusion remains open. The Other American Traditions brings together for the first time in one place, essays on individual writers and traditions that begin to ask the harder questions. How do we talk about these writers once we get beyond the historical issues? How is their work related to their male counterparts? How is it similar: how is it different? Are differences related to gender or race or class? How has the selection of books in the literary canon (Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, and James) led to a definition of the American tradition that was calculated to exclude women? Do we need a new critical vocabulary to discuss these works? Should we stop talking about a tradition and begin to talk about many traditions? How did black American women writers develop strategies for speaking out when they were doubly in jeopardy of being ignored as blacks and as women? The volume offers irrefutable proof that the writers, the critics who work on their texts, all these questions, and the expansion of the canon matter very much indeed.


In 1857, A CONDESCENDING REVIEW OF A WOMAN'S BOOK IN THE New York Times stated, "Courtship and marriage, . . . and children, these are the great objects of a woman's thoughts, and they necessarily form the staple topics of their writings and their conversation. We have no right to expect anything else from a woman's book." Fanny Fern, one of the most outspoken women writers of the period, responded sharply:

Is it in feminine novels only that courtship, marriage, . . . and children are the staple? Is not this true of all novels?--of Dickens, of Thackeray, of Bulwer and a host of others? Is it peculiar to feminine pens, most astute and liberal of critics? Would a novel be a novel if it did not treat of courtship and marriage? and if it could be so recognized, would it find readers? When I see such a narrow, snarling criticism as the above, I always say to myself, the writer is some unhappy man. . . . I think I see him writing that paragraph in a fit of spleen--of male spleen--in his small boarding-house upper chamber, by the cheerful light of a solitary candle, . . . and all the wretched accompaniments of solitary, selfish male existence, not to speak of his own puckered, unkissable face.

Whether or not the writer of the Times review had an "unkissable face," as the acerbic Fern concluded, his review clearly reflects an emphasis on the individual, and Fern was not wrong to can attention to the "solitary" characteristics of such a perspective. In the nineteenth century, and for much of the twentieth century as well, this pattern was the necessary component of "serious" fiction in American literature, and nineteenth- century American women writers, who focused on people and relationships, were denigrated or ignored.

As Fern's comment so graphically reminds us, however, the tradition that takes the male protagonist away from women and away from society is an aberration in world culture. World literature focuses on interrelationships among people, the subtleties involved in tribal courtship and marriage . . .

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