Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"No Time for Repinings": Ruth McEnery Stuart Reconstructs the South

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"No Time for Repinings": Ruth McEnery Stuart Reconstructs the South

Article excerpt

Louisiana native Ruth McEnery Stuart, a southern humorist and storyteller who moved to New York in the late nineteenth century, created a career that rivaled Mark Twain's. Like Twain, Stuart filled lecture halls on her speaking tours; she shared with him the ability to captivate audiences, slipping in and out of various dialects in the course of a reading. Most of her stories deal with the lives of working-class people, blacks and whites, who negotiate the major social issues of their time to find meaning in their lives. According to Helen Taylor, Stuart became "one of the best known and most admired of all the southern women who had come north to make their literary reputations and fortunes" (94). In 1904, Julia Tutwiler reported in Bookman: "[T]here is no woman whose work is more widely known and loved, and whose personality has a further reaching influence'" (qtd. in Taylor 93). Less than a century after her death, Stuart's accomplishments are little known. Most of her works are out of print, and she is seldom found in the curricula of public institutions. Sparse academic attention to her writing tends to argue against its value for study, citing racism and labeling her a minor regionalist. Her work merits reconsideration, though, for the insight she offers into her historical period and her subtextual treatment of class, race, and gender issues. Additionally, she is valuable for a study of dialectic humor, and, as a lifelong feminist, she reveals insight into the dialogue in the South concerning the "Woman Question." Finally, her life and the volume and variety of her work can be examined for perception of the obstacles faced at the turn of the century by a single woman earning her livelihood as a writer in New York.

One of several southern women who wrote for northern publications in the period following Reconstruction, Stuart came of age during the Civil War and witnessed a tremendous amount of privation and societal upheaval. Personal reversals in fortune taught her the tenuous nature of financial security, and she carefully managed her career and lifestyle in order to support herself, her young son, and her sister. She became a popular hostess known for wit, delicious southern cooking, and gracious charm. She meticulously cultivated her writing style and chose her subjects and themes in response to the demands of her northern audience. Poor judgment on her part might have brought consequences similar to Kate Chopin's, whose 1899 The Awakening virtually buried her promising literary career. Readers condemned Chopin, whose heroine's choice of suicide over the stultification of marriage threw a gauntlet in the face of the country's patriarchal hegemony. Sherwood Bonnet, another contemporary, forfeited a literary career to injudicious subject matter and personal scandal. Bonner's pointed satirical criticism of Boston society combined with her bohemian lifestyle, messy divorce, and rumored extramarital affairs banned her from the company of polite society and sent her home to Mississippi in shame. Stuart's options for supporting herself as a female humorist were limited.

Stuart wrote fiction in the form of short stories and novellas, dialectic poetry, and lyrics for plantation songs--a genteel, ladies' version of blackface minstrelsy. The first popular writer to portray domestic details of blacks in their own homes in the reconstructed South, she depicts no overt interracial conflict, though she accurately draws lives of some hardship. Most of her writing is humorous, about southern blacks, whites, and Italian immigrants, city life in New Orleans, plantation life in Arkansas and Louisiana--both before and after the Civil War--and the impoverished post-bellum "aristocracy." Her plantation stories deal with slave/white relationships and the displacement of ex-slaves, commonly speaking nostalgically of antebellum times. Nostalgia for the past is, in fact, a predominant mood in her work, with an elegiac sense of pre-war days that depends upon compassionate portraits of people and friendly relations between benevolent whites and satisfied, if subservient, blacks. …

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