Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Emergence of American Literary Realism

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Emergence of American Literary Realism

Article excerpt

This article makes an argument for the significance of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's early work, particularly her 1870 novel, Hedged In, to the scholarly understanding of two overlapping fields: those of nineteenth-century American women's writing, and postbellum American literary realism. Examining how Phelps mobilizes the emerging tropes of realist writing, my account nuances the recent portrayal of Phelps as a member of a "transitional" generation of women writers bridging the gap between the popular sentimental novelists of the 1850s and turn-of-the-century female regionalists and realists. Such late-nineteenth-century women writers as Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin, it has been claimed, belonged to the first generation of women writers to unambiguously assume the pose of high-cultural authorship, a model established just as the transitional generation was coming of age. (1) Originally associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne's sense of alienation from popular readership, this paradigm of the author as high literary artist has been seen as not fully available to the women authors who came of age in the early postbellum period precisely because it was constructed in opposition to the practice of antebellum women writers. These latter, Naomi Z. Sofer points out, generally adopted either "the persona of the writer driven by financial necessity or the identity of a mere medium for a religious message" (1), whereas, as Anne E. Boyd observes, the Hawthorne whose individual "genius" was extolled by Melville represented a model in which "the writer as artist began to represent another, higher realm than that inhabited by ordinary men" (16). These critics suggest that the transitional generation of women writers made a partial shift towards the latter model of authorship, seeing "themselves as artists whose inspiration and motivation could be drawn equally" "from their religious and social commitments," as had been largely the case with antebellum female writers of popular works, and "from their native talent and ambition" (Sofer 3), as was the case with male writers of high-cultural works both before and after the Civil War--the antebellum romancers like Hawthorne and their postbellum successors, the realists.(2)

The presentation of Phelps as a figure of transition is echoed in critics' tendency to invent genre categories that express a sense of the hybridity of her work, including the traditions of "reform fiction," "sentimental naturalism," and "ethical realism." (3) The problem is not only that such categories assume the fixity of the genre definitions being fused, but also that these appellations imply the mingling of generic gender-identities, as the feminine-associated terms of "reform," "sentimentalism," and "ethics" are joined to the masculine-associated terms "fiction," "naturalism," and "realism."(4) By contrast, I argue that realism itself as an emergent literary practice offered a space that allowed Phelps to entertain notions of high-cultural authorship conceived beyond the models of gendered authorship articulated during her own time--indeed, to participate in the development of realism in such a direction. As Nancy Glazener illustrates, the definition of realism was both shifting and contested over the course of the latter part of the nineteenth century, for realism was a term subject to "competing appropriations," which "were almost always made relationally, in the course of a reviewer's or an author's distinguishing realism from some other form" (13). Glazener shows that in the 1850s and through the 1860s, "a set of heavily nationalistic discourses... were used to distinguish realism from the romance. These discourses articulated realism with modernity, democracy, science, and Protestant-inflected secularity, whereas they articulated the romance with the outmoded, the aristocratic, and superstitious, and the Catholic or pagan" (94). Given that the romance had been the vehicle through which high-cultural authorship was both established and established as male, the fact that realism defined itself against romance while still insisting on its own high-cultural status meant that the genre's gender identity was up for grabs. …

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