Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Escaping from Gross Bondage": The Divine Music of Augusta Jane Evans's Beulah

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Escaping from Gross Bondage": The Divine Music of Augusta Jane Evans's Beulah

Article excerpt

A SELF-DECLARED DEVOTEE "AT THE SHRINE OF AESTHETICS," AUGUSTA JANE Evans openly complained of the "lamentable want of aesthetic culture" available to southerners ("Letter to Beauregard" 66; "Letter to Victor" 14). She nevertheless wrote of the hope that one day soon "the youth of our country" would come to appreciate southern art in an 1860 letter to fellow writer Orville James Victor ("Letter to Victor" 15). Still, Evans's novels proved to be the closest she would come to fulfilling her vision of a culturally advanced southern society. Working as music instructors, opera singers, artists, and writers, the female protagonists in Evans's writings each possess the intellectual and artistic talents that define them as both the preservers and producers of southern culture. For Evans, however, any creative and intellectual self-realization ultimately depended on the "nobler" goal "of doing God's work" ("Letter to Rachel" 18). Crucial to understanding Evans's novels, then, is her religiously defined artistic vision. As she wrote to Walter Harriss in 1856, "O! I want an artist, and glorious works of art that will fill my soul with God-born impulses!" (Fidler 136). Perhaps tired of waiting for such a "glorious" art to emerge, Evans decided to produce her own, publishing in Beulah her only novel that overtly studies the tension between religious faith and artistic expression.

This essay situates Beulah within a framework attentive to the social and religious discourse influencing Evans's definition of the ideal woman of faith. Examining the extent to which Evans internalized the South's conservative gender politics, I first consider the varied models of intellectual and artistic labor the novel privileges, arguing that while Beulah's labor as author offers a viable source of financial stability, it threatens her access to more conservative definitions of womanhood in a manner Evans finds troubling. For this reason I maintain that Evans rejects Beulah's literary proclivities if only to reframe them through a medium more suited to her ideal vision of art, that of music. When read alongside an emerging nineteenth-century spiritual soundscape that defined music as capable "of doing God's work" Beulah ultimately subverts southern expectations of gender, identifying in a woman's creative expression both religious authority and social power. In the end, it is music, and specifically the Romantic prelude form, that best allows Evans to interrogate the limitations of Beulah's artistic autonomy while still maintaining her religious faith. (1)

"Fame Don't Pay": The Southern Literary Tradition

The first anthology of southern literature published in the United States, Mary Forrest's Women of the South Distinguished in Literature (1860) identified thirty white women writers who had successfully published in the pre-Civil War South, including "popular writers" like Caroline Gilman, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Caroline Lee Hentz, and Augusta Jane Evans, to name a few (vi). Anticipating the recovery work of scholars like Nina Baym and Mary Kelley who turned to the very same authors, along with their northern counterparts, to establish the reputation and cultural relevancy of nineteenth-century women writers, Women of the South Distinguished in Literature traces the longstanding tradition of female authorship in the South. Anne Goodwyn Jones observes, for instance, how "As writers, southern white women have had an active and highly visible history since colonial times. In numbers alone they outdistanced men before the Civil War" (41). Even though these women writers remain largely linked to a "fundamentally nonserious literary tradition," their work nevertheless contributed in significant ways to the representation of the ideal of the southern lady (44).

Although recognized in Forrest's anthology as a woman writer who shows "bounteous promise" (332), Evans remains one of the lesser-known "literary domestics," writing at a time when the "genre had run its course" (Baym 13). …

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