Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"The Vivid Dreamings of an Unsatisfied Heart": Gender Ideology, Literary Aesthetics, and the "Poetess" in Nineteenth-Century America

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"The Vivid Dreamings of an Unsatisfied Heart": Gender Ideology, Literary Aesthetics, and the "Poetess" in Nineteenth-Century America

Article excerpt

In small New England villages and rural Midwestern metropolises of late-nineteenth-century America, something startling was occurring: women were writing poetry--lots and lots of it. Nor was this merely a private endeavor, for national magazines began publishing women's poetry in increasing numbers. From 1866 to 1900, for example, the self-consciously literary Atlantic Monthly published only slightly more poetry by men than by women, while Lippincott's a more popular periodical, actually printed more poetry by women than by men.(1) In addition, mid-century readers had witnessed the publication of no less than four anthologies devoted exclusively to American women poets: Rufus Griswold's Gems from American Female Poets (1842) and The Female Poets of America (1849), Caroline May's The American Female Poets (1848), and Thomas Read's The Female Poets of America (1849). May's anthology, the least popular of the four, went through six editions, while Griswold's The Female Poets was reissued and expanded an astonishing fifteen times, the last edition being printed in 1892, long after Griswold had died. Indeed, it would have been obvious to even the most casual cultural observer in the mid-to-late decades of the nineteenth century that there was a veritable flood of women writing (and publishing) poetry, and it is only recently that scholars are beginning to recognize this important literary phenomenon.(2)

So how are we to account for this large number of American women writing and publishing poetry in the second half of the nineteenth century? What historical, cultural, or literary conditions contributed to this phenomenon? The most obvious explanation is that the overall demand for books and periodicals (and the fiction and poetry that filled them) grew during this period as a result of an increase in leisure time available to middle-class Americans and a rise in their disposable income (Brodhead 43-44). Once a luxury, owning books and subscribing to periodicals had become, in the years after the Civil War, commonplace, and the growth in the "literary market" reflected this (Brodhead 44). Yet an expansion of the market for literary works in the middle decades of the nineteenth century is not the only reason for the large numbers of women publishing poetry. A more important factor affecting this phenomenon was the creation, in the early to mid-nineteenth-century, of a "voice" through which women poets could speak, and a "figure" through which they could be identified. This "voice" and "figure" was called the "poetess."

A phenomenon of print culture and directly linked to the expanding literary market place, the "poetess" was the creation of novelists, short story writers, and poets (male and female), reviewers of poetry and poetry anthologists. Of the latter, Caroline May and Rufus Griswold were the most prominent. May was born in England in 1820, the daughter of a Dutch Reformed minister who eventually settled in New York City. Reportedly a painter and musician, May was also herself an occasional poet. Her American Female Poets with Biographical and Critical Notices (1848) was an eight-volume extravaganza that received good reviews in America and England. Griswold, born in 1815 in Vermont, was a journalist and author in addition to an anthologist. Between 1842 and his death in 1857, Griswold was influential in the literary world, first as the editor of Graham's Magazine (from 1842 to 1843) and then as an editor of numerous anthologies and editions of authors' works. He is credited with both helping and hindering the careers of many writers, including women, but is primarily remembered as the literary executor of Edgar Allan Poe's estate.

Who, then, was this "poetess" that May and Griswold helped to create? At first glance, she seems to be inextricably linked to the ideology of "separate spheres," coming into relief only when set against male poets. Thus, for example, a poetess was said to write about private, often domestic concerns rather than the political or philosophical issues of interest to men. …

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