Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

The Purity of Jane; or, Austen's Cultural Importance in Nineteenth-Century America. (Miscellany)

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

The Purity of Jane; or, Austen's Cultural Importance in Nineteenth-Century America. (Miscellany)

Article excerpt

D. Michael Kramp is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He has published on Austen's cultural reputation, Virginia Woolf and RadclyVe Hall, D.H. Lawrence, and contemporary French philosophy. He is currently working on a book-length manuscript on the representation of masculinity in Austen's corpus.


JANE AUSTEN ENJOYED A CONSIDERABLE RENAISSANCE in the United States during the mid-1990s. Many of her classic tales of intelligent, restrained young women and their courtship woes were adapted to the screen, her novels came out in new editions, and oddities such as a Jane Austen cookbook and a collection of her family's poetry were published. The United States fell in love with Austen, as the saying goes, "all over again." Megan Rosenfeld has studied this resurgence in the author's fame and claims that "Jane Austen has been responsible for more hit movies than most of the overpaid screenwriters currently working" (95). Ellen Goodman adds that "Miss Austen is everywhere these days" (A 16). These comments suggest a contemporary American fascination with Austen and her works, but this recent interest in the author has a historical precedent in the 1850s and 1860s. Steve Johnson describes the recent Austen craze as a "head-scratching cultural phenomenon," but Austen has previously held a unique position within Am erican popular opinion (1). She has been both consistently valued as a culturally important writer and strategically endorsed by the public media.

While we know little about the general attitude toward the first American editions of Austen's novels, critics have agreed that her work has long been available and appreciated in this country.

Between 1853 and 1863, critical commentary on Austen and her works increased notably. These periodical notices, some of which were re-printed from British journals and almost all of which were anonymous, produced a conception of Austen as a genteel woman who writes elegant novels with admirable characters. At a time when male and female novelists alike flooded the American literary market with tales of "sentiment" and "sensation," the established American press, dominated by male reviewers, portrayed Austen as a model female author and her stories as "safe" and "artistic."

Although Austen often challenges the ostensible safety of a disciplined domestic society, many ante-bellum American periodical writers presented the novelist as a female author who writes about reality, morality and proper femininity. Literary critics have recently focused on the importance of the nineteenth-century literary marketplace as a way of investigating ante-helium culture. Stephen Railton indicates that "the American writer at mid-century [felt] particularly exposed to and dependent on the reactions of his or her audience" (18). As the United States became more urbanized, industrialized, and populated, successful writers were increasingly placed in the position of producing commodities to placate the desires of an emerging mass reading public. Many writers tried their hand at satisfying this demand, and the competition for readers was complicated and contentious. Writers of sentimental and sensational fiction became the targets of harsh attacks as the culturally powerful authors of supposedly "good " literature attempted to secure their status within the marketplace. Moreover, in a domain historically belonging to men, women now began to assert their privilege to produce and publish stories. As Mary Kelley claims, "The private female voice was being heard in a public setting.... It was an extraordinary development" (28-29). At mid-century, women writers used their voices to dominate the literary scene. Their fiction was immensely popular and accessible, but not necessarily accepted as culturally legitimate high art.

Austen was and indeed remains an anomaly in American literary history: a "safe" female author who supposedly does not succumb to the tropes of sentimentalism and sensationalism. …

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