Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"Prayers in the Market Place": Women and Low Culture in Catharine Sedgwick's, "Cacoethes Scribendi"

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"Prayers in the Market Place": Women and Low Culture in Catharine Sedgwick's, "Cacoethes Scribendi"

Article excerpt

Our nation's learning rests on Caesar's whim Since he alone still favors our sad Muses, And writers daily, seeing life grow grim, Take jobs in baths or ploy some other ruses ...

Despite this all, our poets carry on, Plowing their sterile furrows with dull plows, For they can't stop. The itch for writing grows And fame secures them like a hangman's noose, And cuts off any sense inside the brain. It's truest, too, of course, of the real genius Who shuns a hackneyed or a vulgar strain. Juvenal, "Satire VII"

In 1830, Catharine Sedgwick published a new short story in the Atlantic Souvenir, an annual collection of fiction and verse whose editors were eager to "do credit to the genius and talent of the country" (v). Early in her tale of "Cacoethes Scribendi," or "writer's itch," someone returns from "a visit to Boston ... at the season of the periodical inundation of annuals," and sets the story in motion:

   Mrs. Courland seized upon the annual with avidity. She had imbibed a 
   literary taste in Boston, where the best and happiest years of her life 
   were passed. She had some literary ambition too. She read the North 
   American Review from beginning to end, and she fancied no conversation 
   could be sensible that was not about books. (52-53) 

Not long after "seiz[ing] upon the annual," Mrs. Courland puts pen to paper and begins to write. Thus, by framing her protagonist's literary world with the North American Review on the one hand and an unnamed annual on the other, Sedgwick introduces two contentious debates from the antebellum period: the tension between perceived "high" and "low" cultural production, and women's place in that divide. Gently mocked for her clearly not "sensible" views on literature and learning, Mrs. Courland may have pretensions to the type of intellectuality symbolized by the North American Review. But her writing is undertaken as a direct response not to the NAR, but to the annual wherein she finds a sympathetic likeness: "The annual was destined to fix her fate. She opened it--the publisher had written the names of the authors of the anonymous pieces against their productions. Among them she found some of the familiar friends of her childhood and youth" (53). The critical journal may be connected to intellectual prestige, but it is the annual that combines "destiny" and "fate" in one sentence: it is clearly where Mrs. Courland belongs. But is this belonging a matter of sexual fate?

I begin with these two references, and with the Juvenal lines from which Sedgwick borrows her Latin title, as a means of broaching the rather serious subjects that the story "Cacoethes Scribendi" treats satirically. For in adopting Juvenal's terms to title a story about women's writing, Sedgwick invites us to interpret "Cacoethes Scribendi" allegorically (if loosely so): that her story about women's writing, replete with intertextual commentary on various types of antebellum literary forms, bears some resemblance to Juvenal's picture of turn-of-the-first-century Rome. The seventh Satire begins by considering the low point to which Roman arts and letters have fallen; ruled by the whims of an autocrat and enticed by visions of popular success, classical scribes produce little of lasting value. The writer's itch which "cuts off any sense inside the brain" affects hacks and geniuses alike, and in so doing, it is the whole of Roman culture that suffers. Any "real genius," then, that might underlie manifestations of art or literature is interestingly subject to, and corrupted by, both the power of the individual (Caesar) and the power of the masses. While terms like genius or art may have possessed stable meanings for the ancient poet, their volatile charge would have been achingly familiar to a writer like Sedgwick--and should be so to us. The New England that Sedgwick inhabited was riven by its own debates concerning the origins, legitimacy, authenticity, and aesthetic excellence of its cultural production, which returns us to the question of how contemporary critics might make sense of a story that appears to mock its own published format--possibly, even to criticize women's aspirations for writing. …

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