Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Limits of the Mother at Home in the Wide, Wide World and the Lamplighter

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Limits of the Mother at Home in the Wide, Wide World and the Lamplighter

Article excerpt

By the middle of the nineteenth century, domesticity had gained a position of prominence, if not dominance, in American culture; this discourse of home, family, and private life influenced everything from home design to social reform movements. (1) A primary feature of this ideology concerned the mother's role as child nurturer and educator, a role for which women were supposed to be divinely intended and biologically designed. As historian Mary Ryan has observed, "the feminization of child-rearing, in literature and in practice, dovetailed neatly with the gender system enshrined in the cult of domesticity. The true woman was the perfect candidate for the role of child nurturer. She was loving, giving, moral, pure, and consigned to the hearth." (2)

Much mid-nineteenth-century domestic literature, in the form of advice manuals, articles in ladies' magazines, and published sermons, reiterated and reinforced this message through reverent portrayals of the mother as "tutelary seraph," a home-bound figure who instills virtue and religion in her children through the medium of her matchless love. (3) In his popular guide for parents, Fireside Education (1838), Samuel Goodrich describes the infant's early impressions of its mother, a "ministering spirit" who supplies all its inchoate needs: "If cold, [she] brings it warmth; if hungry, she feeds it; if in pain, she relieves it; if happy, she caresses it ... The mother is the DEITY OF INFANCY!" (4) AS the child matures, though, it begins to require more than food, warmth, and affection. Now, according to Goodrich, the father steps in:

   Hitherto, [the child] has been a creature of feeling; it now becomes a 
   being of thought. The intellectual eye opens upon the world.... Curiosity 
   is alive, and questions come thick and fast to the lisping lips ... At this 
   period, the child usually becomes fond of the society of his father. He can 
   answer his questions. He can unfold the mysteries which excite the wonder 
   of the childish intellect. (15) 

This description typifies the view taken by many didactic writers who focus on the mother's role as child educator. In these texts, maternal instruction appears as an instinctive, spontaneous reaction rather than a reasoned, deliberate choice (a competency reserved for fathers). Indeed, as a writer for The Mother's Magazine phrased it in 1841, a mother was supposed not "to teach virtue but to inspire it." (5) Taken together, these writings suggest that the ideal mother accomplished her work simply by loving her children; no more rigorous methods were necessary. At its core, the antebellum cult of the mother rested on the fundamentally emotional, irrational character of the mother's attitude towards her children. To underscore this point, I will use the term "sentimental maternalism" to refer to this cluster of beliefs. (6)

Most critics of nineteenth-century American literature conclude that the popular women's novels of mid-century bear the imprint of domesticity, including its emphasis on sentimental maternalism, although they debate the extent to which these texts advance or impede progressive political transformation. (7) Stephanie Smith, for example, deems it a "commonplace" to say that "representations of a sanctified motherhood formed the primary cornerstone for commercially successful writing in the United States of the nineteenth century." (8) But to suggest that domestic fictions uniformly or unequivocally promote sentimental maternalism misreads this genre. Detailed portraits of competent, capable motherhood (let alone the sanctified variety) rarely appear in most domestic fictions. (9) Far from promoting the mother's educative primacy, some of the nineteenth century's best-selling domestic novels demonstrate nothing so much as her superfluity.

This article shows how two popular domestic novels--Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Maria Cummins' The Lamplighter (1854)--point out the limits of sentimental maternalism as an instrument for educating young women. …

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