Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist

By Deborah Barker | Go to book overview

Introduction

I

IN THE LAST DECADE, A RADICAL SHIFT HAS TAKEN PLACE IN THE study of nineteenth-century American women novelists. First and foremost, their work is now being taken seriously, and, as a result, a full array of theoretical approaches—postmodern, feminist, psychoanalytic, cultural materialist, multiculturalist—are employed to analyze a group of writers often categorized under the dubious title of the “literary domestics.”1 This appellation denotes not only the ostensible subject matter of these writers—the female world of domesticity—but also connotes their second-class status as domestics who must enter the literary establishment through the back door. Despite the theoretical sophistication brought to bear in analyzing these popular writers, the one topic that is still virtually ignored is the issue of their aesthetic seriousness. I turn to the issue of aesthetics not in order to condemn nineteenth-century women writers or to champion formalist standards but to reconnect women writers' own views on aesthetics with the cultural and ideological significance of their work. Rather than assume a fundamental break between sentimental and modernist writers, I will articulate the aesthetic genealogy between nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women writers.

My assertion is that even among the most popular of the literary domestics there always were those who thought of their work as artistic, who defended that claim in their fiction, and who engaged in a literary debate with both male and female writers.2 The basic dilemma these women writers faced in asserting their own artistry, however, was that they were virtually excluded from the sphere of high culture.3 As both Richard Brodhead and Jane Tompkins have persuasively argued, in the late nineteenth century the American literary establishment selfconsciously set out to create a literary elite based on the distinction be

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Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Contents 5
  • Acknowledgements 7
  • Introduction 9
  • Reproducing Culture 25
  • 1: Cultural Reproduction and the Female Copyist 27
  • 2: Domesticating the Sublime 39
  • 3: The Riddle of the Sphinx 64
  • 4: Louisa May Alcotts Women Artists 94
  • 5: Kate Chopin's Awakening of Female Artistry 120
  • 6: Edith Wharton's Portrait of a Lady in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction 142
  • 7: Authenticating the African-American Female Artist 162
  • Notes 199
  • Bibliography 239
  • Index 255
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