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

By Deborah Barker | Go to book overview

2
Domesticating the Sublime:
Fanny Fern and E. D. E. N. Southworth

I

FANNY FERN, IN THE PREFACE TO HER SECOND NOVEL, ROSE Clark (1856), describes the proper setting for the reading of her novel. It is a cozy domestic scene in which family members draw together around the fire and smile, or shed a tear, in reaction to the reading. While this may seem a fairly innocuous setting for the reading of a domestic novel, Fern sees it as a contested space. She attempts to safeguard her audience and their reception of the novel by barring the door to the literary critic, the “dictionary on legs,” whom she consigns to “some musty library, where ‘literature’ lies embalmed, with its stony eyes, fleshless joints, and ossified heart, in faultless preservation.”1

Using Fern's preface as evidence of her rejection of “membership in an artistic fraternity,” Nina Baym quotes at length from Rose Clark to support the assertion that American women writers before the 1870s “conceptualized authorship as a profession rather than a calling, as work and not art.”2 But Baym goes on to make the even stronger claim that “the dimensions of formal self-consciousness, attachment to or quarrel with a grand tradition, esthetic seriousness, are all missing” in the work of these women writers.3 It is, however, precisely because of her “esthetic seriousness” and her “quarrel with a grand tradition” that Fern rejects the “artistic fraternity.” In Rose Clark, Fern delineates her own aesthetics of familial sentiment that promotes rather than denigrates female creative production. She boldly heralds feminine acts of courage as the most innovative subject for art, and she privileges the female gaze based on women's familial sensibilities as superior for creating and judging art. To speak as her artistic champion, Fern creates Gertrude Dean, a successful painter with a “reputation as an artist.” Gertrude's

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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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