• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Emergence of American Women

The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835

by Nancy F. Cott
Yale University Press, 225 pp., $12.50 (continued from NYR, July 14)

The Feminization of American Culture

by Ann Douglas
Knopf, 403 pp., $15.00 (continued from NYR, July 14)

Perish the Thought: Intellectual Women in Romantic America, 1830-1860

by Susan Phinney Conrad
Oxford University Press, 292 pp., $12.95

Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century

by Barbara Welter
Ohio University Press, 198 pp., $4.50 (paper)

Women and Equality: Changing Patterns in American Culture

by William H. Chafe
Oxford University Press, 207 pp., $8.95

The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America

by Hal D. Sears
Regents Press of Kansas, 279 pp., $15.00

We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America

by Barbara Mayer Wertheimer
Pantheon, 376 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Seven Women: Portraits from the American Radical Tradition

by Judith Nies
Viking, 235 pp., $8.95


When life comes near to imitating art, bad art, then truth begins to sound excessive, and the writer who records life may easily become an excessive writer. This is one of the problems of Victorian letters. A check through the typically detailed “Contents” of many a fat volume of the “Life and Letters” genre reveals by objective count as well as morbid attention a shocking number of deaths and grave illnesses, particularly of children and young mothers. To flip to the text is to find there the deathbed scenes so dear to the novelists of the day, the intimations of immortality and reassurances of Heaven, and the reason nineteenth-century liberal Christianity ditched the Calvinist doctrine of infant damnation. This was a first step in a process both Ann Douglas and Barbara Welter have called “the feminization” of American religion.

It is indeed true, as Theodore Parker said, that infant damnation could never have been a woman’s idea. More to twentieth-century taste is the mute but poignant testimony of a single headstone standing behind ten short graves, listing the names, birth and death dates of these young ones who died in clusters of two or three, over a period of two decades, victims of what epidemics, fevers, or congenital diseases we cannot know. If the Victorians were much preoccupied with physiology and illness, death, and the innocence of its victims, a review of daily living helps make clear why this was so.

These reflections do not constitute a defense of Victorian second-raters, the “scribbling women” or the flaccid clergy who joined them in creating their sentimental and unrealistic literature. Nor is it an adverse reflection on any of the excellent studies recently appearing on nineteenth-century women in America, for the quality of these works suggests that a field not much more than a decade old has already reached maturity, and provides an excellent approach to the general social history of the American people. It does appear, however, that Victorian culture is especially hard to take on its own terms, and that Victorian “sentimentality” seems designed to make modern authors nervous. Each of the new books on American women must deal with it, however, for the simple reason that Victorian ideas about home and family, women and children, the subjects most freely sentimentalized, were connected at every point and in every, sense with the emergence of women into prominence in the fields of literature and reform.

Most American women who became feminists began their journey in that direction by first taking an interest in some other reform movement. Usually it was antislavery, but there were many choices, for a young country in the throes of industrial revolution was in need of radical adjustments on many fronts. The reform of educational practices prison conditions, the treatment of the insane, and the saving of prostitutes were respectable enterprises; antislavery and the women’s movement less so; and the Utopian communities aiming at a root-and-branch reorganization of society not at all.

What mix of green patriotism and democratic impulse in a young republic, of evangelical zeal or romantic perfectionism, prompted this sudden concern for reforming everything from food consumption and clothing to the public schools and the institution of marriage has puzzled students of “freedom’s ferment,” but they can agree on one point. Each component represented a strategic softening of an institution that held the individual citizen of small account. American privilege was not dead, of course, but it was making adjustments to an expanded franchise; and the faith of Calvin, with its capricious and angry God and its unflagging focus on the Last Judgment, had increasingly less to say to a world that seemed to offer opportunities for the improvement of man’s condition while yet within the vale of tears. The connection between the humanitarian reforms and the less attractive manifestations of a “sentimentalized” or “feminized” culture is that they arose from the same enhanced valuation of the common man, even the common woman and child.

That the two most famous reforms, antislavery and the women’s movement, failed to secure their goals in the antebellum period has obscured the success of less contested objectives, in public education, the care of the insane and the training of the blind, and legal reforms, even in property rights for married women. With justifications and arguments modern feminists are not particularly happy about, women like Mary Lyon opened up college opportunities for women for the first time. Both William Chafe and Susan Conrad, who in their books under review have a lot to say about educated women, agree that a strategic accumulation of trained women who had learned leadership and mutual support in college was an essential precondition for a successful drive toward woman suffrage.

If these were the necessary bonds of leadership, those who were to be led in time to ask for and take more freedom were already forming their bonds to one another, as Nancy Cott explains, on the basis of her research into the records of the lives of ordinary women who lived in the early decades of the century. What Cott suggests we might call a new “social ethic” for women developed in response to the rapid and challenging changes between the Revolution and 1830. This ethic held the private family household to be central in “the transmission of culture, the maintenance of social stability, and the pursuit of happiness; the family’s influence reached outward, underlying success or failure in church and state, and inward, creating individual character.” The family as basic social unit was not new, but woman’s great importance as the arbiter of life at home was. Cott believes that the “cult of domesticity,” though in seeming contradiction to the rise of feminism, was in fact its necessary precondition. But building the ideology of woman’s superiority “within her sphere,” however necessary from a historical standpoint, did produce the large amount of sentimental “woman is beautiful” writing that so embarrasses Ann Douglas and many of the intellectual women who are Susan Conrad’s subjects.

The women who made capital of the cult of femininity to advance their own writing careers seemed to many, even at the time, to be having their cake and eating it too. They are the subjects of Ann Douglas’s deepest disappointment, for she is convinced these editors of “ladies’ ” magazines and writers of sentimental novels launched consumerism and contributed to the rise of mass culture in America by writing what their readers, increasingly women, wanted to read. A different interpretation from Douglas’s might take the same women writers, their success with their readers, and the sentimental works themselves as evidence that the new technology of printing was already making publication too easy, and that the new literacy had quickly outrun education. But whether one accepts what might be called the “mushroom growth of democracy” theory or Douglas’s psychological explanation, that the women craved an acceptably feminine basis of authority, the results for literature were the same. It is true that readers preferred novels celebrating domesticity to serious efforts to portray the deeper conflicts of humanity. The “scribblers” by their existence made it hard for writers like Hawthorne and Melville to get readers and, what was worse, criticism they could respect.

In a fascinating critical chapter, Douglas reads Melville as being directly engaged through most of his creative writing with the growing influence of women and the liberal clergy over American letters. By Douglas’s reading of Moby-Dick (1851), Melville still hopes to influence readers, but later he turns against them, seeing the hopelessness of effecting change. This, she argues, is the meaning of Pierre (1852). So closely does Melville’s work follow and support the main lines of Douglas’s argument in The Feminization of American Culture that it would be hard to guess whether Melville inspired Douglas’s thesis or the thesis inspired the reading. In either event one Douglas reader wants to read Melville through again.

Douglas is not the first, of course, to notice that Moby-Dick is a man’s book, but for her it is so in a special way, dedicated to exploring “the meaning of masculine authority.” Starbuck, as first mate, is allowed to speak “for the softer, more ‘human’ values,” and it is he who attempts to persuade Ahab to desist from the pursuit of the white whale because of Ahab’s own young wife and newborn son. But Ahab resists such arguments, and has his way with the crew, leaving only Starbuck unconvinced, and Starbuck’s death demonstrates “the inefficacy of the sentimental creed.” The “sweet powers of air” whom Starbuck addresses cannot save him. Behind the driven Ahab Douglas sees the hard-driving God of Calvin, and believes this is the necessary way to understand the masculinity of Ahab. No conventional believer, Melville yet found in Calvinism a fit subject for serious literary exploration. “Its hieratic form, its preoccupation with pain, defiance, and grandiosity, its complex confrontation of the human and the inhuman, give Melville a suitable object for imitation, exploration, and attack.”

When Melville praises the beauty of the white whale, he does so by saying, “real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it.” For Douglas he is defending “the sublime” against a society that is merely interested in the “picturesque.” But the defense did not succeed, and Douglas’s reason for calling this chapter “the Revolt against the Reader” becomes clear. Pierre was published one year after Moby-Dick, and it registers Melville’s resentment. In it Douglas sees “a savage study of the conspiratorial interaction between genteel religion, feminine morality, and polite literature against the interests of genuine masculinity.” Pierre’s mother, Mrs. Glendinning, and her friend the Reverend Falsgrave, are made to stand for the women and ministers who have “feminized” American letters, and they show the weaknesses of their kind: they are unwilling to look at facts. They will neither of them defend a pregnant but unmarried girl, he because he is dependent on Mrs. Glendinning’s favors (as Douglas sees the liberal clergy as being dependent on women) and she because she will not remind herself of the very real limits of her powers as a woman. For she could not reach the seducer, or comprehend “the complex imperatives of male sexuality.”

Douglas also sees in the books Melville wrote about men and the sea a realistic, “Marxist” understanding of economic and social power, class relationships, that is totally missing in his more thoroughly “fictionalized” works which include women such as Pierre, Mardi, and The Confidence Man. The latter are more psychological, more “Freudian.” Women are outside class, outside economics. In these works the author is “profoundly concerned with sentimentalism and self-hatred,” and Douglas believes that he is deliberately “imitating and punishing his ‘fiction’ hungry audience.” The fit between thesis and evidence adduced is at all times so perfect that questions will inevitably arise concerning the consciousness of Melville’s intention. If Moby-Dick was meant to educate readers, to tell them that their liberalized creed no longer took evil into account, one asks why the author advised women not to read his “wicked” book. Since Moby-Dick took a long time in the writing it must have represented an extended hope, and so it seems odd that the despair of Pierre should so quickly overtake Melville. When his reviewers called Pierre “utter trash” and the “craziest fiction extant” Douglas’s readers want to know who the reviewers were, and what were their grounds for judgment beyond their hostility to Melville’s presumed hostility to them. There must be more than one reader who would prefer to read Moby-Dick six times than Pierre twice.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print