- Influencing America's Tastes: Realism in the Works of Wharton, Cather, and Hurst
Influencing America's Tastes begins with three ambitious and commendable goals: to promote a reconfiguration of American literature survey courses to include texts by women writers who rejected modernist aesthetics in favor of realism, to supplant the emphasis on "separate spheres" in our study of gender with the ideology of women's influence, and to correct feminist scholars' disregard of "the aesthetic [End Page 672] goals of the [female] authors they want to resurrect in the canon" (14). The first and third aims are particularly laudable now as we reflect on the gains feminist scholars have made in the recovery of women writers and reassess our goals in this ongoing project.
Another potentially significant contribution of this study is its search for continuities between nineteenth- and twentieth-century women writers' identities and aesthetic principles, a welcome deviation from the usual claim that the relationship of later writers to their predecessors was purely antagonistic or even amnesic. Specifically, Stephanie Thompson argues that the ambitions of Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Fannie Hurst to influence their readers' tastes can be traced to the desire of nineteenth-century women writers, represented here by Louisa May Alcott, to influence their readers' morals. Ultimately, Thompson claims, we can recognize in Wharton's, Cather's, and Hurst's rejection of modernism not an acquiescence to the middlebrow but a gender-inflected aesthetic that offers an alternative to the male-dominated canon of high modernism.
Three out of the six chapters focus on the writers mentioned in the title. The three preceding chapters examine the ideology of women's influence, Alcott's fraught relationship to that ideology, and the gender bias of high modernism. The first of these covers familiar ground for anyone who has read the standard studies on nineteenth-century women writers, many of which Thompson unnecessarily summarizes. (Strangely, Nina Baym's important works are overlooked, as are the many contributions to the separate spheres debates published since 1990.) Thompson's main argument here is that mid-nineteenth-century women writers' view of their publications "as a means of expanding their sphere of [moral] influence" proved to be restrictive rather than expansive (19). What is not clear is how Thompson's focus on the concept of women's influence is preferable to the emphasis on "separate spheres" so pervasive in nineteenth-century gender studies today. She claims that while "the rhetoric of women's influence purportedly reinforced the ideology of separate spheres, these concepts complicate and at times contradict each other," yet she does not explain how (20).
The chapter on Alcott also suffers from a selective and dated use of the available scholarship. Most unfortunate is Thompson's reliance on Martha Saxton's 1977 feminist psychobiography of Alcott and her complete disregard of the studies authored by Sarah Elbert and Richard Brodhead, both of which would more closely complement the culturally contextualized approach Thompson takes to her material. Overall, this chapter repeats the old story of Alcott as burdened by her family's material needs and adherence to the "true womanhood ideal" (48), with the blame for Alcott's capitulation to [End Page 673] middle-brow literature once again laid at her father's feet. Here Thompson misses an opportunity to examine the concept of influence Alcott inherited from her parents and their Transcendentalist friends. In her analysis of Little Women, Thompson is more nuanced. Although the novel advocates conventional roles for women, she argues, in the end "a distinct trace of ambition lurks beneath the veneer of true womanhood" (57), allowing Alcott to "influence some of her readers to question why Jo and other female artists must give up their ambitions" and ultimately to "encourage . . . later writers like Wharton, Cather, and Hurst to rewrite the narrative of the woman artist, a move Alcott could not make herself" (69).
In the third chapter, Thompson begins to build her argument against modernism's dominance in the study and teaching of early-twentieth...