To illustrate her claim that women ought to perform what she called “that social service which is our first duty as human beings,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman concluded that her great-aunt Harriet Beecher Stowe ultimately proved more useful as a writer than as a parent: “Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a great book. She had children too—good children as children go—but her value to the world was through the book more than the children” (“Social Darwinism” 713–14). Gilman’s contention that a woman’s work might matter more than her children appears to controvert everything Stowe and the other sentimentalists held dear, violating the tenets of the cults of domesticity and motherhood by prioritizing the public over the private sphere, work over home, and books over babies. Gilman rejoiced in her sacrilege, mocking in many of her poems and essays the cultural tendency to glorify the home as a haven from the heartless world. In one poem, for instance, she parodies the notion of the home as sacrosanct:
Oh! The Home is utterly perfect! And all its works within. To say a word about it— To criticise or doubt it— To seek to mend or move it— To venture to improve it— Is the unpardonable sin!(The Living 286) [End Page 63]
Gilman never hesitated to join the sinners, gleefully admitting that in writing her critical treatises on women’s work she was “hurling every idol from its shrine” (to GHG, 17 October 1898). Both privately and publicly, she rejected the domestic roles and sphere hallowed by her sentimental predecessors.1 Yet was Gilman really such an iconoclast, and were her priorities really so different from those of her literary foremothers?
Traditional versions of American literary history associate sentimentalism strongly with antebellum women writers and suggest that the Civil War dealt a severe wound to sentimental tenets.2 Critics generally concur that postbellum women writers produced a less coherent body of work than did their antebellum counterparts; the former had, to borrow from Richard Brodhead, more points of literary access open to them—although the public’s mounting hunger for regional tales increasingly forced their collective hands—and hence a wider and more diverse array of publishing opportunities to choose from. If postbellum women writers had anything in common, most critics agree, it would be a sharpened interest in aesthetics. For example, Elizabeth Ammons contends that late-century women writers shared, for all their diversity, a consistent focus on issues of power as well as a tendency to define themselves in opposition to the previous generation’s “scribbling women.” Many of these writers, in other words, viewed themselves as “artists” in the high culture sense of the term and concerned themselves more with craft and complex character development than with plot or profits.
Still, the premise that turn-of-the-century women writers self-consciously styled themselves artists and prioritized form fails to account fully for Gilman.3 If, as Naomi Sofer maintains, American women writers during the transitional period from 1860 to 1890 “created alternative forms of artistic production for women that blended elements of the antebellum domestic model with aspects of the emerging high-art model of authorship” (33), then Gilman is exceptional in evincing few aspirations to “high-art” status.4 The primary reason for her inclusion in the canon today, her chilling tale “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” remains an anomaly in her corpus—had she not written it, she may well have remained a footnote to literary history. As that now-canonical story attests, Gilman possessed artistic ability, but she lacked the inclination, and the early “The Yellow Wall-Paper” proved one of the few exceptions to her increasingly didactic rule. As time passed, message [End Page 64] increasingly trumped craft for Gilman and to her mind rightly so. Many of her more aesthetically-minded peers mourned Gilman’s early writings (including “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and an assortment of poems) for their “real artistic virtuosity” and beauty, sacrificed, fellow writers like Mary Austin believed, on the altar of social science and reform. Her more literary friends chastised Gilman for a decided “carelessness” when it came to matters of form...