- The Selected Letters of Elizabeth Stoddard Edited by Jennifer Putzi and Elizabeth Stockton
As the first work to reproduce rather than just excerpt Elizabeth Stoddard’s letters, Jennifer Putzi and Elizabeth Stockton’s The Selected Letters of Elizabeth Stoddard is a significant contribution to the burgeoning field of Stoddard studies. The publication of Selected Letters affirms Stoddard’s current (and deserved) critical favor. Moreover, Putzi and Stockton’s decision to include samples of her newspaper columns—including the newly recovered Civil War–era “Gossip from Gotham” columns, published in the San Francisco Bulletin—draws attention to Stoddard’s long-neglected journalism. Putzi and Stockton augment the primary texts with unique features, such as biographical notes of Stoddard’s correspondents and a thoughtful introduction that, building on current epistolary scholarship, persuasively models what it means to consider “what letters doin addition to what they are” (xviii).
One strength of this new volume is Putzi and Stockton’s thorough explanation of their editorial goals and methods. They explain that they intentionally selected their archive to reflect the breadth rather than the depth of Stoddard’s correspondence, and, consequently, they carefully winnowed the over seven hundred extant letters to a mere eighty-four. As the editors confess, they “sought to avoid any pretense of objectivity or comprehensiveness,” choosing the most interesting letters to represent the scope of Stoddard’s life (xvii). Their decision to represent heavily the letters written after the 1870s provides an important corrective to scholarship that has privileged the two previous decades. Meanwhile, their choice of letters importantly counterbalances previous scholarly depictions of Stoddard as a “caricature”—especially the tart-tongued [End Page 143] “pythoness”—rather than as a complex woman who played multiple epistolary roles (xiv). They caution against reading Stoddard’s (or any) letters as purely biographical, encouraging readers to understand that letters “constitute the self” rather “than reflect it,” even while letters offer a “seemingly linear and coherent story of her life” (xiv, xvii).
The editors’ decision to represent Stoddard’s life and relationships in jots and dashes rather than sustained examinations of single time periods or relationships is often unsettling. The letters are, as a whole, deliciously readable, but they are tantalizing morsels rather than a complete intellectual meal. To borrow a phrase from Stoddard’s The Morgesons, they left me “cruel hungry,” a sign, I think, that Putzi and Stockton have achieved their editorial goals (67). It is a hunger of which Stoddard would likely approve. In an 1871 letter to Whitelaw Reid, she protested against being read as a “serial”—as a straightforward whole—insisting that she would “prove the most impossible” of her famously oblique “characters” (151).
Selected Letters does not entirely disprove the “caricature” that Putzi and Stockton dispute; Stoddard’s frequent reflections on her character—her “devilish implacability” and few “good qualities of disposition”—and the number of ruptured friendships and perceived rivalries to which she alludes even in this small selection of letters suggest that she was indeed a difficult, and often bitter, woman (114, 169). However, the publication of complete letters provides critical context for the oft-recycled pithy lines that scholars have frequently excerpted to characterize Stoddard. Putzi and Stockton’s insistence on the recursive rather than linear nature of letters results in a collection that reveals a woman who was far more loving, loyal, and self-sacrificing than has been acknowledged, and whose life was forged in the crucible of poverty and loss. Stoddard’s concern for authors who live on the “treadmill of poverty and work” speaks directly to the Stoddards’ poverty and to husband Richard’s (Dick’s) unceasing, and ill-paying, literary labor (180). As they aged, Stoddard grew increasingly concerned about Dick’s health and failing vision and in 1887 resolved to begin writing again. Although she felt inadequate to the task, she insisted: “I must, to save him something he is so unselfish so generous to me” (192). Stoddard’s investment in and reliance on her friends...