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Victoria Olwell posits in The Genius of Democracy that the ever-shifting concept of “female genius” held significant emancipatory potential to reshape commonly held views regarding politics, democracy, and citizenship from the antebellum period through World War Two. For Olwell, examining the complex and often contested idea of “female genius” recovers “a set of metaphors through which controversies over gender and citizenship could be conducted and conceptualized, in ways beyond those made possible by the major recognized political frameworks of the time” (9). The crux of Olwell’s intervention is that the trope of “female genius” enabled an oppositional line of public discourse that exerted a shaping force over controversies about women’s identity, civil status, and participation in public life.
The Genius of Democracy features incisive readings of authors including Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Mary Hunter Austin, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Gertrude Stein, interwoven with a meticulous accounting of their particular historical and political contexts. The primary source material for Olwell’s project is “literary fiction that situates female genius in particular scenes of women’s emergent publicity” (24). Prose fiction, as she demonstrates, was “where the scattered tropes of gender and genius achieved form as political narratives” (25). More accessible than historically misogynistic scientific constructions of the term, fiction writing and reading had the potential, Olwell shows, to “incorporate but also transform authoritative models of genius” (25). This transformation, in turn, had the power to alter sociocultural understandings of women’s citizenship in the context of democracy. [End Page 402]
In her first chapter, Olwell reads Louisa May Alcott’s Work: A Story of Experience (1873) in terms of a convention, rooted in Romanticism, of public discourse as inspired “genius” when a speaker, understood as a “cipher” (33), allows autonomous and impersonal speech to issue forth to an audience without apparent agency. Olwell interrogates how both Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson address “the problem of democratic subjectivity” (54), with Alcott’s novel extending Emerson’s earlier formulation of genius: “Alcott’s usage . . . reshaped ‘genius’ in order to politicize women outside of the terms provided by either domestic sentimentality or its constitutive opposite, liberal rationality” (54–55). Turning to a slightly later and significantly less reverent novelistic depiction of female public speakers, Olwell offers a provocative counter-reading of The Bostonians (1886). Henry James’s satire, she contends in her second chapter, depicts female genius not only as “a target of critique” (67) but as “the object of ambitious revision” (67). Even as James foregrounds anxieties around late-nineteenth-century feminist and political speech, he reworks “the democratic potential of the female genius trope” (97), displacing it “as a narrative principle and national metonymy” (97).
The third chapter features a fresh and fascinating reading of George DuMaurier’s 1894 novel Trilby as a text, and of the Trilby phenomenon as foregrounding the ability of mass publicity “not to kill the ‘author’ but to proliferate itself through and as the form of authorship” (133). Olwell remarks that Trilby itself extends Henry James’s preoccupation with the conflict between publicity and privacy. Furthermore, amid the repetitions and parodic borrowings surrounding Trilby, “The simultaneous assertions of Trilby’s originality and its intertextuality encouraged a new definition of ‘original genius’” (128). Even as the female character Trilby’s “split and doubled ‘genius’” (105) channels the male Svengali, commodity culture, now on the ascendant, means that “To be a female genius, in the wake of Trilby, is to speak advertisements with the conviction that they are one’s own originality” (133).
Olwell addresses early-twentieth-century conceptions of female genius in the fourth chapter, as she critiques the arc of Mary Hunter Austin’s oeuvre. In Austin’s novel, A Woman of Genius (1912), and her nonfiction guidebook for the new women voters of New York, The Young Woman Citizen (1918), as well as the contemporaneous public sphere, the concept of genius discourse “expressed an underlying ideal of democracy and democracy’s culture as transformative domains, where identities and desires could be renegotiated...