Editors Putzi and Socarides have assembled a thorough, systematic, and informative collection of twenty-five essays on a wide range of nineteenth-century American woman poets that will undoubtedly serve as the authoritative source for this surprisingly underestablished yet burgeoning area of literary history for the foreseeable future. As the extensive reading list appended to the book attests, invaluable editorial work and critical studies have been in progress for more than a generation—including anthologies edited by Janet Gray, Cheryl Walker, and others; definitive editions of individual poets' works; biographies and defining critical studies by Paula Bennett, Mary Loeffelholz, and many others; and groundbreaking books on individual historical periods. But this publication now allows seasoned readers, scholars, and newcomers to engage the poems and their cultural contexts with a cogent sense of the breadth of women's poetry from the period, even as the authors persistently encourage (and sometimes mandate) further critical work to be pursued.
As a history, rather than a series of critical essays, per se, the volume divides chronologically into three parts: the early postcolonial years of defining US nationhood; the divisive decades between North and South before and through the Civil War; and the culturally transformative post-bellum period, an era that anticipated modernism (so these writers argue) more than has previously been acknowledged. In their preface, the editors admit to the limitations of imposing temporal divisions, as indeed a number of essays transgress such boundaries. From the opening chapter on Lucy Terry Prince to various studies of Lydia Huntley Sigourney, [End Page 571] whose work spanned the first half the century, to women bohemian poets through the century's latter half and the comprehensive account of Native American women poets across the century, the essays overall convey a history less demarcated than a glimpse at the table of contents suggests. In fact, a beneficial supplement to what's here, especially for readers not yet familiar with many of the poets discussed, might be a chronological table of prominent publications, with a list of poets with birth and death dates, as a guidepost to reinforce dates within the text. Still, the collection's design emphasizes the editors' concern for a history of the poems more than the poets—not to diminish the poets' lives (since authors include plenty of biographical information), but to direct readers to texts not well known and open them to a fuller discussion.
With this perspective in mind, the collection also varies, essay by essay, in approach. Some authors (especially in early chapters) trace the diverse, unusual modes of the literary production of early women's poetry: gift books, offerings, album verse, monographs, anthologies, and (for Emily Dickinson) fascicles. Others concentrate more on the social context of and audience for women's poetry, such as the poetry of the loom, the simultaneous publication of three anthologies of women poets in 1848−49, poetry on slavery and abolition, bohemian poetry, American Indian poetry, and children's poetry, all substantial demonstrations of how dynamic women's literary activity throughout the century was, despite the dearth of attention or dismissal from their highbrow contemporaries. A third cross-section delves in detail into poetic techniques (sonnets, friendship elegies, parody, meter, the dramatic monologue, and hymns), while a fourth explores women's aesthetics as shaping transcendentalism, transatlantic bonds, gothicism, flower or religious motifs, and literary realism in their time.
Surveying the century this way certainly contributes to restoring and sustaining these poets' works, but more than that, it redefines the century. And while the authors invite serious scrutiny of the poems recovered here, readers will find plenty of sustained critical readings. Among the poets, for instance, Lydia Huntley Sigourney emerges as an abiding presence through the first two-thirds of the century, as she is reappraised from various perspectives. Although Frances Sargent Osgood (a remarkable poet, in my view) receives less attention, others find new, appreciative readings likely to strengthen their prominence among their better-established male counterparts, as well as among female fiction and memoir writers—especially [End Page...