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The Genius of Democracy

Fictions of Gender and Citizenship in the United States, 1860-1945

By Victoria Olwell

Publication Year: 2011

In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States, ideas of genius did more than define artistic and intellectual originality. They also provided a means for conceptualizing women's participation in a democracy that marginalized them. Widely distributed across print media but reaching their fullest development in literary fiction, tropes of female genius figured types of subjectivity and forms of collective experience that were capable of overcoming the existing constraints on political life. The connections between genius, gender, and citizenship were important not only to contests over such practical goals as women's suffrage but also to those over national membership, cultural identity, and means of political transformation more generally.

In The Genius of Democracy Victoria Olwell uncovers the political uses of genius, challenging our dominant narratives of gendered citizenship. She shows how American fiction catalyzed political models of female genius, especially in the work of Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Mary Hunter Austin, Jessie Fauset, and Gertrude Stein. From an American Romanticism that saw genius as the ability to mediate individual desire and collective purpose to later scientific paradigms that understood it as a pathological individual deviation that nevertheless produced cultural progress, ideas of genius provided a rich language for contests over women's citizenship. Feminist narratives of female genius projected desires for a modern public life open to new participants and new kinds of collaboration, even as philosophical and scientific ideas of intelligence and creativity could often disclose troubling and more regressive dimensions. Elucidating how ideas of genius facilitated debates about political agency, gendered identity, the nature of consciousness, intellectual property, race, and national culture, Olwell reveals oppositional ways of imagining women's citizenship, ways that were critical of the conceptual limits of American democracy as usual.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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Introduction: The Work of Genius

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pp. 1-31

IN an 1855 speech, the labor and women’s rights advocate Frances Gage argued in support of married women’s control over their own earnings, hoping to nullify married men’s legal ownership of their wives’ wages. At her rhetorical zenith she proclaimed, “Let us own ourselves, our earnings, our genius.”1 Within the familiar idiom of liberal democracy, Gage’s exhortation is exactly two-thirds intelligible. Gage’s first two demands, that women ...

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Chapter 1. “It Spoke Itself ”: Genius, Political Speech, and Louisa May Alcott’s Work

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pp. 33-65

LOUISA May Alcott’s 1872 novel, Work: A Story of Experience, concludes with the opposite of “work”: genius. The novel has taken its heroine, Christie Devon, through a highly fragmented narrative of labor where work has had many guises and involved many travails but is experienced in such an episodic and incoherent way that its larger social and economic dimensions are hard to trace. In the novel’s final chapter, however, she enters an ...

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Chapter 2. Genius and the Demise of Radical Publics in Henry James’s The Bostonians

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pp. 66-100

ALCOTT’S Work opens up a context where conceptions of female genius sustained a discourse on women’s citizenship, one that served as an alternative to the more familiar models provided by liberal political culture, sentimentality, and even the nineteenth-century woman movement’s own difference-based models. What lent the female genius discourse its vibrancy was in part its ability to imagine women’s participation in a democratic cul-...

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Chapter 3. Trilby: Double Personality, Intellectual Property, and Mass Genius

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pp. 101-133

IN 1894 George Du Maurier’s novel Trilby set off a craze. The novel tells the story of a laundress and Parisian artist’s model, Trilby, who befriends three young English painters, becoming at once their collective sweetheart and unpaid servant. After circumstances separate her from them, she becomes allied with Svengali, a musician and Hungarian Jew, under whose hypnosis she attains “world-wide colossal celebrity” as a singer.1 Issues of Harper’s Monthly ...

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Chapter 4. Mary Hunter Austin: Genius, Variation, and the Identity Politics of Innovation

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pp. 134-176

IN Mary Hunter Austin’s A Woman of Genius (1912), the heroine, Olivia Lattimore, reaches a turning point in her relationship with her lover. She is an acclaimed actress, but he wants her to leave the stage, marry him, and become the stepmother to his two daughters. Explaining why she cannot do this, she tells him that she is “two things, a woman and a genius.”1 What could she mean by this? At first glance the fight she is having with him looks almost ...

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Chapter 5. Imitation as Circulation: Racial Genius and the Problem of National Culture in Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There Is Confusion

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pp. 177-212

JESSIE Redmon Fauset has a problem: she is not a great novelist. In this she, of course, has much company, but her nongreatness has been an exemplary case. For some of Fauset’s Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, she failed to be great because her sensibility and aesthetic alike were too conventional. To take perhaps the most notable instance, Benjamin Brawley, an educator, literary scholar, and contributor to the major periodicals of the Harlem Re-...

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Coda: Gertrude Stein in Occupied France

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pp. 213-237

BEING a genius, at least according to Gertrude Stein, excuses one from thought: “anyway a genius need not think, because if he does think he has to be wrong or right he has to argue or decide, and after all he might just as well not do that.”1 The genius she has in mind here is herself, comprehended in her typical terms of universalized masculinity. Stein wrote these words in Everybody’s Autobiography, published in 1937 as an attempt to refresh the lit-...


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pp. 239-265


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pp. 267-280


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pp. 281-287


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pp. 289-290

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204971
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243246

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700619
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Genius of Democracy

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Women and democracy -- United States -- History.
  • Women in literature.
  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • American fiction -- Women authors -- History and criticism.
  • Women in public life -- United States -- History.
  • Genius.
  • Genius in literature.
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