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Introduction Melissa J. Homestead and Pamela T. Washington In early 1901, Willa Cather visited Prospect Cottage in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., the longtime home of the recently deceased novelist Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte (E. D. E. N.) Southworth. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1819 to southern parents (her father from Virginia, her mother from Maryland), Southworth lived in Washington with her family until she married Frederick Hamilton Southworth and moved with him to Wisconsin in 1841. When he deserted her and their two children, she returned to Washington and taught school to support herself, turning to writing to supplement her income from teaching. Within a few years, Southworth became one of the most prolific and popular novelists of the nineteenth century, publishing scores of novels in a career that stretched from the late 1840s through the early 1890s. In 1853, she purchased Prospect Cottage with her literary earnings, and although she lived in England in the late 1850s and early 1860s and spent part of her later years in Yonkers , New York, she returned to her cottage late in her life and died there in 1899. A mere two years after Southworth’s death, Cather made her visit and Southworth’s literary legacy the subject of a newspaper article for the State Journal of Lincoln, Nebraska, for which Cather had written reviews and cultural criticism as a student at the University of Nebraska and to which she occasionally contributed even after leaving Nebraska in 1895. Cather concisely frames Southworth as a popular writer of melodramatic novels, a southerner, and a celebrity, and enacts in miniature the dynamic Andreas Huyssen describes in “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other.” At a moment in the evolution of American literature when the “great divide” was opening between mass culture and “authentic” culture, female reader and male author, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries , Cather sought to establish her own affiliation with the realm of pure art by positioning Southworth, her oeuvre, and her readers on the “wrong” side. xiv Melissa J. Homestead and Pamela T. Washington Cather’s article provides a provocative jumping-off point for our twentyfirst -century collection of essays on Southworth because it maps with precision Southworth’s location in this cultural struggle. Cather’s early-twentieth-century visit to Prospect Cottage came at a crucial moment in her career, when, as her account of the visit demonstrates, she was struggling to find a way to become a “serious ” novelist and contemplating the literary legacy of one nineteenth-century popular woman novelist with profound ambivalence.1 Writing throughout as “we,” Cather creates for herself and her readers a collective identity as modern subjects standing in judgment of a quaintly outmoded culture. However, she maintains this position of superior knowledge with difficulty, swinging between dismissive critique and defensive rationalization as she seeks to unlock the secret of Southworth’s popularity with an earlier generation of readers. Southworth’s “physical labor” is central, as Cather imagines her “sitting in the little library facing on the river, writing thousands upon thousands of pages with a fine pointed pen in her tiny laborious chirography.”2 “[P]eople bitten with the passion for creative experiments,” Cather suggests, have an obvious reason for such unremitting toil, but Southworth’s motivations puzzle her because, Cather believes, she wrote only variations of one plot over and over again: “adventures [of] self-sacrificing chambermaids and noble, though affectionate factory girls.” As Huyssen observes, “aesthetic discourse around the turn of the century consistently and obsessively genders mass culture and the masses as feminine, while high culture, whether traditional or modern, clearly remains the privileged realm of male activities.”3 Ascribing “pejorative feminine characteristics to mass culture” (i.e., Cather’s dismissal of Southworth’s female protagonists and their “adventures”) was a key move in this aesthetic discourse. Specific commercialized print forms of mass culture were, Huyssen observes, targeted for critique, including “serialized feuilleton novels, popular and family magazines, the stuff of lending libraries, fictional bestsellers and the like.”4 Southworth authored serial novels published in popular weekly family “story papers” (magazines published in newspaper format), which in book form became best sellers and favorites of lending library patrons. Southworth’s popularity simultaneously attracts and repulses Cather, the aspiring modern artist. As Huyssen explains, “The constant fear of the modernist artist is being devoured by mass culture through co-option, commodification, and the ‘wrong’ kind of success.” In a state of “constant fear,” the artist “tries to...


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Subject Headings

  • Southworth, Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, -- 1819-1899 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Southworth, Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, 1819-1899 -- Political and social views.
  • Women and literature -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Social values in literature.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History.
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