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"The Comfort of My Fancying": Loss and Recuperation in The Gates Ajar
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Nancy Schnog  

Nancy Schnog is an assistant professor of American Literature and Civilization at Middlebury College. She is currently revising a book manuscript entitled, Inside the Sentimental: The Psychological Work of American Women's Writing and conducting research on the social construction of emotional life in nineteenth-century America.

Notes

1. For reviews of the novel's status as a best seller, see Helen Sootin Smith, Introduction to The Gates Ajar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964) vi, and James D. Hart, The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950) 121.

2. Mark Twain, Extracts from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (New York: Harper and Bros., 1909) 10.

3. On theories of psychological evasion see Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon Books, 1977) 269-72, and Sootin Smith xxv. More than her predecessor, Douglas writes in a tone of hostility toward Phelps for her promise of illusory immediate gratifications at the expense of a realistic program for political change. For another elaboration of this argument see Douglas' "Heaven Our Home: Consolation Literature in the Northern United States, 1830-1880," American Quarterly 26 (December, 1974) 513-15.

4. See Christine Stansell, "Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: A Study in Female Rebellion," The Massachusetts Review 13 (1972) 239, 244.

5. See Carol Farely Kessler, "The Heavenly Utopia of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps," in Women and Utopia: Critical Interpretations, ed. Marleen Barr and Nicholas D. Smith (New York: University Presses of America, 1983) 94.

6. This concept of "psychological work" is derived from Jane Tompkins' formulation of the more broadly defined "cultural work" of nineteenth-century American fiction. I have developed this term as a means of specifying and highlighting one set of cultural engagements especially present in nineteenth-century middle-class women's fiction. As this essay suggests, the "cultural" work of much significant middle-class women's writing was "psychological" in kind, or geared toward a greater understanding of inner life as it was constructed under middle-class domesticity. The "psychological work" of Phelps' novel should thus be understood as encompassing both the author's analysis of the emotional binds generated by domesticity and its associated consolatory practices as well as their potential meaning for nineteenth-century readers.

7. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Chapters from a Life (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1897) 98.

8. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Gates Ajar, ed. Helen Sootin Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964) 7. All subsequent references to this edition appear in the text.

9. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' personal life appears to have been shaped by devastating emotional losses in combination with a particularly lugubrious family atmosphere. Phelps' mother and role model, the elder Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, author of the enormously popular novel The Sunny Side, died when Elizabeth was eight years old, leaving her under the authority of a father noted for his obsessive interests in career, illness, and death. In her autobiography, Phelps testifies to a life freighted with domestic burdens and unsupported literary ambitions. It seems that Phelps' later loss of a suitor at the battle of Antietam revived and intensified her early sense of familial isolation, abandonment, and loss. On Phelps' psychobiography see Carol Farley Kessler, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Boston: Twayne, 1982); Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture 265-72; Christine Stansell, "Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: A Study in Female Rebellion," Massachusetts Review 13 (1972); and Mary Angela Bennett, Elisabeth Stuart Phelps, Ph.D. dissertation (University of Pennsylvania, 1939).

10. See Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982) 152.

11. While Karen Halttunen offers one of the most compelling analyses of the cult of mourning to date, her reading, I believe, tends to overemphasize motives of class aspiration in the nineteenth-century cult of mourning. Her interpretation, in other words, cedes little value to the authenticity of the needs, personal and communal, voiced through the literature of mourning and consolation. While "deep grief" and its alleviation appeal to have played a significant role in defining middle-class status, they also should be recognized as legitimate and meaningful outcries in the emotional experience of the American middle classes. When...



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