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  • Poets in the Public Sphere: The Emancipatory Project of American Women's Poetry, 1800-1900
  • Janet Gray
Poets in the Public Sphere: The Emancipatory Project of American Women's Poetry, 1800-1900. By Paula Bernat Bennett. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. 264 pp. $55.00/$22.50 paper.

In Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets: An Anthology, Paula Bernat Bennett enriched the field with discoveries from her extended immersion in venues where women's poems most abundantly went public: the periodicals, many of them local, specialized, and ephemeral, that flourished during the rise of American print culture. In Poets in the Public Sphere, Bennett unfolds her close engagement with a broad selection of these poems, at the same time advancing the critical discussions of poetry, sentimentality, women's cultural production, and the histories of gender and race. Setting her readings amidst the past several decades of debate in cultural theory and literary history, Bennett fills her book with provocative supporting arguments that are too rich in implications to summarize here, claiming, for instance, that a failure to value what "'ordinary' women" published in the nineteenth century has contributed to a scholarly overemphasis on the discursive production of women as passive victims of ideology.

Poets in the Public Sphere begins with a moment that will be familiar to anyone who has interrogated the gendering of the nineteenth-century American literary canon: the moment when we face the question of why among women poets we have studied only Emily Dickinson for so long. In her preface, Bennett tells of being confronted with this question by an external reader for her book Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet (1991)—one of two books (and much more) that Bennett herself contributed to feminist reclamations of Dickinson. Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets and Poets in the Public Sphere together represent the depth and breadth of Bennett's approach to the scholarly and critical challenges of this question.

Bennett's response departs from many others in that she does not centralize Dickinson. Nor does she take for granted that sentimental and genteel poetry constitute the remainder of the field. Much of her reading focuses on works that had already fallen into neglect well before the twentieth-century formation of American literature as an academic field, at the hands of nineteenth-century canonizers such as May, Read, and Griswold. Her eight chapters, divided into two parts, first demonstrate how women writing during the decades of high sentimentalism resisted, subverted, exposed, and exploited its tropes, then how poets worked their way to an ironized affect that led to modernism. Bennett illuminates each of these themes with a variety of angles of approach, with readings of poets now well advanced in canonicity, such as Frances Osgood and Frances Harper, alongside still almost unknown and anonymous writers. Not surprisingly, the sixth chapter, "Irony's Edge: Sarah Piatt and the Postbellum Speaker," is the book's centerpiece; Bennett has led the way in recovering Piatt's remarkable work, and her finely nuanced readings, particularly of "Giving Back the Flower," show her intimate knowledge [End Page 99] of Piatt's place in the transition from sentimentality to modernism.

Bennett persuasively demonstrates that differing views of sentimentality in recent critical literature reflect fissures in sentimentality itself as a historical movement. Engaging with debates over the merits of the cultural work of women's sentimental writing, Bennett highlights the injustice of holding women fundamentally responsible for sentimentality. Early in the book she returns us to The Sorrows of Young Werther, and women poets' ripostes to Goethe, to locate domestic sentimentality as a male bourgeois fantasy of family, nation, and class, one that tends to empty "woman" (in the person of Werther's adored Charlotte). Women's productions of sentimental discourse then represent their efforts to negotiate compliance with and resistance to a male discourse that does not recognize them as subjects and agents.

In the end, I read Poets in the Public Sphere as a book about nation building, offering as it does a close record of how marginalized voices entered public debate over the vexed intersections between gender, race, ethnicity, and class amid the evolving hegemonic stakes of "nation." Bennett shows how even poets...


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