- "I Believe I Shall Die an Impenetrable Secret": The Writings of Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard, and: American Culture, Canons, and the Case of Elizabeth Stoddard
With the two books under review, the first monograph on Elizabeth Stoddard and the first collection of critical essays on her work, Stoddard criticism has taken an important step toward a more comprehensive treatment of this fascinating author who is still too often marginalized in studies of nineteenth-century American literature. Both books move well beyond a discussion of The Morgesons, Stoddard's brilliant first novel, but they do so in different ways. The study by Swiss Americanist Regula Giovani, a doctoral thesis written in English, includes overviews of Stoddard's short fiction and her poetry together with a close reading of the three novels and the columns Stoddard wrote for the Daily Alta California in the early 1850 s. Giovani extracts Stoddard's literary ideas and standards from these columns and uses them as a basis for her analysis of the novels. While for Giovani The Morgesons remains Stoddard's greatest achievement, it is her chapters on Two Men and Temple House that provide new insights.
In several appendices to her study, Giovani lists Stoddard's uncollected works and their publication venues in chronological order. These lists are based on James Matlack's unpublished biography of Stoddard and contain some corrections and additions. While they may be useful for further research, they are not without flaws, such as the inaccurate claim that a book of Stoddard's Stories was published during her lifetime. Moreover, it is unfortunate that Giovani follows Matlack in including stories by Elizabeth B. Leonard among Stoddard's work; as I have argued in the introduction to Elizabeth Stoddard: Stories (Northeastern University Press, 2003), an analysis of the language and style of these tales makes Stoddard's authorship highly unlikely. On the whole, while Giovani extends Stoddard criticism by looking at a much larger section of her work, her book suffers from a lack of contextualization; in particular, it fails to discuss Stoddard in relation to the national and international discourses of her era.
This last point is one of the many strengths of American Culture, Canons, and the Case of Elizabeth Stoddard. The collection is not only a landmark in Stoddard scholarship but also a very valuable contribution to the study of nineteenth-century American literature. The editors, Smith and Weinauer, have brought [End Page 249] together nine original essays, which are framed by a biographical foreword by Sandra Zagarell and a short afterward by Lawrence Buell. The editors' introduction suggests that Stoddard's continued neglect is indicative of the blind spots produced by current critical paradigms, even the revisionist ones that have done so much for the recovery of women writers. To study Stoddard's work is, therefore, also to question processes of canon formation. The first of the three sections in which the essays are arranged addresses these issues explicitly by placing Stoddard among her contemporaries in various fields. It opens with an excellent intertextual reading of Stoddard's poetry by Smith. In the second essay, Margaret Amstutz takes a close look at Stoddard's columns for the Daily Alta California. She draws attention to the fact that unlike other female columnists, Stoddard wrote for a distant audience, allowing her to take an objective look at her New York and New England environments, thus helping her to create an imaginative space for herself as an author. Paul Crumbley's contribution, the final essay in this section, compares Stoddard's story "Collected by a Valetudinarian" to Constance Fenimore Woolson's "Miss Grief."
The second group of essays focuses on "Gender, Selfhood, and the Discourse of Domesticity." The excitingly diverging contributions of Julia Stern and Susanna Ryan are concerned with the implications of tropes of consumption, incorporation, and introjection. While Stern offers an illuminating...