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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 251-285

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Family Embraces:
The Unholy Kiss and Authorial Relations in The Wide, Wide World

Jana L. Argersinger


In the originally unpublished final chapter of Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, Ellen and her new husband, John Humphreys, stand together before a painting of the Madonna and child and consider its meaning. This ideal woman's beauty, John declares, exists as a mere transparency through which the viewer may perceive the light of transcendent truth, the Word of the divine Father. After briefly challenging this reading, Ellen evidently capitulates—but at the same time she tells another story about the painting directly to the reader, unheard by the ravishingly masterful husband:

It was merely two heads, the Madonna and child, . . . yet how much! The mother's face in calm beauty bent over that of the infant as if about to give the kiss her lips were already pouting for; the expression of grave maternal dignity and love; but in the child's uplifted deep blue eye there was a perfect heaven of affection, while the little mouth was parted, it might be either for a kiss or a smile, ready for both. 1

In Ellen's narrative, mother and child are poised in the moment of yearning before a kiss, and the invisible paternal presence that presides over John's reading, and incarnates itself in him, seems to dissolve into absence. This scene, in its contemplation of Ellen as storyteller, caught up in spinning a private tale of family embrace, consummates a subtext that runs through the published version of the novel (1850), twining together the tropes of familial and eroticized relation to tell a story of Warner's coming-of-age as an author. That Warner permitted, and possibly sanctioned, the omission of the chapter [End Page 251] in which the climactic expression of this subtext appears becomes part of that story. 2

Many readers of Warner's unexpected bestseller, from its first appearance through much of the twentieth century, have regarded it, above all, as a religious book, one that wholeheartedly embraces the values of piety, self-discipline, and (female) submission central to the revivalistic Protestantism that dominated the antebellum era. In 1852, anthologist John Hart hailed The Wide, Wide World as the only novel "in which real religion, at least as understood by evangelical Christians, is exhibited with truth"; for Hart, as for legions of Warner's admiring contemporaries, the author and her text succeeded by giving passage to the Author and His Text, by turning as transparent as the painted Madonna that Warner herself proffers as possible exemplar in the novel's intended conclusion. 3 Not so for such renowned dissenters as Hawthorne and Melville, whose dismissal of what seemed to them shallow-brained scribblings rather than new pages of Holy Writ—contemptible for the commonplace piety that broke sales records in an undiscriminating marketplace—set the tone for critics in the next century. "What can be said of the intrinsic merit of the books themselves?" asks one scholar, writing in the 1940s about "the vogue of the domestic novel" in which The Wide, Wide World participated. The answer he hastens to supply epitomizes the kind of judgment that [End Page 252] kept Warner's novel and others like it out of serious scholarly sight for decades: "Very little. Obviously they are in no cases the product of first-rate writers." Such inferior books were wildly popular, popular enough to provoke Hawthorne, this scholar explains, because they appealed to the religious emotionalism of the era and because they were crafted well enough to impersonate "good" literature, despite an abysmal lack of originality. 4

In the latter half of the twentieth century, scholars interested in reclaiming undervalued episodes in the history of women's experience began to look at Warner's text with different eyes. Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins, to cite two influential examples, argue that compelling portraits of female selfhood can be found in the pages of Warner's novel and others like it—if...


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pp. 251-285
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Archived 2005
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