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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 16.2 (2006) 123-150

The Road to Perdition:
E.D.E.N. Southworth and the Critics
Linda Naranjo-Huebl

Much new scholarship on E.D.E.N. Southworth has appeared over the last two decades, but there has been no comprehensive review of how Southworth's work was received by the critics. A few of the mid-twentieth-century studies that address Southworth's fiction, including Regis Louise Boyle's Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (1939) and Helen Papashvily's All the Happy Endings (1956), reference positive reviews of her work; but the narrow focus of the former and a lack of citations in the latter make it difficult to follow up on their findings. 1 The next source on the critical reception of Southworth's fiction comes with Nina Baym's Woman's Fiction (1978) followed by her Novels, Readers, and Reviewers (1984), impressive archival projects that opened many doors for the study of nineteenth-century women's fiction. Speaking of both Caroline Lee Hentz and Southworth, Baym contends they were "flagrant transgressors" of the "unwritten laws constraining the woman author," but that with such "high spirits and good humor in their lawlessness . . . they largely escaped criticism." 2 Baym later posits that Southworth's books were initially "condemned for their stylistic excesses. As her popularity became manifest, reviewers perceived her appeal as grounded at least partly in that same style, indeed in the very qualities they had objected to; hence they changed their vocabulary when describing it." 3 Recent studies of Southworth seem to rely on these scholars' assessments, although some note the exceptions of the negative criticism by Southworth's editor, Henry Peterson, and Sarah Josepha Hale (Godey's Lady's Book), discussed below. 4

With a concentrated focus on contemporaneous reviews of Southworth's work, I have found that substantive reviews of Southworth's fiction were not as positive or magnanimous as has been reported. Several of these critics acknowledged her potential (a quite common [End Page 123] evaluation of debut novels, involving little risk); but, with the exception of two mixed but relatively positive reviews of her first book, Retribution (1849), most contemporaneous reviews judged her work negatively. Notably, these negative reviews abounded at a time when, according to an 1851 North American Review article on female authors, it was the "custom to praise lady authors" in a manner reminiscent of the praise "bestowed by a smiling school-committee man upon a smart school-girl's theme, after a whispered agreement, that with some pruning and a little more thought, it would be really a surprising achievement for a girl." He concludes that if the "scribbling fair" have the "good fortune to be brought under notice at all, they are the theme of neatly turned compliments and ingenious congratulations." 5 If his assessment was at all accurate, reviews of Southworth's work were exceptional in that the critics spared no detail about what they considered her books' flaws, sometimes doing so with a mean-spiritedness usually reserved for slavery debates. Much of the positive criticism mentioned by Southworth and her publishers in biographical notices (and echoed by Boyle and Papashvily) may have come from weekly periodicals, which are difficult to research and unreliable: book reviews were not a consistent feature in their pages, and when included they were often very brief and frequently promoted the papers' own writers or the writers they sought to enlist. Focusing on reviews from those periodicals that advertised themselves principally as literary magazines and that featured a regular forum for reviewing new books, I have found that the critical evaluations of Southworth's work were primarily negative. While Nina Baym's finding that they condemned her early "stylistic excesses" remains correct, the reviewers also took strong exception to the moral tone of Southworth's fiction. They found both style and subject matter "too much," that is, excessive, extravagant, wild, superfluous, uncontrollable, dangerous; and they...


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