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  • Our Sisters' Keepers: Nineteenth-Century Benevolence Literature by American Women
  • Gregory Eiselein
Our Sisters' Keepers: Nineteenth-Century Benevolence Literature by American Women. Edited by Jill Bergman and Debra Bernardi. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005. 312 pp. $60.00/$27.95 paper.

Benevolence was a pervasive concern throughout the nineteenth century, and literary texts frequently represented, promoted, and criticized philanthropic work. Women played an important role in these benevolent efforts because, as the historian Lori Ginzberg has shown, they were seen as morally and temperamentally suited to such work. Yet surprisingly little scholarship has focused directly on the intersection of literature with philanthropy; even less attention has been given to the place of women in benevolence literature.

In their well-conceived and fascinating new collection, Jill Bergman and Debra Bernardi break new ground in philanthropic and literary studies by putting together the first book-length examination of benevolence literature by American women. The volume focuses on efforts to help the poor from the 1830s, when the Panic of 1837 generated new attention to poverty and the role of women in charity, to the early twentieth century, when Jane Addams transformed philanthropic thinking about women, poverty relief, and the relationship of benefactors and beneficiaries. What unites these essays is a common interest in exploring [End Page 204] how philanthropic activity and literature enabled writers to re-envision American individualism and the relationship of the self to others.

The first part of Our Sisters' Keepers examines benevolence literature's subgenres. Karen Tracey analyzes poorhouse stories and the ways they deploy the gaze, panoptic or sentimental, to reinforce the power disparity between the middle classes and the poor or to question the institutions that preserve such disparity. Lori Merish follows with a brilliant chapter about sentimental seamstress literature, a popular subgenre that feminized economic dependency, thus drawing attention away from issues of class. Mary Templin's contribution charts the emergence of women's panic fiction following the economic downturn of 1837. With complexity and nuance characteristic of the volume, she demonstrates how panic fiction proposed philanthropy as the means for an expanded female agency in the nation's economy but did so by reinforcing the boundary separating middle-class women from the poor. In this section's final essay, Whitney A. Womack shows how Rebecca Harding Davis's Margret Howth reworks the British industrial reform novel so as to problematize and critique that genre's simplistic notions of women's benevolence.

The second part of Our Sisters' Keepers turns to well-known individual writers whose works explore the function of benevolence in the constitution of female identity. The essays in this section investigate alternatives to dominant forms of postbellum philanthropy and, in the process, reveal conflicting attitudes about women's benevolent work. Bernardi's study of Mary Wilkins Freeman suggests that intimacy, in the form of "Friendly Visiting," is part of philanthropy's problem (140). Freeman's alternative emphasizes the right to a "private share," a private (though not privately owned) space that allows one to live as one chooses (137). For Sarah Orne Jewett, however, intimacy is not the problem but part of the solution. As Monika Elbert's essay expertly describes, Jewett imagines a gift-based benevolence, one that forges an intimate and reciprocal bond between givers and receivers, as the distinctly female alternative to the era's dehumanizing scientific philanthropy. In the essay that follows, Bergman's insightful analysis of "motherly benevolence" in the work of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps raises questions about gender-specific modes of charity by showing how Phelps's ideas strengthen the agency of middle-class women at the expense of cross-class alliances among women (191). For Frances Harper, on the other hand, as Terry D. Novak's essay recounts, middle-class African American women have a "duty" to help poorer African Americans become educated and economically self-sufficient in ways that diminish class boundaries (215). Essays by Sarah E. Chinn and James Salazar conclude the collection with a consideration of the philanthropic alternatives developed by Jane Addams. Chinn examines the Hull-House Labor Museum as Addams's attempt to diminish ethnic and class divisions and to reconnect immigrant women to their Americanized teenage...


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