- Reclaiming Authorship: Literary Women in America, 1850-1900
Reclaiming Authorship tells the story of how women overcame their oppositional status in the publishing industry and became "authors"—not as letter-writers or diarists, parlor writers or women writers—but as competitive agents in the book market. Williams insists on the distinctness of the category of female authorship (3), even as these authors wrote in different modes and for a variety of audiences. For thirty years, literary historians have needed exactly this kind of nuanced study of the variety and complexity of women writers' relation to their public. Williams's important, highly readable study expands the range of self-identifications, social events, political crises, ethics and philosophy that informed the sea change in women's authorship in the 50 years she studies.
Williams makes the compelling argument that we read women authors on their own terms, not merely in opposition to men authors. Her goal is to avoid the "oppositional thinking" that undergirds so much of the criticism of American Studies from 1850 to 1900. She does so by advancing five case studies of women's authorship, exploring how the authors made the transition from parlor literature and amateur writing to postsentimental writing: whether as realists, social gospel reformers, or memoirists. Following this shift, Williams posits that women moved from "the domestic and personal to the contractual and cosmopolitan" (2–3). Women's literary production follows its own development from the parlor to the professional status achieved in the marketplace. In making this claim, Williams does not see women as resistant, but rather as eager (and needing) to join the professional ranks of the author. She also counters the contemporary charge that only "unhappy women" wrote for publication, while others were content to limit their circulation to family and friends. In short, Williams makes writing seem both more fun and more profitable for nineteenth-century women authors, a position I am happy to see supported. [End Page 129] Women were freer than we have thought to be artists and to engage in commerce. In Williams's account, these nineteenth-century authors, through self-aggrandizement and self-promotion, achieve pleasurable levels of "satisfaction," "sociability," and "convention" (20).
What were women's particular struggles in the marketplace? They had to learn the conventions of business and contracts, what would sell and what would not, including how to master "new categories of literary production" (29). They did so by mastering detail, turning "hyperobservant" qualities of thought into social and civic-minded fictions (33). Women authors could turn their trained eyes for social detail into highly readable accounts of a "laboratory" for parlor fiction (42). As Williams argues, this is especially true for Maria Cummins, who believed that audience reception motivated women writers to publish their fictions widely. Rather than pursuing fame or celebrity, Cummins focused on meeting readers' needs, not her own, given that she published her work pseudonymously; nevertheless, her example proves that "parlor literature and market production could go hand in hand," since the readership considered The Lamplighter as a work by a "woman writer" and projected various domestic qualities onto her (83). In this way, women's writing moved from private to public in a way consistent with the expectations of the parlor but also the demands of business.
In the same way, Alcott transformed personal writings into public successes. The Civil War marked a turning point in her career, when Alcott could use the national crisis to create a national market for her work, with what Williams calls "authorial optimism" (125), predicated on the notion that women authors could combine aesthetic and economic interests. Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Abigail Dodge also turned to contract ideology as a way to justify their entrance into publication: Keckley argued with her publishers for her legal status as author, while Dodge negotiated the terms for publishing contractual rights in terms of justice. Scholars are currently turning their attention to Keckley's book as an example of racialized and feminized labor, as Williams notes, but Reclaiming Authorship...