- Soft Canons: American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition
This volume collects sixteen essays about nineteenth-century American literature written by contributors from outside the United States, thus “reach[ing] beyond national boundaries [to] construct dialogues and alliances with international scholars,” as editor Karen Kilcup notes (ix). The essays in Soft Canons foreground the work of women writers in comparison and contrast to their male literary contemporaries, predecessors, and descendants, while simultaneously interrogating canon formation and the division of “male” and “female” literary traditions into separate critical spheres. The “soft canons” of the title are alternative, plural, and, most significantly, malleable: as considerations of women writers explicitly expand the canon of nineteenth-century American literature, so does an exploration of “masculine tradition” implicitly challenge the notion that any particular canon is “hard” or impermeable.
In her introductory essay, Kilcup notes the difficulty of defining “masculine tradition.” Rather than remain limited to a particular definition, Soft Canons allows for a range of interpretations, including: the work of male writers, the responses of male readers, the influence of male critics, masculine critical aesthetics, and masculine narrative strategies. Such decisions toward multiplicity rather than specificity constitute one of the book’s many strengths. As they deconstruct the binaries of male/masculine and female/feminine, aesthetics and politics, major and minor, the authors continue the process of dismantling the separate spheres of critical discourse on nineteenth-century American literature, a project also recently undertaken in a special issue of American Literature (Vol. 70, No. 3, September 1998), “No More Separate Spheres!”
The book is arranged into four sections. “Gendered Genealogies” investigates the mutual literary influences of both familiar groupings (Child’s, Cooper’s, and Sedgwick’s historical novels of the 1820s; Douglass’s and Jacobs’s slave narratives) and less common pairings (Harper’s and Howells’s race novels, Stowe’s Dred and Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson). The essays in “Genre Matters” combine fresh insights about genre with provocative critical interpretations; R. J. Ellis’s “Body Politics and the Body Politic in William Wells Brown’s Clotel and Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig” and Gabriele Rippl’s “Wild Semantics: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Feminization of Edgar Allen Poe’s Arabesque Aesthetics” provide particularly original and sophisticated analyses. By exploring more predictable author pairs in less predictable ways, the essays in “Developing Dialogues” exemplify the importance of mutual consideration of male and female writers. The texts discussed in this section continue the entire volume’s emphasis on gender (in essays on Dreiser and Chopin, Wharton and Dreiser) while also adding the further complications of class (in Fanny Fern and Hawthorne, and in the money novel) and region (the not-exactly-Western fiction of Bret Harte and Mary Hallock Foote). The contributors in the final section, “Transforming Traditions,” do precisely that: Hanna Wallinger compares Du Bois’s and Anna Julia Cooper’s “negotiations of gender,” while Lindsey Traub reexamines Emerson’s problematic posthumous reconstruction of Margaret Fuller. Ralph Poole adroitly dismantles the homosexual/heterosexual binary in “Body/Rituals: The (Homo)Erotics of Death in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Rose Terry Cooke, and Edgar Allan Poe,” and the closing essay by Susan Manning [End Page 229] probes the confluent interests of Emily Dickinson and William James in “language, consciousness, and the experiential grain of reality”(309).
In their innovative treatments of seemingly incomparable works, these critics promote dialogue not only about the texts under consideration but also about the very nature of how we read across lines of gender, race, class, and history. Individually, the essays are insightful and strong; collectively, they highlight the vibrancy of current research on nineteenth-century American women writers in particular and nineteenth-century American literature in general. In its coverage of a wide range of works, Soft Canons would be an ideal critical companion for upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses. For scholars working in the field, it clearly and successfully showcases a range of approaches, an impressive diversity of texts, and the significant accomplishment of critics working outside the United States.