The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 155-159
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Reclaiming the Non-Canonical Nineteenth Century
Angelina Grimké: Rhetoric, Identity, and the Radical Imagination. By Stephen Howard Browne. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1999. 224 pp. $50.00.
The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North & South, 1861-1865. By Alice Fahs. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001. 424 pp. $39.95
Fire & Fiction: Augusta Jane Evans in Context. By Anne Sophie Riepma. Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, 2000. 222 pp. $37.00.
Since the 1970s critics have been reclaiming nineteenth-century popular women's literature from the label it received at the hands of canonical great Nathaniel Hawthorne: "a damned mob of scribbling women." Nina Baym's Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels By and About Women in America, 1820-1870 was instrumental in this effort, and as Baym points out, the categories of popular literature and women's literature often overlapped in the nineteenth century when women writers writing for women dominated the American literary marketplace. Anne Sophie Riepma's Fire & Fiction: Augusta Jane Evans in Context contributes to the reclamation of nineteenth-century popular women writers by exploring the works of one of the most popular ones. Two other new studies, however, broaden the critical net slightly by including popular male writers of the nineteenth century and a rather unpopular female writer. Alice Fahs, in The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North & South, 1861-1865, records and analyzes the most popular works written by men and women and for an audience of men, women, and children during the Civil War, and Stephen Howard Browne, in Angelina Grimké: Rhetoric, Identity, and the Radical [End Page 155] Imagination, examines one of the most important women writers and orators of the nineteenth century who was more infamous than popular.
As Browne points out in his introduction to Angelina Grimké, most previous studies of this orator have focused primarily on her culture and biography. This, however, is not Browne's intention: "No one will mistake what follows as the work of a professional historian. It represents the efforts of a critic to interpret texts of a kind." Because his focus on rhetoric demands close textual analysis, Browne "plead[s] for patience" from the reader as he builds his argument that Grimké's great talent and contribution to the abolitionist and women's rights movements was her ability to rhetorically transform the violent opposition that surrounded these movements into a catalyst for "collective moral action" against slavery.
Browne follows Grimké's development as a rhetorician and an abolitionist through her early journal entries and through a letter written in response to William Lloyd Garrison's "Appeal to the Citizens of Boston," which Browne describes as her abolitionist debut. We then see her stance against slavery mature in an open letter titled "Appeal to Christian Women of the South" (1835) and her stance on women's rights evolve through her published letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe (1836) and the private letters to her future husband, Theodore Weld, both exchanges debating the role of women in the abolitionist movement. The study culminates with an in-depth analysis of Grimké's final abolitionist oration, the Pennsylvania Hall Address. In this final chapter, Browne poses the question, "How was violence itself rhetorically constructed and put to symbolic use?" To which he replies in part that violence served Grimké as a fulcrum on which to "leverage faith" and as a vehicle through which to transform from crisis to rebirth.
The final chapter is the most complex and most convincing in Browne's study. Through a close analysis of one of Grimké's actual speeches and through a description of the setting in which it occurred, Browne demonstrates that "by moving [the outside mob] violence indoors [into the text of her speech], by refusing to ignore or succumb to it, Grimké allowed violence to do what it does best: to make evident the stakes involved in moral choice, community, and action." In the earlier chapters, this thesis is not clearly supported. What we get in...