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THE REPOSSESSION OF A HERITAGE: ELIZABETH STODDARD'S THE MORGESONS Sandra A. Zagarell* Inheritances, and the conventions that govern them, not only enrich but limit. Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard (1823-1902) is one nineteenth -century American writer who reflects on this paradox, but though her concern with inheritance links her with more familiar writers like James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, her work has, ironically, been obscured by the construction of a literary legacy that barely acknowledges her existence.1 Stoddard's place in American literature has remained negligible primarily because readers have never known how to place her. Though she has come in for praise as a New England regionalist, a realist, and an early modernist,2 such terms have actually reinforced prevailing versions of literary history at the expense of illuminating her highly iconoclastic writing. On one level, her work's incompatibility with literary conventions would have given Stoddard a certain ironic satisfaction, for she was bent on challenging reigning conventions of her own day. An outstandingly ambitious woman with a keen sense of her own merits, she wanted equality with male writers in a culture in which most women novelists worked to explore women's sphere. Though she shared many of the concerns of the American novelists whose work Nina Baym has recently reconceived as women's fiction, Stoddard spurned the commercialism and female readership which made women's fiction, in her eyes, inferior to the accomplishments of men, and sought to make a name for herself in the more prestigious world of male writers to which she was tenuously connected through her husband, poet Richard Henry Stoddard , and his circle.3 In her earliest published work, her "Lady Correspondent " columns for The Daily Alta California—written in the 1850s for a predominantly male audience—she frequently pronounced on the limitations of women's fiction while demonstrating her own worldliness through shrewd assessments of male writers like Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens. The short stories that soon followed appeared in magazines with mixed audiences—The Atlantic, Harper's—but never in those pitched solely to female readers like Godey's Lady's Book. Stoddard 's quest for prestige, however, was matched by a highly prized sense of female identity, and she was painfully aware that her culture judged *Sandra A. Zagarell is an Assistant Professor of English at Oberlin College. She edited, with Lawrence Buell, "The Morgesons" and Other Writings, Published and Unpublished , by Elizabeth Stoddard for the University of Pennsylvania Press. 46Sandra A. Zagarell ambition like hers incompatible with femininity. Her letters protest the discrepancy between her personal sense of womanliness and contemporaries ' objections to her writing's unfeminine "coarseness."4 Her Alta columns ponder the social causes of women writers' supposed mediocrity with revealing frequency. And her first novel, The Morgesons, takes as its subject the conflict between female ambition and the conventions that circumscribe it. In The Morgesons, Stoddard appropriates from several traditions of narrative—male and female, British and American—to lay claim to a broad literary heritage while endowing her protagonist, Cassandra Morgeson, with possibilities beyond those of the conventional heroine.5 Because Stoddard recognized that gender and genre hindered female character and female author alike, The Morgesons also engages in a continual commentary on the traditions it seeks to synthesize. Its subject, female self-development, links it, as Stoddard undoubtedly knew, with women's fiction. Like the works of Caroline Chesebro' and others commented on in the Alta, The Morgesons concentrates on its protagonist's deepening understanding of the world and how it affects her. Stoddard shared the view that marriage and domestic competence were essential to women's power, although she rejected the transformation of the ideology of true womanhood into a vision that prized women's strengths over those of men. Instead, she challenged women's exclusion from the male world, sending her heroine on a quest for sexual experience and economic autonomy that ventures into proscribed territory: The Morgesons critiques the masculine shape of the Bildungsroman, rather than adapting that genre to women's sphere, as women's fiction did.6 Though, like many Bildungsromane, Stoddard's novel is structured around a series of journeys, her...

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