- Wielding the Pen: Writings on Authorship by American Women of the Nineteenth Century
How rare it is, Alice Dunbar-Nelson suggests in the poem "Three Thoughts," to be among the few who "Go to our work with gladsome, buoyant step." The poem's narrator claims to have attained this buoyancy because she works for "The love of art and art alone." In the past thirty years scholars of nineteenth-century literature have thoroughly challenged the conception that only a few women were among this laboring force of writers or that they worked for the love of art rather than for wages and fame. Yet the general assessment has remained that few nineteenth-century women critiqued the literary arts. When women did discuss these issues, it seemed to be in a shadow world, embedded in novels, poems, and letters. In Wielding the Pen, Anne E. Boyd has pulled back the curtain of this shadow world to reveal a great, thunderous conversation among nineteenth-century women writers that crosses races, classes, genres, the famous, and the obscure. Richly conceived and voluminous in content, Wielding the Pen is a significant contribution to the current rethinking of nineteenth-century women's writings as a field.
Included are traditionally styled critiques, such as Margaret Fuller's review of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's A Drama of Exile. While few women writers offered essays such as Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition," they did pursue a path similar to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who presented his theory of romance in a preface to The House of the Seven Gables or in letters to editors and literary friends. Boyd's collection draws our attention to how widespread and diverse were women's literary analyses. In the preface to My Story of the War, for instance, Mary Livermore rejects the romantic idea of truth emerging in the immediacy of expression. She preferred to allow the power of time for reflection, she argues, in order to garner a more realistic recollection of her Civil War experiences through a subsequent "largeness and variety of experience."
Some writers acknowledge the influences of the past, such as Maria Gowen Brooks' poem Zophiel, which was based on the apocryphal Book of Tobit), while others embed their critiques in fictional representations of women writers, such as Rebecca Harding Davis' story of "Marcia." The established narrator-writer to whom she sends her work criticizes her lack of skill while acknowledging the originality of the story's content; but a good idea is insufficient, Davis' story suggests—writing is an art and to be an author one's language skills must evince talent and training. Boyd's collection reveals how such themes continue throughout the century, as Davis' story echoes [End Page 83] the earliest selection in the collection: Judith Sargent Murray's poem "The Rage for Writing" (1801), which mocks the writer who believes she has talent because she "can fill a page" or declare "a creed."
While many well-known women writers are included in the collection, a significant aspect of Wielding the Pen's value lies in the inclusion of lesser-known writers. Surely one of the most understudied literary and cultural critics of the nineteenth century is Helen Gray Cone. That her essay "Woman in American Literature" (1890) begins with an epigraph from Anne Bradstreet's "The Prologue" (1650) suggests the breadth of knowledge about the history of women's writing that was a part of this literary conversation among women writers and the public. Cone's essay also turns to the potential for expanding Boyd's contributions to the field—the inclusion of women writers from other nations who influenced and were influenced by U.S. women writers. Boyd's collection should be on every nineteenth-century scholar's desk, as it marks an important new turn in understanding literary production in this era. [End Page 84]