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Reviewed by:
  • Antebellum American Women Writers and the Road
  • Renae Bredin (bio)
Susan Roberson . Antebellum American Women Writers and the Road. New York: Routledge, 2011. 191 pp. ISBN 978-0415883542, $125.00.

Through a series of chapters that link a set of disparate women writers across the antebellum period, Susan Roberson's Antebellum American Women Writers and the Road interweaves the biographical context of each writer's life with an examination of the political, economic, and social implications of each writer's claims to mobility or movement. Roberson works to broaden the definition of travel writing, asserting the idea of mobility as the primary metaphor. This mobility is related to but not exclusively that of the traditional travel narrative—going out into the world, traveling the road, and telling the story. It is, rather, spatial and geographic, as well as temporal and linguistic. She argues for extending Adrienne Rich's "politics of location" to a "politics of relocation and a politics of mobility" (8), rendered as a set of relationships between and among "the power structures that impinge on or facilitate freedom" (8). Roberson explores the connections between "personal, political, and economic" mobility that "illuminate the human and political context" of social movement and transformation.

In moving beyond travel into mobility, Roberson offers extended analysis into new areas of familiar texts, such as women's slave narratives by Louise Picquet and Harriet Jacobs, and tourist narratives by Margaret Fuller and Harriet Beecher Stowe. However, Roberson also offers readings of less familiar but [End Page 548] equally interesting and important stories that help to make her argument. Her expanded repertoire of travel writing includes pre- and post-civil war domestic novels by Northern and Southern women, reports on revolutions in Mexico and Italy by Margaret Fuller and Jane Cazneau, and even extends to imagined autobiographies of Native American women's migratory lives.

Finally, through some of the writers covered, Roberson expands the concept of domestic space to include the road and any public space. She asserts that taking home (domesticity) with them or leaving the domestic behind can be acts of resistance or a way of questioning the current order, although this argument is undermined several times, including near the end of the book, when Roberson notes that often touristic writers like Stowe "developed strategies of accommodation not confrontation" that failed to "[rearrange] the placement of power" (131). In fact, she argues that "antebellum women travel writers used the travel narrative to claim a rhetorical space where they could locate and shape subjectivities as cultured women participating in a traditionally male activity without losing any of their femininity" (131). However, in arguing that the writers she discusses bring the domestic sphere into public space, Roberson has sidelined a critical component of some of these women's biographies. Rather than making public space more domesticated, as Roberson argues these texts do, many women sought to enter the public arena to gain access to public power. In what Roberson calls "an age of reform," Fuller links "geographic, physical mobility with the rights of women" (6). For instance, Fuller supported the suffrage movement, which would bring women out of the domestic realm and the Cult of True Womanhood into the public political arena. Roberson herself points to Melissa Homestead's assertion that women entering the literary marketplace, "who contended with coverture and copyright laws . . . helped redefine property laws that had long held women and their property under coverture laws" (6). As Fuller declared, "let them be sea captains if you will" (6). Women's increasing mobility also gave women access to public space through masculine discursive practices, as seen in the war correspondence of Fuller and Cazneau.

The chapters move in a roughly chronological trajectory, beginning with the autobiographical recounting by Sarah Beavis in 1780 of her trip down the Mississippi River with her family. Roberson also covers "settler" or westward women's diaries, journals, and letters home. She makes the case here for travel writing as autobiography, but she may go too far stretching autobiography into travel writing. The discussion of Sarah Beavis's autobiography is productive, but Beavis writes her autobiography intentionally, while the journals and diaries of women moving west are...


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pp. 548-551
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