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Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 214-215

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"The Only Efficient Instrument": American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916. Edited by Aleta Feinsod Cane and Susan Alves. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001. 241 pp. $39.95.

The study of American periodicals has been steadily, if slowly, gaining momentum over the last ten years, a growth marked significantly, as editors Aleta Feinsod Cane and Susan Alves note, by the 1995 publications of Kenneth Price and Susan Belasco Smith's Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America and Frankie Hutton and Barbara Strauss Reed's Outsiders in Nineteenth-Century Press History: Multicultural Perspectives. In the last several years, panels at the national meetings of the American Literature Association and the Society for the Study of American Women Writers have focused on the role women have played in the arena of periodical publication. Cane and Alves's collection marks the first book-length scholarly foray into this aspect of American women's literary history. Certainly cultural studies, studies of readership, and histories of the book that pay as much attention to where, how, and why a work becomes a literary commodity as they do the nature of that commodity itself have fueled much of this recent interest. In their richest moments, anthologies like these do much to [End Page 214] complete our picture of authorship, demystifying and deromanticizing the practices of literary production by reinserting the practicalities of publication into the story, as well as enlarging the context in which authors' works appeared and were read and understood. For the most part, Cane and Alves's new collection does this. By focusing exclusively on the role of women in periodical publishing, "The Only Efficient Instrument": American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916 furthers our understanding of the ways periodicals and the writers contained in them constructed and contradicted culturally dominant notions of gender.

Cane and Alves include essays in the collection on writers as now canonical as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Kate Chopin, and writers as newly-on-the-scene as Mexican immigrant María Cristina Mena and the female factory worker/poets of Lowell, Massachusetts. While there are feminists discussed here that we would expect to find—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for example—others, like Emma Goldman, have rarely entered this conversation and therefore are especially welcome. The essays cover a range of territory, from the ways the form of the periodicals shaped these women's work, to the ways that work in effect shaped the form of the periodical itself. The initial essay by Annamaria Formichella Elsden, for instance, shows that Margaret Fuller's depiction of time in her wartime correspondence published in the New York Tribune was fundamentally different from the depiction of time in travel writing not published in periodicals. In the same vein, Bonnie James Shaker's piece on Kate Chopin further debunks the myth of Chopin's critical demise by carefully recounting Chopin's often savvy business publishing practices, practices that partially decided what she wrote. Other essays highlight the political agency constituted by the periodical work of these women writers. Cane's contribution on Charlotte Perkins Gilman shows how Gilman used her Forerunner to reverse the typical formula for women's periodical fiction, while Amy Doherty exemplifies how María Cristina Mena's short fiction deconstructed problematic notions of Mexican identity contained in works published in the same periodicals. In all cases, these essays clearly emphasize the very different picture of women writers created by scholarship that focuses as much on the material aspects of literary production as it does on the product itself.

The audience for this collection is somewhat unclear. Seemingly geared primarily for a readership of academic researchers, "The Only Efficient Instrument" suffers at times from a lack of scholarly sophistication. Uneven in their rigor, some of the essays in the collection nervously shout out a discordant chorus of theoretical perspectives, while others are so casual in their approach that they contain few—if any—endnotes. The strongest pieces rely first and foremost on the work of the writers...


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