Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 211-212
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The study of nineteenth-century American women's authorship has been profoundly influenced by the paradigms articulated in Woman's Fiction (1978), Nina Baym's groundbreaking survey of the plots and characters used by many nineteenth-century women writers, and Private Woman, Public Stage (1984), Mary Kelley's study of the tensions surrounding the enterprise she famously dubbed literary domesticity. Linda Grasso's The Artistry of Anger and Deborah Barker's Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature each offer alternatives to those paradigms, expanding the frameworks that shape scholarly views of how nineteenth-century women understood their identity as authors and their place in their cultural and political worlds. The two studies cover different periods (Grasso focuses on the antebellum era, while Barker ranges from the middle of the nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries) but both highlight overlooked areas of women's literary expression—anger and aesthetics—and bring a wide range of theoretical approaches and historical contexts to bear in their analysis.
In The Artistry of Anger Linda Grasso argues that although women's anger at their exclusion from political, social, and economic opportunities has long been noted by feminist critics, it has rarely been studied in its own right, in large part because it is so often masked, suppressed, or repressed. The very act of masking the writer's anger, however, can be both aesthetically and politically productive, Grasso suggests. At the heart of Grasso's book is what she calls "the Anger Paradigm": a method of reading that draws attention to "an unrecognized tradition in American literature, a specifically gendered tradition of literary discontent that is shaped by two equally powerful forces: women's anger at exclusion from the failed promises of democratic America, and their inability to express that anger overtly" (4-5). Using this paradigm, whose founding principle is that anger can be both "a mode of analysis" and "the basis of an aesthetic" (5), Grasso uncovers the ways in which women's anger functions in works by Lydia Maria Child, Maria W. Stewart, Fanny Fern, and Harriet E. Wilson.
The book's seven chapters are divided into two parts. In the first part, Grasso theorizes the "anger paradigm" and situates it in relation to the public discourse surrounding anger in the antebellum period. In the second part Grasso applies her "anger paradigm" to texts by each of [End Page 211] her authors. I found the third chapter, in which Grasso traces the political function of "angerless women" in the new republic (42), especially insightful. Noting the antebellum distinction between "righteous anger" (42), the kind of anger that created the republic, and "tyrannical anger" (43), which threatened to undermine it, Grasso argues that the suppression of women's anger was understood as essential to the survival of the nation. Indeed, for the Republican Mother to "indulge in an 'evil passion' like anger was to commit treason" (49). This formulation meant that a central dilemma for women writers, whose entry into print was often motivated by anger at their exclusion from the political and economic rights accorded white men, was finding ways to express their anger without appearing either tyrannical or treasonous. Not surprisingly, unmasking textual representations of anger is central to Grasso's analysis, and it is this aspect of her study that makes the readings feel strained at times. But Grasso's careful attention to historical context and racial and class differences in women writers' aesthetic and political uses of anger are overwhelmingly persuasive.
In Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature Deborah Barker challenges the widespread belief that few, if any...