- Style, Gender, and Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writing by Dorri Beam
In Style, Gender, and Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writing, Dorri Beam makes a significant contribution to the study of ornament and aesthetic excess in American women’s writing of the nineteenth century. Through close textual analysis of both familiar and unfamiliar works by such authors as Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Margaret Sweat, Mary Clemmer, Edith Wharton, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and Pauline Hopkins, Beam passionately explores a new type of feminine poetics, which she terms “highly wrought style,” within the canonical literary romanticism and in so doing moves this conventionally marginal type of writing into the realm of scholarly consideration.
Beam’s introduction situates her study within that critical scholarship on women’s writing and sentimental dialogue advanced by such important theorists and critics, both foundational and recent, of the separate spheres model, such as Jane Tompkins, Barbara Welter, Nina Baym, Monika Elbert, Amy Kaplan, Susan K. Harris, and Eliza Richards. Although at first glance Beams’ assessment of women’s aesthetic writing seems less than groundbreaking (Tompkins’ Sensational Designs already facilitated an interest in this genre), central to Beam’s addition to this dialogue is her rescripting of women’s contribution to literary romanticism so these writers could “generate alternative models of gendered self and desire.” Beam argues that aesthetic excess attempts to “render the world opaque and strange rather than assimilable and interpretable,” a critical framework that challenges earlier understandings of flowery language.
Beam’s first two chapters engage in a lively discussion of Orientalism, language, and mesmerism noting how Eastern visions of excess conflate with Western notions of femininity. Although her analysis of Hawthorne does little to advance her argument, her discussion nonetheless serves to augment how mesmerism, as ornament, creates an alterity. Chapters three and four look at how flowery language transcends not only gender but color, examining aesthetics and ornament in the works of Spofford, Poe, and Hopkins. Her final chapter, which also serves as her conclusion, opens with a very brief treatment of both Wharton and Gilman, important literary figures in their own right, but who manage to seem out of place in Beam’s study.
Another drawback to this otherwise quite compelling study is that it still retains some residue of the dissertation, specifically Beam’s constant reminder to the reader of what her project is attempting to accomplish. [End Page 88] In lieu of these declarations, a more inviting reappraisal of some of her observations, such as a gendered soul, which she mentions and then quickly drops, would be most welcome. Beam’s attempt to prove a “feminine aesthetic” would have facilitated an even more engaging discussion had Beam thought to mention Hélène Cixous, whose contribution to women’s writing, specifically with l’écriture feminine, add new insight into meaning making through aesthetic excess.
Although many of the writers in her discussion, most specifically Spofford, Hopkins, and Wharton were also writing during the age of literary realism, something Beam fails to mention, her analysis of overwrought language in women’s writing marks this style as a significant contribution to literary art-making, expanding critical inquiry into literary style during the mid to late nineteenth century.