- Thirty-Fifth-Anniversary Reflections on Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870 by Nina Baym
The year 2013 marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of Nina Baym’s Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870 and the twentieth anniversary of Frances Smith Foster’s Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892 and the paperback edition of Shirley Samuels’s The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America. To honor these anniversaries, Legacy asked a range of scholars at various stages in their careers to reflect upon the significance of these pathbreaking books. Their responses reveal that critical texts can inspire the same passion as novels and poetry and remind us of how scholarship has the power to shape subsequent generations of professional lives.
I still have my undergraduate copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which served as my avenue to my own soul for a time, back in 1980. As I flip through it today, I wonder at the self I thought I was encountering within its pages. There’s not a single female author in it, not one! In fact, I only read one work by a woman over the course of my entire English major: Emma. Back then, such facts didn’t disturb me at all. I wasn’t interested in women’s stories; they were all about marriage, fashion, and submission, and such things made me impatient, angry that such were presumed to be my story. I wanted to read only the best of the best, difficult and vaulting stories of artists and culture heroes sucking the marrow out of life, living true to higher values, thinking against the grain. And such pinnacles of excellence had always been written by men, mostly because women had never been given the opportunity to write, but in any event because their values were clinging, cloying, and frivolous. I was sure their stories had nothing to do with me. [End Page 113]
When I expressed something of these ideas upon arrival to my graduate program at Columbia, some kind person gently but firmly explained that I had no idea what I was talking about, whatsoever. Nineteenth-century American women’s literature was pretty hot on campus around that time, and I began reading around. Sure enough, there were many books by nineteenth-century women. Some of these reinforced my prior conviction that whatever women have in fact managed to eke out was the inferior fruit of scribbling women, telling sob stories about self-effacing orphans and crinoline Barbies winning in the marriage market. Eventually, however, I read Woman’s Fiction, and at once, so much melted away. There was something exhilarating in Baym’s revelation and analysis of an entire genre I had never heard of, her clear and unambiguous testimonial to the existence of a rich world of women’s art. But it was more than that. Author after author after author, novel after novel after novel, developed in a myriad of ways the very plot I thought “women” didn’t care about: “a heroine who, beset with hardships, finds within herself the qualities of intelligence, will, resourcefulness, and courage sufficient to overcome them” (22). Although her story often ends in marriage, her identity, the genre insists, does not center on sex, marriage, and maternity. Fashion and flirtation were the enemy of all of these authors! My values were “woman’s values.” And moreover, not only did I have a lot in common with these female authors, but their culture loved them and had rewarded them with affection, fame, and riches!
It’s an old story, of course, remarkable only for my perfect obedience to the script. My hair stood up on the back of my neck when I came upon Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” which gave grandeur and significance to what I now saw as colossal stupidity. “[H]aving...