- Between the Novel and the News: The Emergence of American Women’s Writing by Sari Edelstein
In Between the Novel and the News, Sari Edelstein promises to demonstrate how women fiction writers of the nineteenth century “borrowed from journalistic modes, competed with the press for social relevance and immediacy, and used fiction to criticize newspaper discourse.” She delivers on that promise. Given the marginalization of women writers in the nineteenth century, particularly in the realm of journalism, Edelstein’s agenda is an ambitious one, yet she succeeds admirably. With few exceptions scholarship on nineteenth-century women writers has focused primarily on the domestic sphere, while the impact of the mainstream press and how it shaped women writers has remained under-examined. Yet the influence of newspapers, and the role they played in informing women’s narratives, was significant. Access to the press provided women writers with a conduit to the social, political, and cultural climate outside of the home, allowing the writers to borrow from newspapers to engage—and often to criticize—journalistic biases, oversights, and ideological positions. Newspapers became both a vehicle for the writers as well as a target, resulting in a female literary tradition that was profoundly invested in both legitimacy and women’s advocacy.
One of the challenges Edelstein faced was determining the scope and content of her study. She ultimately decided to exclude writers whose connection to the mainstream press has been previously explored. Thus such writers as Fanny Fern, Margaret Fuller, Kate Field, and Lydia Maria Child are not included. Rather, Edelstein has wisely elected to focus on writers who represent major genres and those about whom the relationship to journalism has not been adequately represented—Judith Sargent Murray, Catharine Williams, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Elizabeth Keckley, and Ida Wells-Barnett among them. Edelstein organizes her study around five historical periods that saw the emergence of new forms of journalism and positions her discourse around a wide range of cultural developments that shaped the female literary tradition: the advent of the penny press, the evolution of the sentimental novel, the impact of the Civil War on written discourse, and the spectacle of yellow journalism.
In many respects, Between the Novel and the News is a provocative book. In the chapter on the penny press, for example, which sensationalized the “fallen woman,” Edelstein argues that in the opening scene of The Scarlet Letter, [End Page 281] Hawthorne’s positioning of Hester Prynne on the scaffold exploits the trope of the fallen woman; Hester “is being held forth for public view, as in the pages of the newspaper and print marketplace.” As “a reader of the pennies,” Edelstein writes, Hawthorne wrote fiction that “cannot be conceived of as aesthetically pure or untainted by mass media.” Edelstein’s characterization of Hester underscores one of her larger arguments: while penny papers and sentimental fiction shared rhetorical techniques and subject matter, the penny press was largely a masculine instrument while sentimental fiction offered an oppositional discourse focused on social and moral responsibility.
As her title suggests, Edelstein engages the ways in which newspapers and fiction intersected. Newspapers, she argues, occupied a unique place in the literary history of the nineteenth century, serving to connect the public and private spheres by bringing political and cultural developments into the home. The newspapers served as both a form of inspiration for the authors as well as interlocutor and their writings “combine[d] the iconography, vocabulary, and imagery of domestic and newspaper cultures.” Nineteenth-century women writers, Edelstein concludes, were attuned to the capacity of newspapers to shape ideological perceptions of race, class, gender, and nation. The writers’ response was to produce literature that provided another form of engagement with civic matters.
Between the Novel and the News is an eloquent and engaging study that succeeds in documenting the impact of nineteenth-century newspapers on the literary imagination of women writers. The comprehensive introduction is followed by five slim but illuminating chapters, followed by an afterword that...