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  • The Caroline Howard Gilman We Don’t Know:Recuperating Gilman’s Work for the Charleston Unitarian Sewing Society
  • Cynthia L. Patterson (bio)

Flipping through the pages of the 1888 meeting minutes of the Charleston Unitarian Church Ladies Sewing Society, held at the South Carolina Historical Society (SCHS), a curious observer will encounter a blank page, followed by the following dedicatory (Figure 1):

        In Memory of      Mrs. Caroline Gilman,One of the founders of this Society.    Born in Boston Oct. 1794.Died in Washington Sept. 15th 1888        Aged 94 Years.      Was buried Sept. 18th 1888,Beside her husband, Rev. Samuel Gilman,  in the Cemetery of the Unitarian Church        Charleston, S.C.1

A well-respected Southern author in her era, Gilman (Figure 2 on page 152) is perhaps best known today for her sketch, Recollections of a Southern Matron, and for editing the children’s periodical the Rose-Bud (1832-39), selections of which were admirably analyzed by Gale L. Kenny in the pages of this journal in the fall 2006 issue. Gilman’s literary work, though occasionally anthologized, has been largely overlooked by literary critics, or understood [End Page 150]

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Figure 1.

Memoriam to Caroline Gilman, 1888.

From the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society (Charleston, SC).

primarily in the context of the Southern domestic novel. Even Maureen H. Beasley, one of Gilman’s biographers, writes largely dismissively of Gilman as a “sentimental moralizer.” The only book-length work devoted exclusively to Gilman, Mary Scott Saint-Amand’s A Balcony in Charleston, published in 1951, includes selections from her letters and snippets from her published work, but no analysis of her writing or of her role as a social reformer. Jan Bakker discusses Gilman in his 1989 book, in the context of the pastoral in Southern literature, and Gilman is one of five writers treated by Elizabeth [End Page 151] Moss in her Domestic Writers in the Old South (in addition to Caroline Hentz, Maria McIntosh, Mary Virginia Terhune, and Augusta Evans). However, Moss focuses primarily on readings of Gilman’s earliest-published novels, Recollections of a New-England Housekeeper and Recollections of a Southern Matron. Some half dozen theses/dissertations target Gilman; however, again, most focus on her editorship of the Rose Bud and other early writings, and none resulted in published book-length work (Walsh 1941; Thompson 1975; Takahashi 1981; Stiles 1994; Thompson Bigham 2002; Robinson 2007). Another handful of journal articles discuss Gilman’s published writings; again, however, these focus primarily on both Recollections, or on the Rose Bud (Hoole 1934; Cohen 1956; Bakker 1984; Castronovo 1998; Bakker 1998; Haberly 2002; Kenny 2006). A 1994 dissertation by Cindy A. Stiles, and subsequent biographical entry in the The History of Southern Women’s Literature, proves a notable exception to previous scholarly treatment of Gilman. While Stiles apparently did not have access to the SCHS materials for the Charleston Unitarian Church, she nonetheless insists more emphatically than earlier biographers and literary critics that Gilman is best understood as a “gentle reformer” and “early feminist” rather than a “sentimental moralist” (Stiles, The History of Southern Women’s Literature, 69).

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Figure 2.

Portrait of Caroline Gilman.

Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

This article seeks to use newly-available archival materials to complicate previous biographical and critical work on Gilman, and to suggest new avenues of inquiry into texts produced by Southern women. The records of the Charleston Unitarian Church, of which Gilman was a life-long member, include the records of the Ladies Sewing Society, an extensive collection of cash books, membership lists, meeting minutes, correspondences and scrapbooks dating from 1831, when Gilman founded the society—as wife of Samuel Gilman, the Church’s minister—to 1988, after it had been absorbed into the national Unitarian women’s association known as the Alliance. Housed at the South Carolina Historical Society (SCHS), these records became available to scholars only recently. In this article, I make two primary claims: firstly, that Gilman’s presence in these archival materials challenges scholars to read her life and work in new ways; secondly, that scholars of Southern...


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