- Between the Novel and the News: The Emergence of American Women’s Writing by Sari Edelstein
Two years ago I taught E. D. E. N. Southworth’s The Hidden Hand for the first time in an American literature survey course. The experience gave me a lot to think about in subsequent weeks and months: students buzzed about plot shifts and were surprised and excited by the novel’s engagement with issues related to gender, class, and politics, but ultimately they seemed baffled by its pacing and were hesitant to ascribe any conscious, coherent intent to its method. By the end of the book, I felt as though we had arrived at a frustrating analytic impasse occasioned by narrative fatigue. In response, this past fall I taught a course on serial narratives, which foregrounded the mechanics and effects of seriality on nineteenth-century readers, and Sari Edelstein figured prominently in the list of critics whose work influenced my approaches to the texts we read (in installments) during the semester. In particular, chapter 3, “Category Crisis in Antebellum Story-Papers,” helped me to recognize the chaos of Southworth’s novel as a performative commentary on the hybridity of the New York Ledger, the story paper in which it appeared (70, 68). Although a relatively slim volume, Between the Novel and the News: The Emergence of American Women’s Writing is full of trenchant observations and energizing readings that promise to breathe new life into now-tired interpretative modes in the classroom and in our scholarship alike. Attentive to women writers’ “keen awareness” (51) of the “stakes of representation” (52), Edelstein details their particular investment in thematizing “the narrative nature of truth” (51).
Between the Novel and the News approaches American women’s writing [End Page 209] through its vexed relationship with mainstream journalism. Edelstein is interested in women’s literary productions as nuanced responses to their simultaneous disenfranchisement from and dependence on the popular press. In five chapters (plus an introduction and afterword) she links journalistic shifts and innovations (partisan newspapers of the 1790s, the penny press, story papers, eyewitness reporting for Civil War newspapers, and yellow journalism) to various responses and interventions by women writers. The authors Edelstein discusses include Judith Sargent Murray, Hannah Webster Foster, Susanna Rowson, Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Williams, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Frances Harper, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Keckley, Rebecca Harding Davis, Nellie Bly, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ida Wells-Barnett, Edith Eaton, and, in a thoughtful afterword, Toni Morrison. In their own ways, these women wield the pen to highlight the role of rhetoric in any representation of truth, and in doing so they voice skepticism about the valorization (and possibility) of objectivity in reportage. Excluded (in different ways, especially depending on their racial profile) from the sort of public voice and freedom afforded to male correspondents and editors, they chafed against the voyeuristic, flattened, regulatory, and sometimes damaging representations of women that Americans regularly consumed through the media.
Again and again, Edelstein represents women writers “challeng[ing] the logic of mainstream journalism by inviting readers to consider what they do not know rather than providing the safe and satisfying sense of being informed” and “dramatiz[ing] the power of art to stymie and surprise” (9, 6). Many assert alternate models of truthful representation—for instance, sentimental novelists stress ethics and social responsibility, rather than the facts served up by the penny press—in order to warn against uncritical, cursory treatments of political and cultural issues. Perhaps more significantly, they artfully employ silences, mix genres, and destabilize meaning to suggest that experiences of ambiguity, uncertainty, and subjectivity might constitute the real news that undergirds the by-men-for-men news cycle. Ida Wells-Barnett, for example, understood that “in spite of [the white press’s] biased reporting, she had to exploit its social authority to make her case persuasive to lawmakers” (136). By demonstrating how claims to objectivity are always “discursively produced,” she and the other...