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AmericanWomen Langdon LynneFaust, ed. American Women Writers: ACritical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to theP,esent.Abridgeded., 2 vols. New York:FrederickUngar, 1983.449pp., 456 pp. Kristin Herzog.Women, Ethnics, and Exotics: Images of Power in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Fiction. Knoxville: Universityof Tennessee Press, 1983.254pp. Edward Wagenknecht.Daughters of the Covenant: Portraits of Six Jewish Women. Amherst: University ofMassachusetts Press, 1983.192pp. Blanche H. Gel/ant Asa subject of study, women-whether figures of history or of fictionseem to raise the same issues, even in singularly different works like the three reviewedhere: Kristin Herzog's study of nineteenth-century American literature,Women, Ethnics, and Exotics; Edward Wagenknecht's account of six Jewishwomen, Daughter of the Covenant; and American Women Writers, two voiumesthat span the centuries since colonial times with their biographic sketches.All draw attention to the issue of women's power. They discern its presence,despite appearances of powerlessness, define the forms of its manifestation,and enumerate its effects. Inseparable from the issue of power are,ofcourse, political issues: indeed, the two may well be synonymous. For theliterary critic, politics involve specifically the making or breaking of a literarycanon. Herzog seeks to change the traditional canon of nineteenthcentury American fiction by making it increasingly "multi-ethnic." She would eliminate major and minor literature as categories by showing that both invest thesame power in women, ethnics and natives or "exotics," a power that makesthem all generically "feminine." Hawthorne and Melville, no less thanHarriet Beecher Stowe, create "feminine" characters who possess ''natural"power. In this respect, their work has themes and values in common withthose of "neglected" black writers and of Native Americans, whose omission from the canon constitutes a historical mistake that Herzog hopes torectify. CanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 1986, 355-359 356 Blanche H. Gel/ant Daughters of the Covenant touches obliquely upon the canon. The chapter on Emma Lazarus, for instance, place the woman poet in the companyof Thoreau, Whitman, Bronson Alcott, Ellery Channing, all introduced toher by Emerson, her idol and mentor. Though Emerson "practically madea protegee of her ... [he] nearly broke her heart by excluding her from his immense poetic anthology, Parnassus, which included the work of manyless gifted poets than she" (p. 26). Emerson admired and advised Lazarus, buthe cut her out of the canon he was creating. Lazarus appears inAmerican Women Writers, which makes the canon an explicit issue as it states one of its "important" purposes: "to present neglected authors of merit and assessthem in the light of modern interest in women's position in American society.'' The phrase "of merit" introduces the issue of criteria. What are the standards for judging either power or art; or the power of a work of art; or art asan exercise of power? Who has determined these standards? Who should? Herzog answers these questions by differentiating between social and political prerogative and "primitive strength," between "intellect" and "instinct."Bv identifying women or "feminine" characters with blacks and with native;, whether American Indians or the "exotics" of Melville's tropical islands,and by making them all creatures of instinct, she defines power romantically. Itis an "aboriginal" force: "primitive," "innate," "natural," "intuitive/' "vital," "spiritual," and even "divine." As such, it can be separated from the pragmatic effect usually associated with an exercise of power and, indeed, taken asits sign. Thus, Hester Prynne's power in The Scarlet Letter consists of traits romantically ascribed to a people whose decimation was the sign of the white man's power. Hester is "Indian-like" in her "strength, endurance, dignity. and independence"; she shares with "primitive" beings "an unquenchable thirst for freedom, a vital power of imagination" displayed in "needlework art" and in a strength that turns "the prejudices of society ... into symbolsof victory" (p. 16). If the critic's twists and turns here are hard to follow,her conclusion is not: that Hester expresses power through art and through symbols, and uses it to serve a community that had made her an outcast. In Uncle Toms Cabin, as in The Scarlet Letter, woman's power isultimately spiritual and potentially revolutionary. Stowe's famous novel made women and slaves the embodiment of "primitive Christian" values...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 355-359
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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