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  • Working Women in American Literature, 1865–1950 ed. by Miriam S. Gogol
  • Heather Yuping Wang (bio)
Working Women in American Literature, 1865–1950, edited by Miriam S. Gogol. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018. xxiv + 184 pp. Cloth, $95.00; Paper, $39.99; Ebook, $38.00.

Working women has remained a topic of debate and controversy in both American literature and American society since the mid-twentieth century. The end of the Civil War provided the much needed labor force for industrial expansion and boosted the industrialization and urbanization process. Meanwhile, American society witnessed the entrance of working women into an unprecedented number of fields amid diverse public opinions. The fact that women expanding their job possibilities coincided with the rise of American realism and naturalism points to the natural affinity between working women as a subject matter and American realism and naturalism as literary genres. However, as Miriam S. Gogol observes in the Introduction and as the research experience of the present author reveals, so far this topic is very sparsely researched, let alone thoroughly investigated. Even in the genre of ostensible “work literature,” working women still tend to be “mis-represented” and “underrepresented” (vii). Given this research background, Working Women in American Literature, 1865–1950 makes a significant contribution to a fuller exploration of this intriguing topic. And Gogol as the editor should take credit for providing valuable scholarship to a somewhat overlooked research tradition.

This collection includes eight interesting essays grouped into four sections. It starts with a section on “Naturalism and the Working Women,” which contains two innovative studies on working women characters in Theodore Dreiser’s novels. The second section centers on “The ‘New Woman’” and explores the representation of New Women characters in the fiction of Henry James, William Dean Howells, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Ellen Glasgow. Following this section is a slim section on “Race, Sex, and Class” with the essay on Ann Petry’s The Street as the only component. The fourth section expands the scope of the study by presenting two studies of “Working Women in Drama and Film.”

As the editor of this volume, Gogol proves her expertise in this area [End Page 246] by contributing a comprehensive introduction and an insightful essay. In the Introduction, Gogol defines the goal of this collection as to “explore the female characters of realism and naturalism not as a unified collective or a single shadow group, but as individuals to examine the relationship between the fictional and the living working women of this dynamic era” (vii) and to contrast the literary images with “the historical actualities of this period” (ix). She takes up the problematic labels of “realism” and “naturalism” and probes into the incongruity between “what the authors thought they were doing and what the texts seem to be meant for” (viii), a disparity which is more often than not the case with many literary notions and assumptions. And before introducing the individual essays collected in this volume, Gogol also gives a cursory account about the history of women from the 1860s to 1950s with a focus on their working and living conditions, providing helpful historical backdrop for a better understanding of the essays to follow.

One aspect worth special mention is that this collection expands the scholarship on paid and unpaid domestic women workers, a subject that has been either neglected or dealt with in passing commentary in most previous studies. Gogol’s essay “The Female Domestic in Naturalistic Fiction” presents an original study about literary representation of domestic women workers. Backed by statistics about women’s work from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, Gogol states that “in the 1880s, domestic service was the second largest form of employment for ‘working women’” (3), and she “examines the silence of the domestic worker in American naturalistic fictions” of that period. It compares and contrasts the representation of working women in Dreiser’s novels as a specimen of naturalistic portrait and the accounts of domestic workers in The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South [edited by Katherine Van Wormer, David W. Jackson III, and Charletta Sudduth, Louisiana State University Press, 2012], and...


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