- Creeping in the Crevices: Geology and the Re-scaling of Women’s Mobility in Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons
Elizabeth Stoddard is a notoriously difficult writer to situate, both formally and ideologically. Her best-known novel, The Morgesons, wholly refuses the moral didactics of sentimental literature but cannot be neatly categorized into another generic tradition, and its tone and style are uncanny in a way that remains hard to compare with other writers of the nineteenth century. Tied to her literary idiosyncrasy is her well-documented political recalcitrance: “Are you a woman’s righter?” she wrote to Helen Hunt Jackson in 1870. “I hope not . . . Heavens! How humiliating to our sex all this business is!” (Stoddard to Hunt, 7 April 1870, 136). This sensibility, found across her nonfiction, has led critics to see Stoddard as rather unsisterly and fundamentally allergic to women’s reform movements and to understand the difficulties of placing Stoddard in a clear literary-historical tradition as a necessary part of her willfully marginal project.1 Scholars such as Stacy Alaimo, Carina Pasquesi, Julia Stern, and others have read Stoddard as a theorizer of the feminine psyche, celebrating her writing as queer, perverse, and productively antisocial.2 While these accounts importantly expand the scope of what we understand as feminist literary sensibilities of the period, the risk of seeing Stoddard’s work as fundamentally “dissociative” (109), to use Stern’s term, is that we miss how her writing productively confronts the norms of her period’s political culture. This essay reconsiders Stoddard’s relationship to women’s rights activism, understanding the tropes of degeneration in The Morgesons not as a wholesale refusal of women’s politics but rather as a reevaluation of its scope and scale. I argue that the thematization of creeping and crawling—often read as part of The Morgesons’s degenerative aesthetics—constitutes Stoddard’s critique of expanded-sphere politics, which were increasingly prevalent in women’s activism of her period, [End Page 213] and, more presciently, of the enduring discourse of mobility that drives the ethos of American politics.
The Morgesons does have a knack for making one’s skin crawl. This effect is produced by the novel’s oddly subdued protagonist-narrator, Cassandra, and her sister, Veronica, who appears locked in an eternal but preternatural childhood; it undoubtedly lingers after the closing scene of the novel, in which Cassandra returns home after years of travel only to watch Veronica’s infant son as he “smiles continually, but never cries, never moves” (252). Characters themselves get the creeps: Cassandra explains that a woman she does not quite like “made my flesh creep” (168), and Temperance, a servant, gets “a creeping” feeling about Charles, Cassandra’s cousin, who eventually dies in a crash (63). Given the novel’s tendency toward the ominous, this pattern would appear to join a long list of gothic tropes that populate the text. But creeping and crawling also appear at an ecological register in the novel. Insects “crawl” (11), toads “crawl” (32), the sea “creep[s]” along the shore (63, 243)—and Cassandra observes them intently. I understand the nonhuman creeping found in descriptions of flies and stones to constitute the realist flip side of The Morgesons’s asocial, gothic affinities, showing that Stoddard adopts the pace of ecological creeping not only to break the telos of the Bildungsroman but also to confront the increasingly prevalent political rhetoric that equated women’s mobility with women’s freedom. In linking creeping as physiological constraint with creeping as ecological pace, I argue, Stoddard borrows from the interventions of emergent geological sciences to produce a singular feminist methodology.
Stacy Alaimo has emblematically shown that while Cassandra’s excursions out of the familial home and across New England towns educate her in various ways, the novel also thematizes returns, regression, and failure, most overtly in Cassandra’s forced return to Surrey, her hometown. While one might read Stoddard as simply dealing in stock gothic tropes of entrapment, I argue that The Morgesons in fact intervenes in a reform culture that glorifies a spatial notion of an expanded sphere. Women’s reform activists at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 declared...