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Legacies of Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers

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Legacies of Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers

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Cherokee Sister

The Collected Writings of Catharine Brown, 1818-1823

Catharine Brown

Catharine Brown (1800–1823) became Brainerd Mission School’s first Cherokee convert to Christianity, a missionary teacher, and the first Native American woman whose own writings saw extensive publication in her lifetime. After her death from tuberculosis at age twenty-three, the missionary organization that had educated and later employed Brown commissioned a posthumous biography, Memoir of Catharine Brown, which  enjoyed widespread contemporary popularity and praise.

In the following decade, her writings, along with those of other educated Cherokees, became highly politicized and were used in debates about the removal of the Cherokees and other tribes to Indian Territory. Although she was once viewed by literary critics as a docile and dominated victim of missionaries who represented the tragic fate of Indians who abandoned their identities, Brown is now being reconsidered as a figure of enduring Cherokee revitalization, survival, adaptability, and leadership.
In Cherokee Sister Theresa Strouth Gaul collects all of Brown’s writings, consisting of letters and a diary, some appearing in print for the first time, as well as Brown’s biography and a drama and poems about her. This edition of Brown’s collected works and related materials firmly establishes her place in early nineteenth-century culture and her influence on American perceptions of Native Americans.

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Elder Northfield's Home

or, Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar

A. Jennie Bartlett

The practice of plural marriage, commonly known as polygamy, stirred intense controversy in postbellum America until 1890, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first officially abolished the practice. Elder Northfield’s Home, published by A. Jennie Bartlett in 1882, is both a staunchly antipolygamy novel and a call for the sentimental repatriation of polygamy’s victims. Her book traces the fate of a virtuous and educated English immigrant woman, Marion Wescott, who marries a Mormon elder, Henry Northfield. Shocked when her husband violates his promise not to take a second wife, Marion attempts to flee during the night, toddler son in her arms and pulling her worldly possessions in his toy wagon. She returns to her husband, however, and the balance of the novel traces the effects of polygamy on Marion, Henry, and their children; their eventual rejection of plural marriage; and their return to a normal and healthy family structure.
 
Nicole Tonkovich’s critical introduction includes both historical contextualization and comments on selected primary documents, providing a broader look at the general public’s reception of the practice of polygamy in the nineteenth century.
 

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Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Selected Tales, Essays, and Poems

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

The well-educated daughter of a minister, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911) was introduced to writing at a young age, as both her mother and father were published writers. In 1868 she published her first major novel, The Gates Ajar. An international success, the novel sold more than six hundred thousand copies, making it one of the best-selling American works of the nineteenth century. Through the next four decades Phelps published hundreds of essays, tales, and poems, which appeared in every major American periodical, while also writing novels, including Beyond the Gates (1883) and The Gates Between (1887).

Phelps’s legacy as an important American writer, however, has been hurt by the seeming contradictions between her life and work. For example, she was an ardent advocate for women’s rights both inside and outside marriage, but her stories seem to glorify the sort of extreme self-sacrifice associated with the most conservative domestic ideology. In this collection, the editors seek to restore Phelps’s reputation by bringing together a diverse collection from the entire body of her lifetime of work. From arguments for suffrage to harrowing tales of Reconstruction, these essays, along with short fiction and poetry, provide a new perspective on a major American writer from the later nineteenth century.

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Emily Hamilton and Other Writings

Sukey Vickery

Sukey Vickery’s Emily Hamilton is an epistolary novel dealing with the courtship and marriages of three women. Originally published in 1803, it is one of the earliest examples of realist fiction in America and a departure from other novels at the turn of the nineteenth century. From the outset its author intended it as a realist project, never delving into the overly sentimental plotting or characterization present in much of the writing of Vickery’s contemporaries. Emily Hamilton explores from a decidedly feminine perspective the idea of a woman’s right to choose her own spouse and the importance of female friendship. Vickery’s characterization of women further diverges from the typical eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century didactic of the righteous/sinful woman and depicts, instead, believable female characters exhibiting true-to-life behavior.
 
A presentation of this novel accompanied by Vickery’s poetry, letters, a diary fragment, and a few nineteenth-century responses to her work, Emily Hamilton and Other Writings is the first complete collection of Vickery’s writings.

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The Hermaphrodite

Julia Ward Howe

Written in the 1840s and published here for the first time, Julia Ward Howe’s novel about a hermaphrodite is unlike anything of its time—or, in truth, of our own. Narrated by Laurence, who is raised and lives as a man, is loved by men and women alike, and can respond to neither, this unconventional story explores the understanding “that fervent hearts must borrow the disguise of art, if they would win the right to express, in any outward form, the internal fire that consumes them.” Laurence describes his repudiation by his family, his involvement with an attractive widow, his subsequent wanderings and eventual attachment to a sixteen-year-old boy, his own tutelage by a Roman nobleman and his sisters, and his ultimate reunion with his early love. His is a story unique in nineteenth-century American letters, at once a remarkable reflection of a largely hidden inner life and a richly imagined tale of coming of age at odds with one’s culture.

Howe wrote The Hermaphrodite when her own marriage was challenged by her husband’s affection for another man—and when prevailing notions regarding a woman’s appropriate role in patriarchal structures threatened Howe’s intellectual and emotional survival. The novel allowed Howe, and will now allow her readers, to occupy a speculative realm otherwise inaccessible in her historical moment.

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A Law Unto Herself

Rebecca Harding Davis

A scathing critique of the legal status of women and their property rights in nineteenth-century America, Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1878 novel A Law Unto Herself chronicles the experiences of Jane Swendon, a seemingly naïve and conventional nineteenth-century protagonist struggling to care for her elderly father with limited financial resources. In order to continue care, Jane seeks to secure her rightful inheritance despite the efforts of her cousin and later her husband, a greedy man who has tricked her father into securing her hand in marriage.

 

Appealing to middle-class literary tastes of the age, A Law Unto Herself elucidated for a broad general audience the need for legal reforms regarding divorce, mental illness, inheritance, and reforms to the Married Women’s Property Laws. Through three fascinating female characters, the novel also invites readers to consider evolving gender roles during a time of cultural change.

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Married or Single?

Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Married or Single?, published in 1857, was Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s final novel and a fitting climax to the career of one of antebellum America’s first and most successful woman writers. Insisting on women’s right to choose whether to marry, Married or Single? rejects the stigma of spinsterhood and offers readers a wider range of options for women in society, recognizing their need and ability to determine the course of their lives.

 

Sedgwick’s touching, witty, and shrewdly observant novel centers on Grace Herbert, a New York City socialite who must negotiate the marriage market and also learn to develop her own character and take control of her own destiny. The story merges a wide range of popular American literary forms—including the seduction novel, the conversion narrative, the novel of education, and social reform fiction—and provides a window on many of the cultural and political anxieties of the 1850s beyond marriage, including immigration, slavery, and urban poverty. Sedgwick’s lifelong concern with women’s duties to the nation as citizens is demonstrated through her depiction of exemplary women of various backgrounds and circumstances who illustrate the idea that becoming a worthy human being is more important than becoming a wife, especially in a democratic society.

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Selections from Eliza Leslie

Eliza Leslie

Best known for her culinary and domestic guides and the award-winning short story “Mrs. Washington Potts,” Eliza Leslie deserves a much more prominent place in contemporary literary discussions of the nineteenth century. Her writing, known for its overtly moralistic and didactic tones—though often presented with wit and humor—also provides contemporary readers with a nuanced perspective for understanding the diversity among American women in Leslie’s time.

Leslie’s writing serves as a commentary on gender ideals and consumerism; presents complicated constructions of racial, national, and class-based identities; and critiques literary genres such as the Gothic romance and the love letter. These criticisms are exposed through the juxtaposition of her fiction and nonfiction instructive texts, which range from lessons on literary conduct to needlework; from recipes for American and French culinary dishes to travel sketches; from songs to educational games. Demonstrating the complexity of choices available to women at the time, this volume enables readers to see how Leslie’s rhetoric and audience awareness facilitated her ability to appeal to a broad swath of the nineteenth-century reading public.

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Two Men

Elizabeth Stoddard

We first meet Jason Auster when he climbs out of a stagecoach in a New England maritime town and, as it were, salutes destiny. A twenty-year-old house carpenter who has come adventuring, Jason hopes to “put in practice certain theories concerning the rights of men and property which had already made him a pest at home.” And, indeed, theory and practice, destiny and self-determination are all following quite different paths as this antebellum story of love and power, incest and family honor, and sexual bonds and intractable conflicts between races and classes plays out against the backdrop of a nation—and a world—divided.
 
First published in 1865, this novel tracks the fortunes of Jason and his unlikely bride, the aristocratic Sarah Parke, along with the children and wards, the lost loves and secret passions that define and forever alter an entire family and everyone who touches it. Uniquely located within the romantic, realist, and regional traditions, this oddly unsentimental tale illuminates the racial, sexual, and political conventions and conflicts of its time even as it offers an unusual and compelling perspective on the historical moment it reflects.

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