Imagining the Woman Artist
When Rebecca Harding Davis first met Alcott in 1862, at the home of James and Annie Fields, she found Alcott “a tall, thin young woman standing in a corner. She … had that watchful, defiant air with which the woman whose youth is slipping away is apt to face the world which has offered no place to her.”1 As Davis’s words suggest, she was describing not only Alcott but a type of the suffering, neglected, marginalized woman author, a type that she knew from personal experience. Phelps also took notice of the ambitious female author relegated to the sidelines of the literary world in her article “A Plea for Immortality” (1880), written on the occasion of the Atlantic Monthly’s Birthday Breakfast for Oliver Wendell Holmes. At the hub of the Atlantic event are the old, “well-nourished lives,” including a male and female author revered for their literary and social standing, although “Mrs. Jones” clearly ranks below “Mr. Smith.” But Phelps’s greatest attention is devoted to the young, struggling authors, particularly a woman in the corner. Cut off from the literary world of Boston, this wallflower nonetheless has high ambitions and has shown much promise, but her life hangs precariously in the balance between fame and a death brought on by rejection and discouragement.
In her description of this nameless woman, Phelps incorporates many of the hardships that plagued writers who (like herself, Alcott, Stoddard, and Woolson) looked up to “[t]he prophets, the priests, the kings of our tribe” and felt “nervous, … unrestful, insistent, … full of the stir of ambitions satisfied or thwarted, of aspirations nurtured or famished, of the jar of doing, not the calm of done!” Under her simple black dress the starving writer “hides impatient, crippled life enough to stir the world… . Her story in The Atlantic commands attention. She is young. Life is before her. She is ambitious. She has power; she knows it, and so do we. All the sibyl in her chafes.” But she must also care for her invalid mother in a town sixty miles from Boston. The final blow is a rejected manuscript returned from an editor. “A literary life seems as impossible to the poor girl as a dragoon’s or a drayman’s.” Phelps tries to offer her encouragement but asks, “How shall we tell her to be patient,—how bid her to go to her Goethe and read what he said of the power that developed best by long suppression?” In other words, how can we tell her to patiently wait for her moment of glory when we know she is so discouraged that she is ready to give up altogether? “It needs a greater than Goethe to help that woman,” Phelps writes, “to teach her that the lesson learned in endurance may be the one which the world wants.”2 This is small consolation, she knows, but it is all the hope she has to offer. It is, in fact, the hope that sustained many postbellum women writers: that all of their suffering, if patiently endured, would lead to great art and eventually help them to achieve the recognition they longed for.
At the party for Holmes, Phelps witnessed “the success … and the struggle, the hope, and the dismay, the crown and the thorn of gifted life.”3 In this phrase, she sums up the artist’s life as one of ecstasy and agony, of great ambition and hope mingled with the deepest despair and discouragement. The efforts of writers who arduously plied their trade for profit could not compare to the deep commitment of artists who experienced the full range of emotions necessary for the creation of art. As this generation of women writers began to identify themselves as artists, they adopted the tortured life of the individual who sacrificed herself and her happiness for her art. Like the romantic genius, they saw themselves as driven by forces beyond their control, as suffering from physical maladies that attended their great exertions, and as struggling to gain the attention of a society that did not value their abilities. A significant part of their claim to artistry, then, was their experience of suffering that in some ways mirrored the Christlike martyrdom of womanhood in general. For the struggling woman writer is hampered not only by her society’s lack of appreciation for genius (the main obstacle of the romantic artist) but also by her special burdens as a woman and her society’s disbelief in woman’s genius. Nonetheless, Phelps’s struggling woman writer still publishes in the Atlantic and therefore has hopes that the American democracy of genius may extend to her. Women writers’ attempts to reconcile their trespass on the male realm of “art” with their desires for literary fame often resulted in an effort to combine the identities of the tortured romantic artist-outcast and the self-sacrificing ideal woman, a fusion embodied in Phelps’s anonymous woman writer. Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson believed that only through great suffering and patience could they achieve immortality.
Just as Emerson, Hawthorne, and the British romantics were preoccupied with the identity of the poet/artist/hero/scholar in a society that privileged other vocations for men, so were Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson deeply concerned with the identity of the woman artist. Their private writings and published narratives reflect their engagement with the same concerns raised in the artist narratives of Madame de Staël, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot and reflect the turmoil they felt as they wrestled with the competing ideas of genius that existed in American and European culture: the romantic genius that was gendered masculine or combined masculine and feminine qualities, the feminine genius as morally superior and a higher ideal than masculine genius, the genius as rare and unappreciated, the genius as communicative and embraced by the culture, genius as innate, genius as divinely inspired, and the emerging idea that genius (if it even exists) is the result of patience and hard work, not otherworldly inspiration or God-given abilities. Ever-present also was the taboo against ambition in women, which remained quite strong despite new opportunities for self-development for women. Ultimately, however, Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson found a way to reconcile their desires for serious recognition with their shame about possessing such high ambitions, a way that differed significantly from the “solutions” offered by Corinne, Aurora Leigh, and Armgart. In the absence of privileges like those that many male writers enjoyed (extensive education and social networks), they felt that they could achieve immortality only through great hardships. They could not reach the immortal crown of glory until they had suffered the earthly crown of thorns.
Women and Genius
As the four women of this study wondered about their capacity for genius and struggled to have faith in their own powers, they confronted the most basic of obstacles: the related questions of whether women’s minds were inferior to men’s, whether women were capable of genius at all, and whether women possessed a special brand of genius. Such questions had been raised time and again throughout the nineteenth century as women entered the public sphere of authorship. The message women writers received from reviewers was that women were not expected to produce literature worthy of serious attention because women simply lacked the ability to make “art,” largely because, as Nina Baym explains, women were deemed incapable of “the individuality that is the foundation of genius.” Women were expected to write as exemplars of their sex, not as individuals.4 Forever lumped together in a separate class, women were deemed inferior from the outset.
Although tensions between elitist and democratic views of the American genius helped to create the possibility for women to envision themselves as potential geniuses, a competing cultural discourse about women’s incapacity for genius also influenced how Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson viewed themselves as artists. The very idea of “genius” had, since the Greeks, denied women access to that privileged sphere. The etymology of the term itself reveals a masculine bias, derived in part from the Latin word for male procreativity and paternity. Arguments against the possibility of genius in women, commonplace throughout the Western world, were rooted in assumptions about women’s sexuality and mental abilities. The nature of creative genius was understood as analogous to male sexuality, which was powerful, explosive, procreative. Female sexuality and, hence, female nature were seen as receptive and nurturing. The power to create new life was entirely the function of the male’s “seed.” A woman could not be the creator or the actor; she was, instead, acted upon or was, perhaps, the muse who inspired the male creator. Woman’s role was that of an intermediary, an assistant to the godlike male creator.
For a woman to create art was to mimic male procreative power, making her, in the eyes of many, monstrous, an aberration of nature, no longer a woman. According to William Duff in 1807, “A woman can have a powerful imagination only by being unsexed: by being a freak of nature.” Similarly, Cesare Lombroso claimed in 1863, “There are no women of genius; the women of genius are men.” Immanuel Kant, one of the foremost theorizers of art and genius in the eighteenth century, believed that “for a woman to aim at the sublime makes her merely ridiculous … and even worse, ‘ekelhaft’ (loathsome). She is an unbeautiful, unnatural freak who is disobeying nature and aping the genius of the male—who is her (and nature’s) lord and master.” When Avis tells her father she wants to be an artist, he uses similar language, telling her, as he holds a copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, “Nonsense, nonsense! … I can’t have you filling your head with any of these womanish apings of a man’s affairs, like a monkey playing tunes on a hand-organ.”5 By declaring her desire to create art, then, a woman made herself as unnatural and ridiculous as the monkey who mimicked man by playing a musical instrument.
In addition, while the artist as creator was sexually powerful and free, the nineteenth-century ideal “woman” was sexually inhibited and controlled. Hence, the woman who tried to be an artist unsexed herself not only by engaging in “man’s affairs” but by implicitly claiming a degree of sexual freedom. As Deborah Barker has shown, fears about women’s creativity were linked to men’s desire to control women’s sexuality: “Women’s independent ability to create original works could be construed as an allegory for the circumvention of the male role in procreation.” As the male artist’s creativity was viewed as an extension of his libido, the woman who desired to create art was perceived as not only sexually independent but potentially a sexual aggressor, hence another reason to fear her. The woman artist was therefore likened to that most shameful of outcasts, the fallen woman. In Corinne, Count d’Erfeuil suggests that the woman artist has forfeited her respectability as a virtuous woman and is therefore fair game for a man’s sexual advances: “A woman alone, independent, and who lives almost an artist’s life should not be hard to win,” he tells Oswald. Corinne, therefore, is not marriage material, the count claims, and Oswald eventually agrees with him. In addition, the woman artist whose genius extended beyond the domestic sphere was claimed by an adoring public that threatened to sexualize her. Oswald continually desires to rescue Corinne from her public role and make her a respectable woman. The example of George Sand is also instructive here because her daring as an artist was frequently associated with her donning of men’s attire and her extramarital affairs. As Justin McCarthy explained in Galaxy magazine, Sand was considered a “feminine fiend, endowed with a hideous power for the destruction of souls and an inextinguishable thirst for the slaughter of virtuous beliefs.” This image of her was largely “due to the fearful reports wafted across the seas, that this terrible woman had not merely repudiated the marriage bond, but had actually put off the garments sacred to womanhood.” As one of the foremost women of genius the world had ever known, Sand represented the ultimate deviation from the innocent, virtuous woman.6
However, such women would remain rarities, it was believed, because women’s biology made them intellectually inferior and incapable of artistic greatness. The medical establishment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries insisted that the mental exertion necessary for serious scholarship and creative genius was a physical impossibility for women owing to their weaker frames and biological makeup. A woman’s energy and blood were believed to be pulled away from her brain by her uterus, making sustained intellectual concentration either impossible or physically and psychologically dangerous. Young women, especially, needed to refrain from all mental and physical exertion to ensure the proper development of their reproductive organs. The message women received from their doctors and families, Christine Battersby writes, was that “[n]ature had provided women with a physique that would punish them with madness or disease if they attempted to rival the males” in the areas of scholarship or art.7
Elizabeth Stoddard’s portrait, from William Dean Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance; a Personal Retrospect of American Authorship (New York: Harper & Bros., 1900)
Constance Fenimore Woolson. Date unknown. Courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, OH.
Louisa M. Alcott, pen in hand. Date unknown. Courtesy of Concord Free Public Library, Concord, MA.
“An Incident in the Life of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.—‘Thimble or paint brush, which?’” Illustration from Our Famous Women (Hartford, CT: Hartford Publishing Co., 1888). This scene illustrates the choice Phelps believed she had to make between the pursuit of art and her domestic duties. The two could not be equally fulfilled. (Before Phelps settled on writing, she tried her hand at painting.)
“Jo in a Vortex,” advertisement for Little Women, from Louisa May Alcott, Silver Pitchers: and Independence, a Centennial Love Story (Boston: Roberts Bros., 1877). In Little Women Alcott lovingly described the way her writing pulled her into a “vortex,” suggesting complete absorption in one’s work and the pursuit of genius. Courtesy of General Research Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
Illustration from Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, “The Rejected Manuscript,” Harper’s New Monthly 86 (Jan. 1893): 293. Mary Hathorne, suffering from the type of illnesses common among late-nineteenth-century women, especially those with ambitions, is overcome with the news that her book will be published by a prestigious publisher after months of rejection and years of toiling for her family.
“The Children’s Friend,” from Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney, Louisa May Alcott, the Children’s Friend (Boston: L. Prang, 1888). This image of Alcott as a beloved storyteller for children would be her most lasting legacy despite her early ambitions and recognition as a serious artist.
It also was widely believed that when women did think, they did so differently from men. In Western culture, women were aligned with emotions and intuitive thinking and men with intellect and reason, again largely due to their different procreative functions. As a result of their different mental capacities, C. C. Everett expounded in the North American Review, men were the superior artists. “There is perhaps no more general distinction between the mind of man and that of woman, than that, where the former requires something to mediate between itself and the object of its contemplation, the latter approaches this object directly, without any such mediation.” The difficulty for woman was gaining enough distance from “the ordinary concerns of life” and her emotions to become the “artist.” Everett explained, “[N]ot only is it required by the highest art that outward objects shall not be exhibited in their direct connection with ourselves; the feelings also must be represented as something without the mind, which can be contemplated by it. The direct utterance of feeling is not poetry, or at least not the highest… . The artist must hold himself aloof, in some degree… . The artist must feel deeply; but he must not be under the dominion of his feelings.” Thus, her proclivity toward feeling rather than analysis made woman incapable of creating “the highest art.” Ironically, Everett’s argument prefaces his positive review of Aurora Leigh, in which Barrett Browning shows up the chauvinism of Romney, who believes in the beginning that women cannot be great poets because “You generalize / Oh, nothing,—not even grief! Your quick-breathed hearts, / So sympathetic to the personal pang, … incapable / Of deepening, widening a large lap of life / To hold the world-full woe.” By the end, however, Romney declares Aurora a “poet” because “in this last book, / You showed to me something separate from yourself, / Beyond you, … You have shown me truths, … truths not yours.”8 In addition to becoming a superior poet by uniting the spiritual and the social in her art, Aurora has also proved herself capable of rising above her sex, as her contemporaries would have seen it, by moving beyond the personal to the universal.
Taking a similar but slightly different tack than Everett’s or the early Romney’s, the North British Review declared women incapable of the highest order of thinking, imagination, which, in European romantic terms, was the instrument of divine creative ability, akin to genius. “[T]he main deficiency of feminine genius,” according to the writer, was that “[i]t can observe, it can recombine, it can delineate, but it cannot trust itself farther; it cannot … imagine.” The presumably unalterable logic that women’s minds were not capable of the highest, masculine form of genius was used time and again to dissuade women from even trying to use their imaginations. As John Ford, in Woolson’s “At the Château of Corinne,” tells Katherine Winthrop, “a woman should not dare in that way. Thinking to soar, she invariably descends. Her mental realm is not the same as that of man; lower, on the same level, or far above, it is at least different.” While men had distinguished themselves as great artists, poets, and writers and would continue to do so, women’s supposed innate difference from men meant that these highest achievements must be beyond them.9
The net result of such reasoning was to allocate women to a different and decidedly inferior type of artistic production. Deemed unable to create from the imagination, women were relegated to the role of copyist or genteel amateur. As visual artists, Barker explains, women were “often limited to feminine subjects—flowers, still lifes, genre painting, portraits.” This is certainly true of Corinne’s fair cousin and foil, Lucille, who tells Oswald, “absolutely the only thing I can do is copy flowers, and even then, only the very simplest.” Her lack of imagination is a crucial part of her identity as the perfect “woman.” The same is true of Sylvia, in Woolson’s “Château,” who makes wax flowers. In contrast, Avis signals her high ambition by declaring that she will do more than paint copies and portraits: “I do not mean to paint portraits… . I have different plans: at least I have different hopes.”10 As the result of those plans, her Sphinx suggests the highest imagination, her insight gained through reverie and intoxication. In the realm of literature, women were deemed to be most capable of writing that required little or no imagination or analysis, namely sketches of domestic subjects or works that were effusions of the feelings, namely sentimental poetry or novels. Women, therefore, were supposed to possess their own brand of genius, which excelled at the sentimental and the quotidian but went no farther.
The nineteenth century, however, did witness some serious challenges to the doctrine of women’s intellectual inferiority and inability to produce great art. Some claimed that genius itself was sexless, drawing on Enlightenment theory of sexual equality and the romantic idea that genius was androgynous. But these theories did little to alter the pervasive belief that actual, individual women could not possess genius. Enlightenment philosophy posited a split between mind and body that could sever the supposed link between women’s biology and mental capacity, allowing for their access to masculine logocentrism. However, this idea of intellectual equality between the sexes could not legitimate a public role as authors because women were still bound by their bodies to their families and the home. Likewise, the romantic idea that genius was produced from a fusion between masculine and feminine traits did not necessarily extend to real women. As Susan Wolfson points out about Coleridge’s famous association of genius with androgyny, “he was thinking only of male minds with feminine qualities.”11 While Fuller tried to appropriate this notion of genius for women in her argument about Minerva and the Muse in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, it remained for her an ideal. Women were not yet free to acquire the masculine traits of energy and power embodied by Minerva. Women were still perceived as defined by their bodies, their emotions inextricably linked to biology and their relations to others.
Another line of attack was to redefine “genius” to make it compatible with then-current ideas of a woman’s nature, a popular approach among midcentury American women writers. “[T]he Victorian ideology of women’s intellect,” Baym explains, “rejects the sexless mind, elevates the value of spirituality over intellect, and associates women with spirituality.” The next step, then, was to equate genius with spirituality, not a difficult task given its origins in the concept of divine inspiration. For example, Sarah Josepha Hale, who was especially instrumental in redefining feminine genius, declared in 1852, “Those who hold the doctrine of equality will be no doubt shocked to hear that I am convinced the difference between the constructive genius of man and woman is the result of an organic difference in the operations of their minds.” But while critics previously had labeled feminine genius as inferior, Hale viewed it as superior to the masculine form of genius owing to its moral purity: “Is not moral power better than mechanical invention?” she asked. “Why should women wish to be or to do or to write like men? Is not the feminine genius the most angel-like?”12 An interesting expression of this view of feminine genius as “angel-like” and therefore superior can be found in Sarah E. Henshaw’s essay “Are We Inferior?” (1869). Championing the idea of sexual difference, Henshaw declares that “woman’s faculty is akin to genius” because of its intuitive nature, while man’s is practical and prosaic. “Her faculty was meant for reference, consultation, for prophetic perception, which should point the way of the world. It is of a higher order than his—not lower. Its divine flight is crippled now, but is gradually gaining in strength and certainty.” This superior faculty, though, will not be used to usurp men. She concludes, “He will … find himself undisputed king of the world, and will administer unchallenged the affairs of the kingdom, while she will be its priestess—she will consult for him the oracle—she will keep the sacred fire.”13 In this utopian vision, men and women will gain equality through their difference, and they will reign as partners, utilizing their equally valued, complementary abilities.
The strategy of feminizing genius was a powerful counter to the taboo against ambition under which antebellum women struggled to define themselves. Their culture discouraged them from desiring recognition outside the home by warning them that ambition and pride were unwomanly. Women who discovered that they possessed abilities at writing (or even sanctioned feminine activities like sewing), and who actually enjoyed developing and displaying these talents, wrestled with self-doubt and even self-hatred. Women often referred to their desires to exhibit their talents as “temptations,” as if it were a sin to crave recognition. And ambition was deemed a vulgar thing to be either suppressed or disavowed altogether. The twenty-year-old Charlotte Forten Grimké wrote in her diary, in 1857, “I have constantly a longing for something higher and nobler, than I have known. Constantly I ask myself ‘what shall I do to be forever known?’ This is ambition, I know. It is selfish, it is wrong. But oh! how very hard it is to do and feel what is right.”14 Grimké was likely one of a large number of young women who were beginning to crave such fame and achievement, most of whom would never realize their dreams.
One such woman, S. E. Wallace, published a revealing essay in Harper’s in 1867, titled “Another Weak-Minded Woman. A Confession.” This woman’s sin was attempting to become a published author. Feeling guilty for the ambitions she harbored, she hid herself in the attic when she wrote. “No deed of shame was ever hidden with more anxious care,” she confided. When she sent out a poem to be published, she felt like a criminal. “Had I been caught stealing I could not have felt more guilty.” But when her poem appeared in Harper’s, she briefly basked in the glow of her fame. “For one transcendent hour,” she wrote, “I wore the robes of prophecy, and looked from shining heights into a glory yet to come.” From that point on, her real sin began, she felt, as she invested most of her energy in seeking her future glory rather than in catering to the needs of her husband and children. When a “jury” of twelve editors handed her their “sentence” that her writings were “worth nothing,” she burned the evidence of her crime, and once again “[p]eace descended upon our house.” Her confession concludes with the advice to women that they “[f]ling away ambition, or invest it in your sons” because pursuing glory as an author is not only a sinful neglect of duty but also futile. “I do not believe the world will ever produce a feminine Shakespeare or Milton, or a woman’s hand write grand oratorios or create beauty like Apollo,” she opined. “We will vote before a great while; we may hold office; we may be angels; but we can never be men.” This silenced writer reiterated the view of her culture that women would never be able to compete with men for literary laurels, so they should remain in their appropriate sphere, living out their ambitions through their sons, inspiring them to achieve what they, as women, could not.15
Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson shared Grimké’s and Wallace’s discomfort about possessing high ambitions, as did Jewett, Dickinson, Davis, and virtually all women writers of this generation. As a result, they modified their ambitions, modestly denied that they possessed any, or even claimed that they possessed no talent as writers. But their subterfuge should not conceal their belief in women’s right to pursue artistry and, with the removal of obstacles, their capability of achieving it. They never fully believed that by trying to be artists they were trying to be men. So they never disavowed ambition altogether, the way Wallace did. Instead, they found ways to incorporate their ambitions into their lives as women, as Grimké did when she wrote in her journal, “My earnest longings [sic] to do something for the good of others. I know that I am very selfish. Always the thought of self-culture presents itself first. With that, I think I can accomplish something more noble, more enduring, I will try not to forget that, while striving to improve myself, I may at least commence to work for others.” She tried to overcome her sense of guilt by combining her ambitious desire for “self-culture” with a more noble (and feminine) duty to others. For many women writers, as for Jewett, the way to assuage one’s guilt for “growing ambitious” was to fall back on the argument that it was her duty to develop her God-given talent.16 As we have seen, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s mother also legitimated her writing in this way.
The main barrier to these women’s expression of their ambitions and their belief in themselves as writers was the charge of vanity or egotism, and their feelings in this respect reveal the basic difficulty they had in striving to be artists: they feared the accusation that they lacked femininity. Vanity was one of the primary characteristics associated with that dreaded epithet, “bluestocking,” and another way that reviewers tried to shame women writers (and other women who sought recognition or demanded equal rights) into silence was to accuse them of writing only for their own selfish gratification or for praise. In her essay “Women in Literature” (1891), Davis accused men and women of seeking “the possible crown to be won” from a literary career: “a chance of gratification for that desire for personal notoriety with which the American soul, both male and female, seems of late to be so fatally tainted.” What she hoped to see instead were men and woman who wrote “simply because there is in them a message to be given, and they cannot die until they have spoken it… . [who wrote with] noble purpose, and who will help themselves and the world by so writing.” Again, Davis appeals to the idea of an innate compulsion beyond one’s control, the message that must come out, as if it came from God. This argument is reminiscent of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s well-known claim that “God wrote” Uncle Tom’s Cabin and is also commensurate with the ideal of genius. But whereas Stowe, in essence, used the idea of divine inspiration to deflect recognition of her talents and to absolve herself from the charge of being ambitious for herself, Davis, as did many other women of her generation, used the argument of God-given talent or genius to justify her ambitions. As Davis goes on to write, having already established the “noble purpose” that should guide the writer, she hopes women will “be stirred by ambition to leave something more permanent behind them than reports of Sanitary or Archeological clubs, and will paint as they only can do, for the next generation, the inner life and history of their time with a power which shall make that time alive for future ages.”17 With this noble purpose, a special ability to depict one’s age, and a message that must be spoken, Davis believed, women could legitimately pursue their ambition to make their mark in the literary world.
At the same time that many American women writers were feminizing genius and ambition, the successes of de Staël, Sand, Brontë, Barrett Browning, and Eliot became the centerpiece of another powerful argument for women’s access to genius. Instead of the feminized genius promoted by Hale and Henshaw, these women writers were deemed capable of what Fuller had dreamed about: combining the “Minerva” and the “Muse.” The most common explanation for their genius, however, was that they were exceptions among women, rather than representative of what women were capable of, a defense that the writers themselves seem to have embraced. As we have seen, they portrayed their autobiographical artist heroines as unlike other women. And the masculine pseudonyms adopted by Eliot, Sand, and the Brontë sisters are indicative of their desire to distinguish themselves from the disparaged mass of authoresses and to be regarded as men, who were accorded more freedom in subject matter and more respect from their peers. But as each was found out to be a woman, the critics’ discomfort with their literary independence and “masculine” style and/or subject matter overwhelmed much of the discussion of their works.
In each case, however, as the passage of time allowed for greater reflection on the quality of their literary achievements, these authors were deemed by many to have accomplished what other women had not: they had risen above their sex by writing as well as men. They gained respect as artists by proving themselves capable of the masculine creation of art that was strong, powerful, and truthful. Rather than write as women, or merely ape men, or even become men, they combined the virtues of both sexes in their works. For example, Theophilus Parsons wrote of de Staël that no woman “had done so much to vindicate the intellectual equality of woman with man… . The character of her mind was formed by a combination of qualities which rarely meet together. With an imagination luxuriant to excess, she reasoned acutely and sometimes profoundly; and while her understanding acted with such rapidity and promptness that it almost seemed instinct, its grasp was wide and strong.” Her imagination combined (feminine) excesses and instinct with (masculine) reasoning and strength. In a similar vein, Everett declared Barrett Browning superior to other women writers for her “great learning, rich experiences, and powerful genius, uniting to her woman’s nature the strength which is sometimes thought peculiar to a man.” Likewise, McCarthy claimed of Sand, “Her soul, her brain, her style may be described … as exuberantly and splendidly feminine; yet no other woman has ever shown the same power of understanding and entering into the nature of a man… . [I]f ever a single human being could have the soul of a man and soul of a woman at once, George Sand might be described as that physical and psychological phenomenon.” A similar assessment of Eliot appeared in the Southern Review: she “truly possesses an intellect which is so far above ordinary womanhood as to include strength and grasp, the critical acumen and large outlook of a man, with the tenderness and purity of a woman.”18 Ultimately, these women were perceived as exceptional examples, although some believed that their achievements were a sign that the time had arrived when “woman” would fulfill her greatest potential. Their achievements, however, provided both inspiration and difficulty for the Civil War and postbellum generation of women writers, who desired to follow in their footsteps but also feared the charge of unwomanliness that was often associated with the reputations of these women of genius.
However, just as some women had laid claim to genius, even redefining it to associate it with feminine spirituality and moral superiority, and others had been deemed possessors of the genius that combines masculine and feminine qualities, “genius” in its traditional sense as divine inspiration began to lose ground. As realism gradually came into vogue, not otherworldly inspiration but experience, hard work, and “scientific” observation became the hallmarks of literary excellence. In the 1880s and 1890s, realists and neoromantics waged war in the periodicals over the term “genius,” although the seeds of these voluble debates had been sown in the decades of Alcott’s, Phelps’s, Stoddard’s, and Woolson’s literary productivity. Neoromantics felt that genius was the instigator of human progress and the source of true “art,” whereas realists associated genius with “egoism,” “moral deterioration,” “elitism,” and “hero-worship.”19 Women’s claims to romantic genius, which some American women were beginning to adopt in the 1860s, were therefore cut short. As realist aesthetics closed off one avenue to genius for women, it seemed, though, to open up another in its emphasis on the writer as observer and professional. For if the attainment of otherworldly inspiration was deemed impossible for women, then certainly the observation of common people in everyday settings was something at which women could excel, and they already had shown their capacity for professionalism. However, with the rise of realism’s more scientific approach to literature also came so-called scientific studies once again proclaiming the inferiority of women’s mental capacities.20
Writing the Woman of Genius
In their private and published accounts of their identities as artists and in their artist narratives, Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson employed various strategies to mask their ambitions and/or their gender. We see these strategies most visibly in their stories about women artists. Although they did not adopt masculine or androgynous pseudonyms (except in the case of Alcott’s sensational stories, which she covertly wrote for money, not for recognition), they sometimes did adopt masculine or asexual narrators. Similarly, they valued “virility” and “strength” as qualities that distinguished high from low art. However, we also see in their depictions of women artists and in their personal writings attempts to find a theory of art with which they were comfortable and which fit with their understanding of themselves as women. Engaging cultural debates about women’s special genius, they explained their art as alternately spontaneous, the product of divine inspiration, or the result of hard work. And, as they did so, they engaged in contemporary debates about whether “genius” itself was the source of “art.”
Of the four writers, Stoddard was the most explicit about her courting of genius. This is not surprising, considering that she began her career slightly earlier when the cult of romantic genius was at its peak in America. And her husband and their friend Edmund Clarence Stedman were two of the major proponents of “genius” during the debates in the 1880s and 1890s. Stoddard used the term “genius” in the romantic sense of the word, having been heavily influenced by the European romantic ideals of poetry professed by her husband and his friends. As a result, her allusions to creativity usually took on a masculine cast. For example, in discussing her novel Two Men with a (female) friend who reviewed it, she wrote, “I must have failed where Balzac would have succeeded in a masterly delineation of the cause and effect of emotion… . Oh why was I not given that genius whose insight teaches and makes the mysteries of the human heart understood.” Although she understood “genius” as exemplified by “masterly” powers, her statement nonetheless reveals her ambition to acquire this same type of power possessed by Balzac. She does not seem to believe that her lack of it is due to her sex. By comparing herself to him, she casts herself in the role of a gender-neutral “author” instead of as a “female author,” something that was incredibly difficult for American women writers to do. Elsewhere, Stoddard also associated creativity with “viril[ity]” and wrote of discovering the “kingly power” within herself, reflecting her belief that “art” was masculine and a woman must eschew the feminine in order to create it. She described her admiration for Jane Eyre in these terms, calling it “a daring and masculine work.” Brontë was a model for Stoddard because she “possess[ed] more moral strength than the government and gun-powder heroes of the day.”21
In keeping with her romantic ideals of the artist, Stoddard also equated genius with alienation and ostracism. In her story “The Chimneys” (1865), she declared, in clear reference to herself, “Some people never discover genius even, when it is born in the same town with themselves. I am told that one of our noted authoresses is considered a miserable housekeeper in her town.” The town, presumably her hometown, Mattapoisett, has no appreciation for genius, especially when exhibited in a woman. It is only interested in her domestic skills. After her three novels failed to gain her a wide readership, her sense of alienation became more acute and perhaps even a defensive badge of pride, as it was for authors like Hawthorne and her husband’s circle of discontented poets. By the time she wrote her essay “A Literary Whim” (1871), she clearly still understood geniuses as otherworldly and hoped to be recognized as one of their number. “Genius ‘cometh from afar,’ and its ‘trailing clouds of glory’ are not for us to grasp while we are in the prison-house of the commonplace.” But like “the great men buried in Westminster Abbey,” she also expected to “die an impenetrable secret,” as inexplicable to her contemporaries, who thought her “abnormal” and a sort of “‘Learned Pig.’”22
Stoddard’s private correspondence reveals alternating moments of belief in her own genius and periods of tremendous doubt. Possessing such a masculine and high ideal of genius, it is not surprising that she had difficulty maintaining her faith in her capability of possessing it. When her works were reprinted late in her life and met with some very high acclaim, she more openly discussed her genius than she had in the 1860s. In 1889, basking in the showers of praise from reviewers, she wrote to Lillian Whiting, “Stoddard [her husband] said … there is more genius in The Morgesons[,] more art in Two Men, more power in Temple House—and I guess he is right.” When the republished version of her second novel reached the third edition (decades after the first version had been released), she was elated. “Now if I can but be noticed in England, it will be the ‘hall mark’—I shall go up like a kite, and hover over the top of Parnassus!” She also directly confronted her husband, asking him to confirm whether or not she possessed “genius,” as she wrote to Stedman.23 She was no longer shy about what had been, in her early years, a more taboo subject.
During her apprenticeship, Stoddard had wrestled extensively with her doubts about her own abilities. She came to believe, though, that lack of education, the absence of encouragement, and women’s duties were the real reasons women had been unable to fully realize their genius and that she herself might not succeed in doing so. In 1852, while she was beginning her apprenticeship and confronting her intense self-doubts about her abilities, she believed that inspiration, the hallmark of romantic genius, was accessible to women. But divine inspiration, she soon realized, was not enough. She wrote to her friend Margaret Sweat, who was also struggling with her writing: “I understand the condition of mind you speak of, … you perceive but you have not yet acquired the analytical power enough to reflect them into method, method indeed is what the minds of women lack, … their minds are crowded, confused[.] Women depend too much on inspiration, inspiration avails little. [I]t is only the laborious process of human reason that can resolve the mind into clearness & truth.”24 Here Stoddard is critiquing the kind of feminine definition of genius promoted by Hale and Henshaw. While women were capable of possessing inspiration or genius, she believed them largely incapable of the hard work and intellectual capacity to give it shape. Unable to apply (masculine) reason to their flashes of (feminine) inspiration, women lacked the discipline to do what Emerson understood as the final stage of genius—to translate the moment of insight into an enduring and communicable “truth.” Stoddard therefore suggests that while she feels creative power momentarily, she feels incapable of bringing it to fruition. This is, in fact, the kind of frustration we also saw in her 1866 journal. (It is also similar to Fuller’s complaints that she found it difficult to translate the power of her conversations into literature.) But Stoddard’s letter does not recognize this condition as innate in women. Instead, like Fuller, she believed that although women “have not yet acquired the analytical power,” they can and one day will, with hard work. Throughout her career, though, Stoddard would bemoan her lack of training to cultivate such a power. “I am aware of a basis of thought which requires time and patience only to bring it up into some perfect structure,” she insisted. However, she continued, “My radical defect in form is hard to struggle with—but so much the more labor that’s all.”25
In addition to her want of education and training, Stoddard also confronted other obstacles, namely prejudices against women’s literary abilities. In the 1850s, as she stretched her literary wings in columns for the San Francisco Daily Alta California, Stoddard was “anxious to discover the innate inferiority [of woman’s mind] to the mind masculine, or its equality with it,” an indication that she questioned assumptions about women’s mental weaknesses. But she could come to no concrete conclusion about the matter, she insisted, because she believed that women of true ability were unable to flourish in the literary marketplace, which was overrun with inferior women writers. “The eight books in ten are written without genius; all show industry and a few talent,” she wrote. But the examples of successful women, who tread on “the domain appropriated by men to themselves” despite the “disadvantage” of babies and men’s lack of support, showed that “a parity of circumstances would bring about a parity of intelligence between [women] and our good lords and patrons.”26 Women had not gained “parity” with men purely because, weighed down with women’s burdens, they could not adequately develop their minds. The issue was not whether women’s minds were innately inferior but how their different duties and the messages they received from men stifled their potential.
In the article “Woman and Art” (1870), most likely written by Stoddard, she more fully explored the subject of women’s supposed mental inferiority. But her husband’s advice to publish it anonymously suggests its inflammatory nature. In this piece, she wrote to Whitelaw Reid, she endeavored to explain why “no supremacy of intellect has yet been shown in the creative arts by any woman.” She ridicules the “foolish virgins” who exasperate critics by dabbling in what men take seriously. For while men search for the work of art that will be the “Light of the World,” the artistic woman sketches at picnics, seeing in art only the “practical purposes” of socializing and of attracting mates. “Were she, indeed, once to forget them, she might become … a George Sand. In other words, she might find herself an artist, loving and studying art for its own sake, solitary, despised, eccentric and blue. From such a destiny aesthetic woman turns scornfully away.” While seeming to criticize women harshly for their lack of seriousness, she ends by suggesting that women are kept down by their culture and the very critics who ridicule them. The main reason women “leave [serious painting] comfortably to Academicians and rough-bearded creatures” is that they fear ostracism from men. Being an artist like George Sand would make one “despised” by her society for daring to tread on man’s realm of serious art. Can anyone blame women for their frivolous approach to art? she seems to ask.27 In another article she took the next step of celebrating a woman artist who gave her the example she needed to prove women’s minds were not inferior. In “Woman in Art.—Rosa Bonheur” (1872), this time published under a pseudonym, she came to the conclusion that with encouragement and education women’s abilities could be equal to those of men. “There are many who believe,” she wrote, “that no advantages of training and culture will ever give women, as artists, rank in the profession by the side of men. Out upon such folly!” She offered Rosa Bonheur (the French painter) as “proof … of woman’s capacity in art… . Woman though she is, none will deny her the possession of genius.”28 To Stoddard, women were quite capable of genius; they simply needed the requisite intellectual training and the serious support of men, both of which she felt she had been denied.
But because American women writers had been denied these necessary conditions, which Phelps’s unnamed struggling author in “A Plea for Immortality” also clearly lacked, they had produced, in Stoddard’s eyes, only inferior writing. In her Daily Alta California columns, she scoffed at the popular women’s novels of the day. She agreed with “[a] critic in Putnam’s [who] says that the women-novels contain puppets, instead of characters.” She read one such novel, Juno Clifford, “with scorn and derision.” In another column, she objected to the ideal of womanhood promoted by Caroline Chesebro’s Victoria, or The World Overcome:
Miss Chesebro’s dogmatic and pious ideal of a woman assails me in reading her book. I object to the position she takes in regard to the reader—that of a teacher. The morality is not agreeable, and quite impossible… . Why will writers, especially female writers, make their heroines indifferent to good eating, so careless about taking cold, and so impervious to all the creature comforts? The absence of these treats compose their good women, with an external preachment about self-denial, moral self-denial. Is goodness, then, incompatible with the enjoyment of the senses?
In this passage Stoddard attacked two basic characteristics of American women’s fiction at midcentury: didacticism and the moral imperative of self-denial. She added that Chesebro’ took on the position of a teacher in respect to the reader, which is to say, condescended to the student/reader. What Stoddard objected to, then, was the reader’s being treated like a child. In addition to the author’s didactic mentoring, Stoddard also objected to the lesson Chesebro’ was teaching, namely that young women should forgo the pleasures that Stoddard believed they were entitled to. Self-denial, she implies, was not the virtue so many women novelists would claim; rather, it precluded self-development and maturity. She continued,
In reading such books I am reminded of what I have thought my mission was: a crusade against Duty—not the duty that is revealed to every man and woman of us by the circumstances of daily life, but that which is cut and fashioned for us by minds totally ignorant of our idiosyncrasies and necessities. The world has long been in a polemical fog. I am afraid we shall never get into plain sailing.29
The “polemical fog” of advice that poured forth from the press and the pulpit, promoting good citizenship in the form of ideal Christian womanhood, among other virtues, clearly distressed Stoddard. Such preaching stifled women and men, sapping them of their individuality (and by extension the originality required to create art), hence the “crusade against Duty” that informed all of her serious work. This crusade, more than anything else, allowed her to develop an original voice in the midst of pressure to conform to ideals of womanhood that did not suit her, and in the midst of a literary book market dominated by formulaic women’s fiction that allowed little room for experiment or individuality of vision and expression. Two of Stoddard’s stories about artists, “Me and My Son” and “Collected by a Valetudinarian” (both published in 1870), reveal her efforts to express such individuality and her ambivalence about how much artistic self-discovery was allowed women.
“Me and My Son” dramatizes Stoddard’s critique in her early Alta columns and her later Aldine articles of the cultural forces that stifle women’s potential. In this story, she portrays a variation on her favorite (autobiographical) heroine—the stifled, unconventional young woman from a remote small town with vague desires and ambitions but no outlet for her energies. In the opening paragraph, Laura Calton mocks the “[m]echanical piety” and the “cheerful heroine” in the novel she is reading. She dismisses what appears to be a typical midcentury woman’s novel, in which the heroine “is driven from all material happiness with a sharp stick.”30 Her disdain for the novel reflects Stoddard’s attitude toward most women’s novels expressed in her critique of Chesebro’ fourteen years earlier. By beginning the story with these views, she signals both her heroine’s and the story’s departure from such conventional works. But Laura’s individuality is cut short and will not lead to her becoming an artist but rather to marrying one.
The description of Laura as a girl clearly marks her as a potential artist in the vein of Corinne, Aurora Leigh, and Avis. She was “a girl of some force and originality, [who] kicked in the orthodox walking-stool provided for her by her guardians and friends,” leading “even her good mother [to think] her queer, and no example to follow.” Her difference led to her “[o]stracization” and to repression by her community. “She was never allowed to be a law unto herself,” the narrator explains, using the same language Avis used to explain herself to Philip. Instead, she had an unhappy girlhood, and, like Stoddard, Alcott, and many of their heroines, “she was a child of ‘ups and downs,’ possessed by Satan.” As a result of her isolation and lack of opportunity to discover her unique nature, “[n]o inner life was developed, and her outward life was cold and empty.” When she turns twenty, the age at which Aurora Leigh crowned herself on a June day, Laura is “possessed” by “ennui,” despite the “midsummer” season “when Nature promises all to the senses.” But unlike Aurora, she is uninspired by the blooming world around her: “[The] child of nature, Thoreau or Emerson, would have delighted in the season and the scene; but Laura had no soul for nature, … no dream of that relation between the seen and the unseen, which brings us glimpses of ‘that immortal sea which brought us thither.’” Laura’s repressive upbringing has made her incapable of realizing the promise of genius offered by Emerson. She probably has never even heard of Emerson. As the narrator points out, “Full of latent abilities, not a single one had been called into play” (214). Then one day, she meets a Mr. Calton, who will rescue her from boredom. Thus ends the narrative of the potential artist and begins the story of the wife.
However, Stoddard complicates what would be a typical plot of a willful young woman subdued and placed into the appropriate channel of matrimony. She does this by embedding the narrative of her courtship and married life in the middle of a story about her overall awakening. After two years, Laura loses her only child, and after five years, her husband dies, leaving her the widow Mrs. Calton. This was where we first found her at the beginning of the story, an older and wiser woman, yet still dissatisfied and bored with the conventional narratives of women’s lives. “Her liberty [remained] restricted because she was a woman, because of Mr. Calton’s [will], and because her fortune was small” (217). But her life begins to change with the arrival of her husband’s cousin, Martha, who has received money from his estate on the stipulation that she live with Laura. Martha’s son, Lester, is “a genius, an artist,” who has achieved some success. His sculpture “stands behind the Speaker’s chair in the hall of Congress.” More importantly, the statue looks like Laura. When Lester saw her photograph, he “thought your brow was regal,” Martha tells her. It also becomes clear that Laura is “not heart-broken” by the loss of her husband, and “that there was some lack in Laura’s nature… . it might be repressed, undeveloped, or shallow” (218). The question is whether this “lack” is love or art. Her potential as an artist, however, has been extinguished long ago, and instead she is transformed by Lester into an art object and, eventually, a wife. At first, of course, she resists the charms of both “the artist life” (which she would live through him) and Lester. She has “always thought artists were queer” (219), she tells Martha, using the same word her mother used to describe her and that Martha will use as well in reference to her in the final line of the story.
The final pages throw Laura and Lester together in scenes reminiscent of Stoddard’s other depictions of courtship as “a sort of guerrilla warfare” (220). But Laura finally relents, realizing that her life has been “a crude waste. All the ordinary experiences of womanhood bringing her to this result!” She wonders, “Was the right way before her at last?” (221). Life as Lester’s wife will be anything but the “ordinary” life of a woman, but it is still far from the life of an artist. That is reserved for Lester, who clearly has had the supportive mother, community, and education that allowed him to awaken his potential and pursue his career, none of which were granted to Laura. Her access to the world of art will be through him. But her question of whether this was the “right” way undercuts the romantic ending. Laura has found a way to live an unconventional life, but has she found an outlet for her “latent abilities”? This story powerfully conveys the ambivalence that Stoddard herself felt about her own ebbing career. By conceiving of no way for Laura to discover her relation to nature and hence her individuality and her potential as an artist, “Me and My Son” (the very title of which excludes Laura) is a paradigmatic story of the failure of the woman artist. While many such stories, such as Armgart and Avis, depict the withering of the woman artist’s talent, Laura’s talent remains dormant from the beginning.
At the same time, however, “Me and My Son” demonstrates Stoddard’s continued efforts to produce high-quality work. Despite its contrived ending (the happy ending being the most difficult narrative convention to subvert), this is a serious story that clearly positions itself in opposition to the women’s novels that she lampooned in her Alta columns. Just as Laura objects to the way the sanguine heroine of the novel she is reading puts off happiness until the afterlife and, presumably, resigns herself to an unsatisfactory life in the here and now, Stoddard’s story works against such a moral and such easy, “[m]echanical piety.” Her heroine, by contrast, does not blithely resign herself to unhappiness; instead she slowly dies inside, only to be rescued by Lester from a living death. The author surprises us not only with her unconventional heroine but also with abrupt prose meant to reflect Laura’s individuality. For example, after Laura examines Lester for the first time and admits that “he was undeniably handsome,” the narrator interrupts the description of him to tell us, “She felt like having a fight with him, and made up her mind to avail herself of the first opportunity” (220). Such a passage is characteristic of Stoddard’s liveliest prose, which, although not always appreciated by her contemporaries, was a conscious effort on her part to break with the angelic didacticism of her sister novelists and to align herself with the “gunpowder” of Charlotte Brontë.
Published later the same year, “Collected,” as we have already seen, clearly allows the artist heroine to develop her abilities, although it does so in a kind of a vacuum. Alicia is still no Lester. She has no supportive community (apart from the love of her brother, who understands her mind but not her writing), and although she has corresponded with other writers, she is more like Emily Dickinson in her seclusion. Additionally, her success is validated only within her family circle. She is not recognized by the nation, as Lester is with his statue in the hall of Congress. However, we can read “Collected,” a sort of companion piece to “Me and My Son,” as the fulfillment of the woman artist’s (Laura’s) potential. In fact, an autobiographical reading of the two stories would suggest that they represent the two selves—wife and artist—that Stoddard had been struggling to resolve. Shortly after the publication of these two works, Stoddard would essentially give up that fight, while her husband, like Lester, pursued his career largely unfettered.
The heroine of “Collected,” Alicia, is twenty-eight years old and unmarried, and therefore is past the crisis points depicted in the earlier story. She has already loved and lost and rejects a second suitor in favor of her own development. This is not the story of a restless young woman seeking her purpose in life but the story of a more mature woman whose purpose has been found. There is no mention of Alicia’s family, beyond an “unhappy mother,” who must be dead, and her brother.31 Stoddard has erased any discontented, stifling childhood. As a result, Alicia is allowed to embrace her idiosyncrasies and explore nature for its hidden depths of meaning. While the sea “stirred no mental echo in Laura’s spirit” (214), Alicia takes frequent, “perfect” “woodland walks” (299) and writes after one such walk, “Full-blooded summer swells the sea and is in my veins” (300). These walks clearly fuel her creative energy, the growth of which Alicia’s journal documents.
Alicia’s diary makes many references to her courting of masculine “genius.” In the first entry, Alicia writes that “in rummaging my brain today I believe that I thanked God for suddenly feeling virile; I mean that I emerged from my fog” (294). The first part of this sentence, taken from Stoddard’s 1866 journal, suggests that Alicia associates her creative powers with male sexual energy. Also, emerging from a fog, she is now able to see clearly. This “virile” energy, which results in the power to see clearly, is suggestive of the gaze of the “artist,” which penetrates into the secret meanings of things not available to the ordinary person. As Everett wrote in his review of Aurora Leigh, unlike the average individual, the artist sees “objects as existing for the eye alone… . Before they can be transferred to his canvas, they must be to him transmuted into color only.” Emerson, influenced by Coleridge, also stressed the ocular ability of the artist. He wrote in Nature, “There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.” And, of course, there is his infamous metaphor of the “transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all.”32 Laura, significantly, possesses no such ability to “see”: “The brilliant July sky was a tiresome spectacle to her; she watched it from vacancy” (214). Her empty eyes are matched by an empty soul, which has to be filled up by an artist husband. But Alicia writes that she is “[s]pying inside and outside of myself for the fashion of my novel” (295). Possessing the power to see both internally and externally, she is preparing to create great art.
However, as we have seen, Alicia experiences a period of frustration. At one point, she writes in desperation, “Let me sew a womanly seam. Who am I to summon giants?” (300), suggesting that her doubts about her abilities stem from her gender. She knows that she is supposed to be sewing rather than creating art. But having rejected her lover in order to devote herself to her writing, she finds her strength again as an artist. At the same time, however, her body begins its decline toward death. With her body failing, her eyesight takes over, suggesting that she is becoming now the consummate artist, the bodiless transparent eyeball, who has no corporeal presence in the world. Reclaiming the artist’s power of vision, she declares, “Who has ever looked thoroughly into the lining of things?” (303). Here she most emphatically adopts the penetrating, masculine gaze of the artist, who looks beyond the surface into the mysterious depths. She has refused the role of wife, and presumably mother, both of which would mean a physical, sexual existence. Instead, she recommits herself to the role of observer/artist, who takes possession of nature and begins to watch her brother’s courtship of Julia develop. Rather than become a participant in romance, a subjective role, she maintains the distance of the observer. Here we see the most common claim made by Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson about the woman artist—in order to create art, she must remain distant and aloof. Once she has entangled herself in intimate relationships, she has lost her capacity for insight.
This situation presents a paradox, however. When Julia reads Alicia’s novel and declares, “I did not know that one could create without experience,” she alludes to cultural arguments against women’s capacity to create because of their secluded lives. The implications are even more damaging for the unmarried woman artist: without a subjective knowledge of love, how can one write about it? However, Alicia takes her powers as an artist beyond the realm of women’s ordinary experiences by claiming the perceptive power of the transcendent artist. She tells Julia, “like Ulysses, I am a part of all that I have seen” (306). In these allusions to Alicia’s ability to see “into the lining” of things and to merge her consciousness into those things outside of herself through creative perception, Stoddard allows Alicia to realize the “virile” power of the artist that she often felt was beyond herself. Alicia becomes, like Charlotte Brontë, a “self-contained” artist (292). As Stoddard wrote about Brontë, “Fame and money were not her incentives, she wrote, she says, because she felt it ‘needful to speak,’ and what she experienced in her own life, or what she saw in the life of others she expressed.”33 Like Davis’s ideal author, Alicia writes from such pure motives, but she is not allowed, like Brontë or Davis’s female writers, to speak to or for her age. As a result, Alicia does not complete the stages of Emersonian genius. With this story, Stoddard seemed to give up on the ideal of genius as communicative, as embraced by the nation. Such a symbiotic relationship between genius and audience is available only to Lester, the male artist. Alicia, then, although allowed to sprout and grow well beyond Laura, remains incomplete, killed off before full fruition of her genius.
Woolson’s artist heroines, in contrast to Alicia’s remarkable access to the vision of the artist, are denied the masculine power of the objective gaze necessary to the creation of “art,” in addition to the voice of Emersonian genius. The silencing of Woolson’s female artists is blatant—Katherine loses her voice at the end of “Château”; Miss Elisabetha’s voice is usurped by that of a prima donna who steals the affection of her ward; Margaret Harold in East Angels, who is described as “a combination of our own Margaret Fuller and Madame de Staël,” is denied a voice: “she is a Corinne Mute, a Margaret dumb.”34 Like Armgart, these women are buried alive by their voicelessness. What has been less noticed, however, is the way Woolson robs her female artists of the ability not only to speak but also to see. Her most fascinating woman artist narratives—“The Street of the Hyacinth,” “‘Miss Grief,’” and “At the Château of Corinne”—are told through the perspective of male or male-identified narrators. These stories subject women artists to the male gaze, reducing them to the status of object, or “woman,” foreclosing from the outset the possibility of their developing, within the gendered hierarchy of the narrative, the status of subject or “artist.”
Woolson, who did not have as thorough a commitment to romantic ideals of art and genius as Stoddard did, nonetheless shared her understanding of women writers’ need to acquire “masterly” powers in order to create art. Woolson tended to use the term “genius” in the masculine, romantic sense of otherworldly, innate energies, and as a result, she was conflicted on the question of whether women could possess genius. Our understanding of Woolson’s views on the subject is complicated by her profession to her friends Edmund Clarence Stedman and Henry James that women were incapable of genius. She wrote to Stedman that in his essay on Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Victorian Poets, “you have veiled your entire disbelief in the possibility of true fiery genius in woman… . You have no objection to a woman’s soaring to lofty heights in the realm of space allotted to her; the only thing you wish understood is that it is in her allotted space… . I do not quarrel with you about this; and the reason is—that I fully agree with you!” As Sharon Dean writes in regard to this letter, “For a writer who pushed herself to be the best literary artist she could be and who created fictional characters with similar goals, the statement appears problematic.” Dean resolves the contradiction by arguing that “Woolson believed that ‘true fiery genius in woman’ was unavailable because the definition of genius was a male-based construct.” There is much in Woolson’s writings to support Dean’s conclusion that Woolson felt women “had not been given access to the education or life experiences necessary to cultivate genius in themselves or to recognize genius in others.” Most tellingly, Woolson once wrote that she believed more education was all women needed to develop their minds. She did not think the “feminine mind inferior,” she claimed. “But it has been kept back, and enfeebled, and limited, by ages of ignorance, and almost servitude.” If we contrast the letter to Stedman with Woolson’s marginal notes in her copy of Victorian Poets, we can see that what she wrote to the author was not necessarily all she felt. Next to the section on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woolson commented, “Mr. Stedman does not really believe in woman’s genius. His disbelief peeps through every line of the criticism below, whose essence is—‘She did wonderfully well for a woman.’”35 Her tone here is so visibly different that one must question the opinions she professed to Stedman. In the privacy of her own copy, she implicitly challenges his disbelief in women’s genius by ridiculing chauvinism.
Woolson herself, so far as I have been able to determine, did not discuss genius in connection with herself in her correspondence. When her childhood friend apparently praised her skill as a writer, Woolson characteristically denied possessing any extraordinary powers: “I have but little ability of the kind you mention; all I have is immense perseverance and determination.”36 Disavowing talent, she nonetheless revealed her ambition and her ethic of hard work, which is more in line with the realist conception of the writer. She clearly felt more comfortable adhering to this new professionalism than to romantic ideals of genius. By doing so, she was also able to sustain her ambitions much longer than Stoddard, whose desire to be recognized as a “genius” apparently created more anxiety than Woolson’s ambition to achieve recognition for literary excellence with talent and much “perseverance.” Woolson also felt more squeamish than Stoddard about women’s advancing on the male sphere of “true fiery genius.” In fact, of the four women examined in this study, she appears to have had the most difficulty in even venturing a public career as a writer. But as she overcame that fear, she did not so easily overcome the fear of challenging men in the realm of genius. Her letters to Henry James reveal the pains she took to appear non-threatening to one she considered the highest genius. And his abilities, she intimated, would always be superior to a woman’s, even George Eliot’s, because “A woman, after all, can never be a complete artist.”37 However, it is clear from her stories about women artists that it is not a lack of innate ability but the male domination of Western art that hinders their development. By adopting the male perspective in these stories, filtering her portrayal of women artists through the views of Stedman, James, and other male critics of women’s writing, she shows most vividly the impossibility of women’s becoming “complete artist[s].”
The decisions of the Brontës, Sand, and Eliot to adopt male pseudonyms, and the way Sand and Eliot in particular established male authorial identities (Eliot even separated her public male persona from her private, female self, “Marian Evans” or “Mrs. Lewes”), can be likened to a woman writer’s adoption of the male or androgynous narrator in her works. As we have seen, Lydia Maria Child used this strategy in her first novel, but few American women writers of the antebellum years did so. Instead, they claimed the sentimental authority of maternal narrators, as Stowe did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, expanding the realm of their influence through humor or social critique. But it was not until the Civil War and postbellum years that women writers began using male personas or androgynous narrators to claim the authority of the artist. For example, Davis deliberately obscures the gender of her narrator in “Life in the Iron Mills,” most probably in an effort to ease her entrance into the high cultural pages of the Atlantic Monthly. To express her ideas about art, Emma Lazarus also used male artist figures, through which, Bette Roth Young suggests, she may “have been living vicariously.” Apparently believing, as she wrote in her poem “Echoes,” that “woman-souled I dare not hope, / … the might / Of manly, modern passion shall alight / Upon the Muse’s lips,” she instead chose to write about the artistic issues that concerned her through the voices of male artists. Stoddard also wrote her novels Two Men and Temple House from the perspectives of male characters and used the male voice in her poem “Mercedes,” about which Paula Bennett writes, “She has used her pen not to record the pure and delicate intuitions of her heart, but to invade literary, sexual, and emotional territories that, according to domestic ideologists such as Sarah Josepha Hale, the ‘lords of creation’ had reserved for themselves.”38 Adopting a male persona was one way to make a clear break with sentimental, domestic literature and ideology and to write about taboo subjects for women. Certainly, the ambition of the woman artist was one such subject.
In an idea for a story Woolson recorded in her notebooks, we can see how she used the male critical perspective to critique feminine genius:
The case of Mrs. B, unable to read any tongue but her own, and having read herself but very little even in her own language—but who can yet produce works that touch all hearts—carry people away. A man of real critical talents (like Arnold) and the widest culture, thrown with such a gifted ignoramus. His wonder. At first, he simply despises her. But when he sees and hears the great admiration her works excite, he is stupefied. He follows her about, and listens to her. She betrays her ignorance every time she opens her mouth. Yet she produces the creations that are utterly beyond him. Possibly he tries—having made vast preparations. And while he is studying and preparing, she has done it!39
As Woolson’s italics imply, the gender of the two authors here is not accidental. An author of great learning and “critical talents” must be a man. And the writer without any formal training who “touch[es] all hearts” must be a woman. Mrs. B. appears to have been born with almost magical gifts that are at once superior and inferior to the male writer’s acquired abilities. Although Woolson does not use the words here, her contemporaries would have recognized the distinction she was making between the innate “genius” of the female writer and the learned “talent” of the male writer. Mrs. B. is, in part, reminiscent of Corinne, whose highest genius was expressed through improvisation, suggesting the association of women’s genius with spontaneity. In mid-nineteenth-century America, however, the distinction between woman’s heart and man’s intellect was often used to denigrate women’s artistic abilities, but here Woolson’s male writer realizes that his intellectualized idea of literature is inferior and cannot duplicate the power of the woman’s gifts of the heart. She touches people and gains more “admiration” than he ever could, and this is the seal of genius as many understood it in nineteenth-century America. Without the masculine creative powers of Alicia, then, she is able to reach an audience and gain the appreciation that is the ideal culmination of genius. However, Mrs. B. is still incomplete as a writer because she lacks the education and “culture” of the male writer. Barred from the training necessary to create great art, she could never gain the respect of the male critical elite, the goal of Woolson, Stoddard, and many of their female contemporaries.
This lack of knowledge about literature is a significant aspect of the story idea because it is told from the male critic’s perspective, echoing the views of Stedman, James, and Woolson herself. That Mrs. B. is an “ignoramus” is, of course, the Arnoldian critic’s view. So we, as readers, if the story were written, would probably have little way to ascertain for ourselves whether or not she was such an inferior writer. The contrasts drawn between the two, therefore, are not objective. They are the male writer’s way of understanding himself, his abilities, and his failure, much in the way Henry James’s narrator of “Greville Fane” (1892) contrasts his own failed literary career with the successes of a popular woman writer. What make this story idea so compelling, however, is the way that the female author of the story (Woolson) adopts a male authority’s perspective to describe another female writer. In this fragment, such a move is less problematic than it is in “Street,” “‘Miss Grief,’” or “Château,” because it is safe to say that Woolson’s sympathies lie, for the most part, in this case, with the male critic. She distances herself from the popular woman writer who possesses a feminine version of genius, “inspiration” without “reason,” as Stoddard would have put it. Rather than valorize this form of genius, as Hale or Henshaw would have done, Woolson looks through the male writer’s eyes and senses both superiority and envy, which she herself probably would feel toward such a woman writer who wrote effortlessly, won admiration, and appeared to be unconscious of her ignorance.
Like Stoddard, Woolson was particularly critical of popular women writers like Mrs. B. and advocated another form of literature that she knew was both less feminine and less popular. In her notebooks, Woolson derided women’s taste for pleasant stories and romances: “Oh, her idea of literature is ‘pretty and pleasant’ stories—not too long. Not having feelings herself, she cannot in the least appreciate the tragedy of deep feelings in others… . One would like to plough up such persons and make them suffer! ‘Pretty and pleasant stories,’ indeed!” In another entry she wrote, “Many women, good women, think scenes in certain novels and plays, ‘So untrue to nature!’ These are the women who live always in illusion! They believe in all sorts of romances which have never had the least actual existence… . they go swimming through life in a mist of romantic illusion.” Naturally, such readers preferred the popular writers, whom Mrs. B. likely represents.40
In her ambition to be an artist, Woolson endeavored, therefore, to write against these “pretty and pleasant” works, as she explained to her childhood friend: “I have taken (within the last year) a new departure in my writing. I have gone back to nature and exact reality. I have such a horror of ‘pretty,’ ‘sweet’ writing that I should almost prefer a style that was ugly and bitter, provided it was also strong. ” In another letter, she insisted, “whatever one does must be done with one’s might and I would rather be strong than beautiful, or even good, provided the ‘good’ must be dull.”41 Here, in addition to an incipient realist aesthetic, we can see Woolson’s effort to align herself with the kind of genius accorded to European women writers that combined the masculine (strength) with the feminine (beauty), even privileging the former over the latter. In fact, it was this mixture that Woolson particularly admired in Eliot, as we see in her poem “To George Eliot.” Like Stoddard, Woolson also engaged in a “crusade against duty” and the piety of sentimental fiction, and she often went farther than Stoddard by refusing to tack on happy endings, particularly happy marriages. As a result, she often felt, like the male writer in her idea for a story, left out in the cold compared to popular women writers. Woolson similarly expected that most readers would not approve of her writing because they favored an “exaggerated … style” characteristic of women novelists. “I generally throw half across the room all the new novels of the day,” she wrote to a friend before she had written her first novel. “Now these novels the Public like! Moral: will they not be likely to throw mine entirely across the room? I fear so.”42
It is interesting that Woolson never drafted the story about Mrs. B., as it would have been her only one featuring a successful female artist figure, at least in terms of public acceptance. It is likely that she chose not to write it because the woman possessing feminine genius did not represent the complicated dilemma presented by the woman who tries to access masculine powers, a more compelling issue to her. However, the stories she did complete and publish were not written from the perspective of the autobiographical artist heroine, as “Collected” was. This does not mean, however, that Woolson’s artist stories are more muted or less powerful than those told from the woman artist’s perspective. On the contrary, they convey the anger and the pain of the woman artist, seething just below the surface, to a greater extent than any of the other works, with the exception of Phelps’s Avis. This is probably, why, in fact, Woolson distances herself from her artist heroine’s psyches. To allow them to speak directly, or to speak directly herself, even if through her characters, either would necessitate the muting of their anger or would result in an unfeminine expression of their rage. It would also reduce the effect, as she perhaps saw it, of the artistry of the story. For to be a considered an artist, the woman writer had to forgo the personal and adopt a distanced, objective perspective. Eliot is well known for such a strategy, and Woolson also used it to great effect. However frustrated today’s feminist reader may feel by the distance she creates between her narrators and her female artists, this was one way Woolson distanced herself from the “pretty,” “sweet” qualities of much women’s writings. But when Woolson uses a male persona to depict a woman artist, the issue becomes much more complicated than simply trying to establish one’s authority as a (masculine) artist against feminine writing. For as in “The Street of the Hyacinth,” Woolson subjects her woman artist to the gaze of men who try to neutralize the threat she poses as a woman and an artist.
The power of the male gaze has been a popular topic of feminist literary and film critics. Using the theories of Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault, they have constructed a feminist understanding of how men historically, particularly as artists, have objectified women and robbed them of their capacity to develop individual identities and to create art.43 We can see the destructive power of the male gaze in Phelps’s Avis as Philip gains control over Avis by neutralizing her ability to see as an artist. The first time they see each other in Europe, Avis, still an artist, notices “a remarkable face, … certainly, in the impressive background of the dim-lit church, it blazed like an amber intaglio.” Avis also “liked the shape of his head, which her artist’s glance had caught simultaneously with the color and character of his eyes.” The narrator is clear that the impression he makes on her is not personal: “The artist’s world is peopled with the vanishing of such mute and unknown friends; and the artist’s eye is privileged to take their passports as they come and go.” However, the way he looks at her in return disrupts her calm, distant observation of him and causes her to feel “a great tidal wave of color surge across her face,” suggesting her transformation from observer (artist) to observed (woman). “If the eye of that amber god across the Madeleine had caught an artist, it had held a woman,” the narrator explains. “Avis became aware of this with a scorching, maidenly self-scorn. She dropped her veil, and hurried from the church.” This initial encounter is only a microcosm of their relationship as Philip, over the course of weeks, catches her and lays claim to her. Back in America, as Avis paints his portrait, she regards him as if she were a “physician”; Philip “hoped some sudden, abashed consciousness would overtake her calm, professional scrutiny,” and she would blush again as a result. What he does not know is “the intricate strife of the artist with the woman” that is simultaneously going on inside her. She tells him that she has always been “color-blind” to the attractiveness of men—“my eyes were made with different lenses”—but she eventually learns to see like other women.44 This transformation from seeing subject to observed/desired object is central to Avis’s decline, as it is for the artist heroine’s “downfall” in Woolson’s “Street.”
As in the Mrs. B. fragment, “Street” sets up a contrast between a male and a female artist. The “literary artist” Mr. Noel, who is also a well-regarded art critic, has the knowledge of the Arnoldian figure but also the success that he lacked.45 His superiority is without question. His exact opposite is the young, naive artist Ettie Macks, who has come to Rome expressly to meet and study with Noel, whom she knows only through his writings. But he is shocked by her boldness in demanding his instruction and guidance and is unwilling to share his knowledge with the untutored artist. The most salient contrast between the two figures is Noel’s worldliness and Ettie’s innocence, which is manifested not only in her lack of awareness that she has imposed herself on a strange man but also in her lack of embarrassment about her designs to become a great artist. She frankly declares, “I have always had a great deal of ambition; … It seemed to me that the point was—just determination. And then, of course, I always had the talent… . All sorts of things are prophesied [at home in Tuscolee] about my future… . they like to think they have discovered a genius at their own doors. My telling you all this sounds, I know conceited” (173), but she clearly does not care about making such an impression on Noel. Instead, she naively expects that he will overlook her impertinence once he has discerned both her drive and her considerable talents. Raised to believe that she is a “genius,” she expects him to feel the same way about her.
The most surprising thing about Ettie, therefore, is not simply her innocence but her belief in herself. For, as we have seen, the shame that women felt about their ambitions was born out of the cultural assumption that such grand designs were futile and therefore merely vain. But for Ettie, her talent is simply a given, making her ambitions natural. Her innocence, then, is not merely of social convention, as Noel suggests, but of cultural stereotypes about women and genius. She simply doesn’t realize that she is supposed to limit herself to caring for her mother or, at most, making pretty copies. Least of all is she supposed to be approaching famous art critics to solicit their aid in developing her genius. In her innocence and crudeness, Ettie is one of Woolson’s most pathetic artist figures, even more so than Mrs. B. Although Mrs. B. is also ignorant, at least she does not dare to succeed in the male critic’s realm. She stays within her “allotted space.” Ettie’s ignorance, however, is due not only to her sex but also to her origins in the American West. She knows so little of society or the culture of the Old World that, as she later discovers, “she made a fool of herself” (202).
Because the limited omniscient narrator tells the story from Noel’s perspective, we are allowed to see her only as he does. His perspective is so powerful that Ettie eventually comes to see herself as he does, losing her faith in her talent. In this story, Woolson adopts the perspective of the Jamesian male critic and narrator, drawing most explicitly on “Daisy Miller.” Similarly, she adapts scenes from Eliot’s Middlemarch, in which the heroine is also subjected to the male gaze of the artist. The relationship between male authority and naive aspirant in “Street” mirrors those between Winterbourne and Daisy, and Ladislaw and Dorothea. As Patricia E. Johnson shows, the effect of the gaze of the narrator and the male characters on their heroines is a major characteristic of James’s and Eliot’s works.46
There are numerous signs of “Daisy Miller” ’s influence on “Street.” Both Ettie and Daisy are unrestrained American girls who are ignorant of European customs and whose mothers fail to chaperone them. The more worldly Noel and Winterbourne both live in exile and are having affairs with elusive European women. In both stories, voices of respectable society, to which the girls are oblivious, are audible only to the men. And both stories are set in Rome. But I wish to focus on how the limited omniscient narrators of both stories focus the portrayal of the young women through the elder men’s eyes.47 Both stories are preoccupied with these men’s alternating attraction to and aversion to these women. Their fascination stems from the frank, open manner of Ettie and Daisy, and their difficulties in reading the two women’s behavior are central to understanding their relationships with them.
The governing question in James’s story is, is Daisy a virtuous (i.e., innocent) girl or simply an amoral flirt? Noel confronts a similar question about Ettie, which is complicated by her artistic ambition. He wonders if her behavior is a result of her ignorance or is the sign of a sexually aggressive woman. As an American girl from the West, Ettie, like Daisy, fails to adhere to social norms for young ladies. But, as an artist, the deviance from gender expectations is even more pronounced. In a rare departure from Noel’s perspective, the narrator records the comments of Ettie’s fellow passengers “on the voyage over, … ‘If that girl had more color, and if she was graceful, and if she was a little more womanly—that is, if she would not look at everything in such a direct, calm, impartial sort of way—she would be almost pretty’” (175–176). Her “direct” and “impartial” gaze in particular marks her as unwomanly. In other words, she has the eyes of an artist rather than the veiled or downcast glance of a woman. Barker’s comments about nineteenth-century norms of gender and artistry apply perfectly to Woolson’s portayal of Ettie’s unfeminine behavior: “The ability to gaze openly and to move about town freely … was a masculine prerogative that implied the sexual freedom to pursue, purchase, or paint the object of the unfettered gaze.”48 In other words, such an open gaze makes Ettie unfeminine precisely because it betokens sexual aggressiveness. Furthermore, whereas a woman was supposed to have a personal interest in the people and things she looked at, owing to her emotional nature, an artist looked impartially, showing no particular favor, recognizing little or no relationship between the object and oneself. The artist’s personality and corporeal presence dissolve as the artist observes and transforms objects into art. Rather than feel an emotional bond with or interest in the people or things around her, Ettie objectifies them, as the artist does.
This direct, impersonal way of looking at things exemplifies her bold manner and confuses Noel, who briefly questions her sexual innocence. When he first meets her, he thinks he would have been even more repelled “if she had betrayed the smallest sign of a desire to secure his attention as Raymond Noel personally, and not simply the art authority” (177). When he tries to put her off, however, her appeals become more aggressive: “Mr. Noel, I am absolutely at your feet!” she pleads. Noel is “startled” by this outburst and wonders, “was she, after all, going to—But no; her sentence had been as impersonal as those which had preceded it” (179). He is relieved that she is not appealing to him personally and therefore poses no sexual threat. The implication, as in “Daisy Miller,” is that he wonders if her seemingly innocent advance is actually a game of manipulation played by a very cunning woman masquerading as a virginal, ignorant girl. As an unconventional woman artist who breaks all rules of propriety, she is, potentially, the stereotypical George Sand figure, who is a sexual predator. But Noel and the narrator decide (much more quickly than Winterbourne does about Daisy) that Ettie is indeed innocent. In fact, the narrator explains her direct gaze as a sign of her naiveté: “Her gray eyes had a clear directness in their glance, which, combined with the other expressions of her face, told the experienced observer at once that she knew little of what is called ‘the world.’ For, although calm, it was a deeply confident glance; it showed that the girl was sure that she could take care of herself” (175). And, of course, she must be deluding herself because the “experienced observer,” as Noel no doubt believes himself to be, knows that a girl cannot take care of herself. While the reader may quickly brush by this passage, upon closer inspection we can see Woolson perhaps calling into question the narrator’s and Noel’s authority as “experienced observer[s].” While they believe a woman must need a protector, someone to care for her, as Oswald believes Corinne does, and Alicia Raymond’s suitor believes she does, Woolson most likely did not believe this, given her own single life traveling in Europe. Ettie’s naive confidence also extends to her belief in herself as an artist. Just as the narrator and Noel believe that she cannot take care of herself, so do they believe that she cannot be an artist. Therefore, Noel never takes her ambitions seriously. And, unlike Daisy, who is allowed, in a manner, to escape the power of Winter-bourne’s gaze (through death), Ettie succumbs to Noel’s attempts to confine her in the role of a conventional woman, or wife. In other words, the pattern of Avis, “Château,” and “Me and My Son” is repeated here.
Noel destroys Ettie’s artist identity by refusing to treat her as an artist and instead objectifying her. Through the narrator, he comments on the “color” in her face and how it changes her appearance (184, 186). Noel’s primary interest in her is for the “contrast” she poses to his lover, “Madame B——,” who “was art itself.” The narrator explains, “Raymond Noel had a highly artistic nature. He admired art. This did not prevent him from taking up occasionally, as a contrast to this lady, the society of [Ettie]” (188). Here we can see Ettie’s transformation from artist to art object, in the eyes of the narrator and the consciousness of Noel. Noel, as he later reflects on “the canvas of his Roman impressions,” sees “the figure of Miss Macks” (193) and then decides to go visit her. She is a “figure,” an aesthetic object, to him and operates as such in the story. She is not given the agency of the artist. Any ability that Ettie may possess to “see” as an artist is, in fact, doomed from the beginning, as the story focuses on Noel’s perceptions of her. Ettie’s vision is never conveyed to the reader. There is no description of her paintings, nor is she allowed to voice any of her impressions. When Noel meets her in the street, he sees her as “a novelty, … with her earnest eyes, and her basket on her arm” and decides to walk with her, “curious to see whether she would notice the colors and outlines that made their picturesqueness.” However, “She noticed nothing but the vegetable-stalls, and talked of nothing but her pictures” (180). Ettie was on an errand to buy food for her invalid mother, so it is likely that she was too preoccupied with her duties as a daughter to play the role of the artist at this moment, as Cheryl Torsney suggests.49 Nonetheless, how do we know Ettie didn’t notice the colors? Noel doesn’t believe that she does, but what does he base this on? The only way he would have known was if Ettie had not only seen but spoken of the colors. And this, it is clear, Ettie is not capable of doing. She does not have the vocabulary to discuss art, as Noel does.
Ettie’s lack of knowledge about art and the language to express her perceptions about art is highlighted in the scenes where Noel acts as her guide in the galleries. In these scenes we can see the influence of chapters 21 and 22 of Middlemarch, where Dorothea is educated by Ladislaw in the significance and meaning of art. In “Street” and Middlemarch, the young women, who were brought up very far from the centers of the art world, are initiated into the wonders of art in Rome, “the city which,” as Johnson writes, “represents Western Art.” Both women fail to appreciate these works or understand the significance they hold for their male guides. For Dorothea, “there is so much I don’t know the reason of—so much that seems to me a consecration of ugliness rather than beauty.” Ettie also proclaims the paintings “very ugly,” and about two in particular she says, “There isn’t any reality or meaning in them” (185). But, as Johnson argues, Dorothea’s lack of appreciation may “have more to do with [her] discomfort with her culture’s view of women than with her esthetic immaturity.” Dorothea, who is placed in the roles of romantic object by Ladislaw and aesthetic object by his artist friend, cannot appreciate a male-dominated tradition of Western art because she has not been trained to see as the male artist sees. She tells Ladislaw, concerning her lack of appreciation for art, “It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine—something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.”50 As a woman, she is left out of the conversation and feels “blind,” lacking the sight of the male critic who appreciates art through the objectifying gaze.
Ettie is similarly blind and placed in the role of aesthetic and, eventually, romantic object. With no education in Western art beyond Noel’s essays (which are part of the conversation from which she and Dorothea are excluded), she cannot understand his views because they don’t include her in the role of observer or subject. Western art has no “reason” or “meaning” for a woman who is not trained to see as a man does. But this is precisely what Woolson is trying to do in the story, to look through male eyes, which means she must distance or even divorce herself from the object of that gaze, the woman. However, while Eliot, at the very end of Middlemarch, allows Dorothea to escape from her position as object and to imagine a kind of vision that “move[s] beyond power, surveillance, or a narrowly-gendered subjectivity,” as Johnson argues,51 Woolson launches her attack from another route. By adopting the gaze herself and critiquing it from within, she demonstrates the “downfall” of the woman artist who internalizes the male artist’s gaze and becomes the subject rather than a creator of Western art.
Ultimately Woolson undercuts Noel’s and the narrator’s authority and manages to portray Noel’s conquest of Ettie in an unsympathetic light, encouraging the reader to take Ettie’s side rather than Noel’s. Noel begins his destruction of her artist identity by refusing to pass judgment on her work. Although he finds her paintings “all extremely and essentially bad,” he does not tell her this, convinced that “where women were concerned, a certain amount of falsity was sometimes indispensable. There were occasions when a man could no more tell the bare truth to a woman than he would strike her” (181). This is the gallantry of the critics that prevented them from taking women writers seriously. Assuming that Ettie cannot take serious criticism and that to give her such would be a violation of gender codes, Noel refrains from responding at all to her work. The narrator follows suit, giving no description of her paintings. As Torsney argues, “we are asked to have faith that Ettie’s painting is bad when we are offered no evidence except reaction from a patriarchal establishment that would be seriously threatened by revolutionary work from a woman.”52 This lack of evidence suggests, however, the potential unreliability not only of Noel but the narrator as well. Just before Noel declares her work inferior, the narrator explains, “There was not one chance in five hundred that her work was worth anything” (181), suggesting that the deck was stacked against her from the beginning. But Noel later confesses to another character that Ettie possessed “intelligence without cultivation,” and when he sends her to an art teacher, Mr. Jackson, he is surprised to hear this alternative authority say that she has “talent.” Jackson tells him that “[h]er work was very crude, of course; she had been brutally taught.” In an effort to retrain her, “[h]e had turned her back to the alphabet; and in time, they—would see what she could do” (183). This conflicting opinion certainly casts doubt on Noel’s judgment of her work and suggests that she may indeed possess the spark of genius but lacks the technical training to develop it. By going “back to the alphabet,” she may yet be able to realize that genius. This is, in fact, what Avis did when she studied in Europe. She was told she had to go back to the basics, and after years of hard work, she succeeded in realizing her talent.
Ettie, however, is not allowed to develop in this way. But the fault lies squarely with her teachers. When Noel later looks at “some of the work she had done under Mr. Jackson’s instruction,” he sees right away that the teacher “had not kept his word, … he had soon released her [from serious study], and allowed her to pursue her own way again. The original faults were as marked as ever. In his opinion all was essentially bad.” But Ettie tells Noel that Mr. Jackson thinks “my strongest point is originality” in subject; “my execution is not much yet.” Ettie believes, contrary to Noel, that “the idea is the important thing; the execution is secondary” (190). Ettie takes what would have been considered at the time as a very feminine approach to her art. She is more concerned with inspiration. As Stoddard believed, though, “inspiration avails little”; the technical aspects of form and style, “method … is what the minds of women lack.” So when Noel condemns her art as “bad,” he is the voice of the critics who belittle the efforts of women artists and writers who try to advance on the realm of “art” without rigorous training. For Noel, as for the male critic in the Mrs. B. sketch, there can be no spontaneous genius. Even if the inspiration is divinely granted, it must be shaped by education, rules, forms, which only the masculine mind can comprehend. But Ettie is not allowed to receive this serious training and is not taught the necessity of it. At every turn, Noel avoids being the guide and mentor she asks him to be. Instead, he talks to her as if she were a “child” (184) or as if he were her “uncle” (189), but never as an equal. And her teacher falls in love with her and therefore, blinded by love or more concerned with winning her, Jackson does not give her the serious criticism she requires. How can she improve if she has no idea what her shortcomings are? This is precisely the complaint that Stoddard had about the male critics. They coddled female writers, instead of treating them like equals. And, as a result, women continued to produce mediocre work while no one ever told them how to improve.
Whereas Mrs. B. remains ignorant of her deficiencies, Ettie loses her innocence, but not in a way that allows her to identify her faults and improve. Instead, she comes to understand that her belief in herself was foolish, adopting Noel’s view of her. While he travels about Europe, Noel sends Ettie some unnamed books that are intended to tell her what he cannot, namely that “as an artist, [she] would never do anything worth the materials she used” (192). Upon his return, he discovers that the books have done their duty. He notices that “[t]he expression of her face had greatly altered. The old, direct, wide glance was gone; gone also [was] what he had called her over-confidence” (194; emphasis added). The gaze of the artist, which Noel interpreted as naive “over-confidence” but which the narrator allows could be something else (perhaps a genuine power), has disappeared because Ettie no longer has “faith” in herself. Noel even calls her by her middle name, “Faith,” implying that in the absence of any real talent, she could be identified by a misguided faith in her own abilities. The subject of the books, which finally show her the futility of her ambition, is never mentioned. They may contain the rules and forms of art appreciation. Or they may be philosophical treatises by Kant or Schopenhauer that aimed to define art as a masculine realm. Or they could simply be intended to represent Western culture itself, from which Ettie has been sheltered. Once she is exposed to it, she becomes convinced that she does not belong there. Rejections from two other art teachers also persuade her of the “truth” (197). One told her “that I had better throw away my brushes and take up sewing” (196). It is the old choice between thimble or brush that was imposed upon the young Phelps. But Ettie explains that if she didn’t need to provide for her ailing mother, she might have held out longer in her pursuit of artistry. This suggests that, in the end, duty won out over ambition, as, no doubt, Noel’s books told her it should.
In this second half of the story, after Noel’s return, Ettie now plays the role of “woman” rather than “artist.” One of the first changes Noel notices about her, in addition to her gaze, is her altered hairstyle. Whereas before she was too preoccupied with her art to care about the old-fashioned style of her hair, now her hair is arranged “in the prevalent style” (194), suggesting the transition from seer to the object of others’ perception. She also becomes embroiled in various romantic plots. First, when Ettie tells Noel that Jackson had proposed to her, he constructs a story to explain Jackson’s former belief in her talent. Noel muses, “Of course he [Jackson] saw to[o] the full imperfection of her work, the utter lack of the artist’s conception, the artist’s eye and touch; but probably he had loved her from the beginning, and had gone on hoping to win her love in return” (195). Jackson believed that he could replace her ambition with love. For the rest of the story, her ambitions are forgotten and the romance narrative takes over. Having rejected Jackson, she is first courted by a count, whom she also rejects, and then, finally, by Noel himself. As a struggling teacher and governess, unable to support herself and her mother, Ettie eventually succumbs to Noel. As he falls in love with her, he descends from his position of superiority and confesses, “You are worth a hundred of me… . You are true and sincere; I am a dilettante in everything. But, dilettante as I am, in one way I have always appreciated you,” namely as a woman rather than as an artist (202). It seems as if Noel has come to realize, through his relationship with Ettie, that he possesses only a superficial appreciation for art, whereas her heart was always in it. Over the course of the story, Ettie has learned, though, that she only has value as a woman, a romantic object. In the end, she must settle, like Stoddard’s Laura, for being the wife of an artist. But having already tasted the life of an artist for herself, this marriage can only be a “downfall” for her (209). “But,” Noel tells Ettie, “the heights upon which you placed yourself, my dear, were too superhuman” (209). This is Ettie’s greatest lesson, that to strive for genius as an artist is, for a woman, to reach well beyond her grasp, to try to be above all other women, hence “superhuman.”
By taking on the male critic’s perspective and reducing Ettie to the role of aesthetic and romantic object, Woolson both replicated the stereotypes of gender and artistry and critiqued them. Her critique is embedded in Noel’s infantilization, objectification, and, ultimately, romanticization of the female artist and in her undercutting of the narrator, particularly as she calls Noel’s opinion of Ettie’s art into question. In her adoption of this gendered perspective, Woolson most vividly displays the challenges of the woman author who strove to achieve the masculine ideal of genius or artist. But her works also transcend the discomfort that her artist heroines exhibit about their ambitions. Woolson manages to distance herself from her failed artist heroines by asserting with ease the control of the realist narrator—analyzing, observing, pointing up contrasts, and refusing to sentimentalize. As a result, her artist heroine stories, although they deny her protagonists agency as artists, allowed her to exhibit precisely such agency for herself.
The Taboo against Ambition
Whereas Stoddard’s and Woolson’s writings about women and art reveal the complications involved in pursuing “masculine” artistry, those of Phelps and Alcott wrestle more vividly with the taboo against ambition. Phelps, in particular, registered the discomfort that this generation of women writers felt about possessing high ambitions, let alone sharing them with others. In her autobiography, where she describes how she hid her writing from her family, she echoes the language of S. E. Wallace, the “weak-minded woman,” who equated her writing with “stealing.” “Indeed, I carried on the writer’s profession for many years as if it had been a burglar’s,” Phelps admitted. She told her family nothing about her first story or her first novel until they were already published and she could no longer hide her crime. Even in retrospect, she seemed to feel that her family was just in their neglect of her need for privacy or quiet. Why should they have supported her writing, she asked, and why should they have thought that it would amount to anything? “The girl who is never ‘domestic’ is trial enough.” Her regret about not being the kind of (domestic) daughter her family wanted her to be led to her shame about writing.53
As Phelps looked back on her early writing career, she still appeared conflicted about what it meant to her then. When she wrote her first novel, she claimed, she possessed no ambitions. “Literary ambition is a good thing to possess; and I do not at all suggest that I was superior to it, but simply apart from it.” Insisting at first that ambition is “good,” she then implies that it is something base and inferior and one might feel above it. She also disclaims ever having had any faith in her abilities or even interest in the question of whether she possessed any literary ability: “There was nothing of the stuff that heroines and geniuses are made of in a shy and self-distrustful girl, who had no faith in her own capabilities, and, indeed, at that time the smallest possible amount of interest in the subject.” Long after she had established her reputation, she wrote to her friend John Greenleaf Whittier, one of the country’s most beloved poets, that she had “thought nothing” about “recognition” until she had it, “for I don’t think I had what can be called ambition; only a fierce and unmanageable aspiration.” To desire recognition and actively seek it out—in other words, to possess ambition—would be presumptuous. Instead, Phelps felt more comfortable claiming only “aspiration,” a word that suggests a more passive hope that recognition may come one’s way and even implies that it is beyond one’s grasp. She objected to the word “ambition,” making sure Whittier didn’t think she had any. In her autobiography, she also preferred the word “aspiration,” considering “ambition too low a word,” presumably because “ambition” implies eagerness, competitiveness, even aggressiveness, qualities associated with men. That Phelps called her aspiration “fierce,” though, indicates how strong her desire was for the recognition that Whittier and other literary men gave her. Clearly, she did possess what we would now call ambition (a drive to succeed and gain admiration), although she was loath to be labeled an ambitious woman. Nonetheless, once her first novel, The Gates Ajar, became a sensation, she did admit to possessing “now, at last, … ambitions.” By disclaiming ambition when she started writing, she portrayed herself as a kind of innocent writer who had no sense of her own worth. But once she was discovered by the critics and male authorities, she could feel more confident acknowledging her desire to succeed. Driven not by her own vanity but supported by literary men, she could retain her femininity. Without ambition, she claimed, she was simply invited into the men’s club. Once there, she could work hard to maintain her place without fearing the charge of unwomanliness.54
Alcott also wrestled with her ambitions, which were prodigious. Alcott often depicted autobiographical women artists who struggled consciously to discover the best way to realize their considerable talents. “A Modern Cinderella” and “Psyche’s Art” are two stories into which Alcott projected many of her own struggles to overcome the taboo against ambition. She did this by convincing herself that her writing was part of her role as a dutiful daughter. But it is important to understand how and why she came to view her writing in this way. Alcott scholars have often noted the extraordinary way in which she fused her ambitions and her duties as a daughter. Veronica Bassil, for instance, describes Alcott’s “dilemma as a woman torn between the desire to create and the desire to serve, one who channeled the dangerous and potentially immoral energies of the artist into the apparent safety of the home.” Richard Brodhead offers a similar interpretation of Alcott’s view of herself as an author. Writing for children in the “‘heavy moral’ mode” appealed to her, he argues, because “for an author who needed to demonstrate that she had overcome her selfish will, this writing style had the paradoxical attraction that it signified self-sacrifice, signaled that she had set aside personal pleasure for specifically useful work.” However, if examined within the context of other women writers of her generation struggling to overcome the anxiety of trespassing on the male realm of ambition and genius, Alcott’s evolving perception of herself as an author reveals more than a transformation from ambitious young writer courting the literary elite into successful, popular children’s writer who, in Brodhead’s words, has “shut down a level of ambition.”55 We can also see that she was finding a way to be both artist and woman in a culture that obliquely suggested but often overtly denied the possibility of combining the two identities and in a family that was already burdened with supporting one “genius” (her father).
Alcott was learning to be both a dutiful daughter and an ambitious writer, and her family assisted her efforts to combine the two identities. The kind of prolonged “fits” of writing she engaged in could only be supported by others. In February 1861 she described one such fit: “Another turn at ‘Moods,’ which I remodelled [sic]. From the 2d to the 25th I sat writing, with a run at dusk; could not sleep, and for three days was so full of it I could not stop to get up… . Mother wandered in and out with cordial cups of tea, … Father thought it fine, and brought his reddest apples… . It was very pleasant and queer while it lasted; but after three weeks of it I found that my mind was too rampant for my body, as my head was dizzy, legs shaky, and no sleep would come.” A year later, while teaching away from home, she wrote that she “often longed for a crust in a garret with freedom and a pen.” Even though she was not always able to retreat from her responsibilities and go into her “vortex,” as she called it, she looked forward to those times as the ultimate “freedom.” In 1864, after the success of Hospital Sketches, she was able to focus more exclusively on her writing. This complete abandonment of the rest of the world is lovingly described in Little Women:
She [Jo] did not think herself a genius by any means; but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh… . The divine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her “vortex,” hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent.
The “vortex” into which Jo descends is, as Susan Naomi Bernstein writes, “a celebration of the inner life.”56 It is also, despite Alcott’s protestations, something akin to the romantic understanding of genius. The “divine afflatus” overtakes Jo, and she gives herself up to its power. But Alcott is sure to mention that Jo does not think of herself as a genius, lest she be seen as vain. This depiction of Jo, though, is the adult author’s revision of what she had actually felt as a young woman. In Alcott’s youthful journals we see so many expressions of her desire to make her mark that it is clear there is much more to her pursuit of a literary career than a desire to support her family. In 1858, she wrote, “I feel as if I could write better now,—more truly of things I have felt and therefore know. I hope I shall yet do my great book, for that seems to be my work, and I am growing up to it.” During these early years she was “living for immortality,” as her sister told her.57
As an adult, Alcott felt much less comfortable owning up to what she thought of as her childish and youthful dreams. An especially telling alteration of her earlier expression of ambition can be found in her mother’s journal. On Christmas Day, 1854, when Alcott’s first book, Flower Fables, a collection of stories for children, was published, she gave a copy to her mother with the following note: “Into your Christmas stocking I have placed the first fruits of my genius.” Such, at least, is the wording her mother copied into her own journal on that day. But a later hand, which appears to be Louisa’s, struck out the word “genius” in Abigail’s journal and replaced it with “little talent.” Apparently embarrassed by her frankness, or afraid that future readers of her mother’s diary would condemn her youthful vanity, Louisa revised her exuberant faith in herself so that she would appear a more modest young writer. When the letter Louisa had written to her mother was published in Alcott’s biography after her death, it had been revised again (undoubtedly by Alcott herself): “Into your Christmas stocking I have put my ‘first-born,’” the published version of the letter reads. The messy talk of “genius” and “talent” had been completely erased.58 Here we can see most clearly the kind of masking of ambition in which this generation of women writers engaged.
Six years after the publication of her first book, Alcott embarked on an even more ambitious project: a serious novel. At the time, she unselfconsciously recorded in her journal, “Genius burned so fiercely that for four weeks I wrote all day and planned nearly all night, being quite possessed by my work.” Later that same year, she wrote to a friend about her belief that she and her sister (a visual artist) would be “‘an honor to our country & a terror to the foe.’” But this youthful exuberance had worn off by the time she published Moods in 1864. To her publisher she wrote, “I’ll try not to be ‘spoilt,’ … but people mustn’t talk about ‘genius’—for I drove that idea away years ago & dont [sic] want it back again. The inspiration of necessity is all I’ve had, & it is a safer help than any other.”59 Modest aims are “safer” because they keep her ambition in check. At first glance it seems that Alcott abandoned her desires for recognition and genius. But if we look more closely at her adult perception of her career, we see that she tried to transform her desire for genius and fame into motivations with which she felt more comfortable. She rejected the romantic notion of “genius” as detached from everyday life and concerned only with immortal fame. Such a self-absorbed inspiration, she learned, was unproductive. While her father may have felt comfortable sacrificing his family’s welfare to such an idea of “genius,” Alcott wanted to find another, healthier reason to write, and, not uncoincidentally, one that might help her achieve the kind of recognition and self-sufficiency that had eluded her father. She had deviated greatly from the conventional path of womanhood by developing her literary talents and descending into the “vortex” of inspired creativity. But she also paid for that self-absorption with a growing feeling of guilt. On one level, this guilt certainly stemmed from her gender. Other women, such as Phelps and Jewett, felt it as well. Jewett complained that “I don’t like to shut myself up half of every day and say nobody must interfere with me, when there are dozens of things that I might do… . I’m afraid of being selfish.”60 But Alcott’s fear of selfishness also had another source: she saw in her father the great burden such self-absorption could place on the shoulders of others. She felt guilty for abandoning her duties and leaving them to her mother and sisters. She did not wish to repeat her father’s exploitation of his family.
In her autobiographical story “A Modern Cinderella” (1860), Alcott portrays how two sisters, Di (modeled on herself) and Laura (modeled on May, the visual artist), leave the household chores to their less talented and less ambitious sister, Nan (modeled on Anna, her oldest sister), whenever the “‘divine afflatus’ descends upon [them].” Just like her father’s abandonment of his family when genius called, these two sisters enact the same kind of desertion. But when the girls notice the physical toll that their selfish neglect of duty takes on Nan, they put away brush and pen to devote themselves to her and the household. In this lesson, Di learns how to become an artist by gaining her inspiration from her family and writing to support it, her father having died. Di tells her sister’s fiancé, “I’ll turn my books and pen to some account, and write stories full of dear old souls like you and Nan; and some one, I know, will like and buy them, though they are not ‘works of Shakespeare.’ I’ve thought of this before, have felt I had the power in me; now I have the motive, and now I’ll do it.”61 Having discovered a nobler reason to write than self-gratification, she is ready to channel her “power” into a worthy form of art. Like Alcott, Di learns to push the inspiration of genius into the back of her mind and replace it with “the inspiration of necessity,” a move that will allow her to express her real talent and bring her fame. Modestly claiming that her work is not as good as Shakespeare’s, she nonetheless feels the artist’s “power” and is confident that “some one … will like and buy” her art. The someone who liked and bought this story of a young woman writer’s lesson in modifying her ambition was the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, which published Alcott’s work in the company of Emerson, Longfellow, and Stowe. In her coming of age as an artist, Alcott believed that she would find success and recognition from the likes of the Atlantic by learning to write not for the gratification of her ambition but for others. But the goal of receiving fame as an artist remained. So the “shut[ting] down [of] a level of ambition” that Brodhead identifies was a more complex transformation. What also made it so was the Atlantic’s specific advice to Alcott about how to get the recognition she craved.
Before she wrote “A Modern Cinderella,” Alcott had submitted an antislavery story, but Howard Ticknor, an editorial assistant at the magazine, advised Alcott to submit a shorter “story or sketch of a decided local flavor—more after the manner of ‘Elkanah Brewster’s Temptation.’” This story, published in the Atlantic by Charles Nordhoff in December 1859, blended regionalism with a moral message. In the story, a young man from a fishing village on Cape Cod possesses the ambition to become an artist. He forsakes mother, father, and fiancée in order to pursue his dream in New York. After years of neglecting them and living for his own selfish aims, he learns of the death of his future father-in-law and returns to marry his intended. To support her, he reluctantly returns to shoemaking and fishing. Although he gives up the career of an artist, in his hometown and the sea he eventually discovers the true subject matter he was made to paint, and he creates the best work of his life. As a collector of his work moralizes at the end, “The highest genius lives above the littleness of making a career. This man needs no Academy prizes or praises. To my mind, his is the noblest, happiest life of all.” By living for others, rather than for himself, Elkanah Brewster became a “genius.”62
By asking Alcott to write a story like this one, Ticknor was also passing along a lesson that Alcott certainly did not miss, one that applied to male as well as female artists. Ticknor essentially advised her to stick to themes closer to home and to be less ambitious. In response, she wrote a female version of “Elkanah Brewster’s Temptation,” her updated Cinderella story. Also set in a small New England town, it incorporates the advice Ticknor was suggesting. Given this editorial direction, it is tempting to read Alcott’s story as an ironic attempt to appease the Atlantic’s editors rather than simply an expression of her true convictions. “A Modern Cinderella” brought her praise from Emerson and other “people [who] wrote to me about it and patted me on the head,” she wrote in her journal, suggesting that she resented the paternal approach these men were taking to her work.63 However, we also can see Alcott taking to heart this lesson of success through duty rather than ambition and applying it to male writers and artists as well as to female. After Alcott had achieved fame (not in the Atlantic, but as a children’s writer), she explained to the young, aspiring author Maggie Lukens how she came to understand her motivations as a writer: “As a poor, proud, struggling girl I held to the belief that if I deserved success it would surely come so long as my ambition was not for selfish ends but for my dear family.” This idea, reminiscent of “Elkanah Brewster’s Temptation,” also closely mirrors the definition of the “genius” in her story “The Freak of a Genius” (1866). The genius is “one, who possessing a rich gift, regards it with reverence, uses it nobly and lets neither ambitions, indolence nor neglect degrade or lessen the worth of the beautiful power given them for their own and others’ good.” Furthermore, “true genius is always humble,” the noble character Margaret explains to a male character who does not understand the lesson of success through self-sacrifice. This was the kind of author Alcott wanted to be. She never abandoned the ideal of genius. But she believed that she would only be found worthy of the name if she didn’t actively pursue that goal. She must patiently “work & wait.”64
As Alcott struggled to live up to her modified idea of the humble artist, she worked through her feelings in stories about young women who come to conclusions similar to those of Di in “A Modern Cinderella.” In these stories women learn that the path to success for women who desire recognition from the male-dominated worlds of art and literature is one of patience, endurance, and hardship. But their path is often more difficult than men’s, in keeping with her belief that the focus must remain on the task of self-transformation. The rewards are seldom discussed. Yet the implication is that the crown of recognition will eventually come. Like Phelps’s young woman author in “A Plea for Immortality,” Alcott’s heroines have to learn to toil patiently and wait for fame.
Alcott’s “Psyche’s Art” (1868) most fully explores her views on how women can develop their genius. In this story, women’s path to artistry is differentiated from men’s, suggesting that women have an even greater imperative to squelch ambitions than men do. Like Woolson, Alcott uses the technique of contrasting male and female artists to highlight how gender complicates the pursuit of genius. The story’s protagonist, Psyche, has caught the “new disease called the Art fever” raging among young women.65 But Psyche’s commitment to her art is portrayed as higher and nobler than that of her fellow students, who seem more interested in finding beaus than discovering their latent genius. Although she is lauded by one of the other students as a “genius,” she feels frustrated by her apparent inability to create something great. Echoing Alcott’s letter to Redpath, she retorts, “never tell people they are geniuses unless you want to spoil them” (209). Psyche’s humility deepens when she views a sculpture of Adam by a male student, Paul Gage, and finds in it “the indescribable charm of something higher than beauty.” “If I could do a thing like that I’d die happy!” she exclaims (212). Again, as in “Street” and Stoddard’s poem “The Poet’s Secret,” the female artist recognizes that the male artist knows a “secret” that she does not, the secret of how to make powerful art, and she asks him to share it with her. Paul gives her the only “receipt for genius” he can, which is, “Work and wait, and meantime feed heart, soul, and imagination with the best food one can get,” to which Psyche responds that she doesn’t know where to find this “food” (213). He can only share with her the general recipe for genius. He cannot help her find it in herself because her path will be different than his.
While Ettie tried and failed to work hard for artistic achievement in the way Paul Gage or other male artists did—by studying in a studio with a master—Psyche learns that, as a woman artist, she must take a different route. Paul tells her that each person must find his or her own source of inspiration. She wants to be able to possess “the art of reproducing [beauty] with truth,” she tells him. “I have tried very hard to do it, but something is wanting; and in spite of my intense desire I never get on” (213). She receives her answer in the form of a poem by Ellen Sturgis Hooper, which happens to lie on the table next to her:
I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty;
I woke, and found that life was duty.
Was thy dream then a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And thou shalt find thy dream to be
A noonday light and truth to thee. (214)
Psyche decides that “doing one’s duty [is] a good way to feed heart, soul, and imagination.” The implication here is that although Paul’s greatness in art may be the result of “the rich gift bestowed upon him” and his hard work in the studio (214), hers will be accomplished only through hard work at home, diligently serving her family. Free of the overwhelming cares at home that preoccupy her, he benefits from an art education, while she must leave school and learn her lessons from life. When she returns to her studio, she smashes her bust of Venus, a symbol of her failed attempt to enter the Western classical tradition of art, which is also off-limits to Ettie Macks. Psyche announces to her fellow female students that she is “going to work at home hereafter” (215). But more than simply choosing duty over beauty, she is accepting the former as a means of achieving the latter.
Once at home, Psyche “shut[s] herself into her little studio” and asks not to be disturbed, yet her duties distract her from her art (215). As the summer wears on, she accomplishes little, but Alcott explains that “this was the teaching she most needed, and in time she came to see it” (219). Whereas Psyche starts out seeing her performance of duty as “a means toward an end” (215), or the means by which she could become a great artist, she learns, because of her sister May’s illness and pain, to give herself “heart and soul to duty, never thinking of reward.” A miraculous transformation takes place at this point: “All turned to Sy [Psyche] for help and consolation, and her strength seemed to increase with the demand upon it. Patience and cheerfulness, courage and skill, came at her call like good fairies who had bided their time. House-keeping ceased to be hateful, and peace reigned in parlor and kitchen” (219). After May dies, the family begs Psyche to make a bust of the child. She responds, “I’m afraid I’ve lost the little skill I ever had.” But “she tried, and with great wonder and delight discovered that she could work as she had never done before.” The genius she had so long courted came to her when she ceased to ask for it, and her “newly found power … grew like magic” (220). Finally, she creates something worthy of the term “great.” Unlike Ettie, who needed to learn the skills necessary to give shape to her inspiration, Psyche has to give up her study of method and even abandon her pursuit of art altogether to unleash her genius. She has to return to the state of the unconscious, even untrained artist, in order to produce something of value. Her art, though, is not meant for the world. It is a tribute to her sister and, as a gift to her family, it is placed on display in a prominent place in the home.
Meanwhile, Paul has achieved fame with his statue of Adam, and he seeks out Psyche to discover the results of her experiment. At Psyche’s home, her mother tells Paul that she thinks “ambition isn’t good for women; I mean that sort that makes ’em known by coming before the public in any way. But Sy deserves some reward, I’m sure, and I know she’ll have it, for a better daughter never lived” (223). If a daughter does her duty well and possesses great talent, the reward will come of its own accord. What kind of reward, though, is unclear. When Psyche tells Paul that she has “been working and waiting,” he tells her that she also has been “succeeding,” his praise serving as a form of reward. But Psyche still seems to have higher aspirations. She reveals to him that she will “Never!” relinquish all of her dreams of achieving greatness as an artist although she is not concerned with recognition. She explains, “I thought at first that I could not serve two masters; but in trying to be faithful to one [duty] I find I am nearer and dearer to the other [art]… . when my leisure does come I shall know how to use it, for my head is full of ambitious plans, and I feel that I can do something now.” Paul is convinced that she has learned the “secret” (225).
But the story ends on an ambiguous note. The narrator resists ending her story by marrying off the two artists, undoubtedly feeling, like Woolson, that it would mean the woman artist’s “downfall”:
Now … we will stop here, and leave our readers to finish the story as they like. Those who prefer the good old fashion may believe that the hero and heroine fell in love, were married and lived happily ever afterward. But those who can conceive of a world outside of a wedding-ring may believe that the friends remained faithful friends all their lives, while Paul won fame and fortune, and Psyche grew beautiful with the beauty of a serene and sunny nature, happy in duties which became pleasures, rich in the art which made life lovely to herself and others. (226)
We are left with two unreconciled images of Psyche as artist and Psyche as dutiful daughter. Alcott does not allow Psyche completely to fulfill her potential as an artist. While Paul is allowed to develop his, both Psyche and her art become “beautiful” and exist to make others happy. So although Alcott resists turning this narrative of a woman artist into a romance story, as Woolson did with “Street,” she also does not allow Psyche to develop the masculine power of the artist that Stoddard accords Alicia in “Collected.”
By the time Alcott began work on her novel Diana and Persis (1879), as we have seen, she could more concretely envision the kind of devotion to art and masculine strength of the woman artist that Alicia Raymond represents. In this work, the woman artists, like Alicia, possess no responsibilities to family. Instead, “the tie between them [was] artistic ambition and a sincere respect for each other’s powers. Both were unusually gifted, not only with talent but with the courage and patience which are the wings of genius; and after ten years of steady upward climbing they were now ready for the flight out of the world of effort into the region of achievement, that promised land which so many sigh for and never see.”66 Diana and Persis strive for perfection as Paul Gage does—by studying art and devoting themselves to hard work for many years. And, as we have seen, Diana gains the respect of a male peer for her ability to portray strength as well as beauty in her art. However, this story remained unfinished, as Psyche’s essentially did as well. Like Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson, Alcott was unable to imagine the complete achievement of the woman artist.
The Grief of Genius
Another key quality that unites the disparate portrayals of artist heroines in the writings of Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson is their grief. Time and again, the four writers returned to the figure of the suffering woman (artist) who is deprived of the fulfillment of her genius, which was also a prominent theme of Davis’s fiction. Although it may appear that arguments against women’s ability to possess genius and the cultural taboos against women’s ambitions prevented Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson from fully envisioning themselves or their heroines as artists, they nonetheless found one way out of the impasse: the grief of genius. The one constant in these four women’s reflections on women and genius was the belief that, as Woolson wrote, “only the unhappy women took to writing.” Echoing the heroine’s exclamation in Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall that “no happy woman ever writes,” Woolson suggests that women who were happy identified themselves by their relations to men and children. She explained, “The happiest women I have known belonged to two classes; the devoted wives and mothers, and the successful flirts, whether married or single; such women never write.” These thoughts were precipitated by news she had received of Stoddard’s poor health from their mutual friend Edmund Clarence Stedman. “I am grieved to hear that Mrs. Stoddard is ill,” she commiserated; “why do literary women break down so?” She also mentioned Phelps (asking Stedman if he liked her poetry) directly after her comments on how happy women never write, implying that her thoughts about women’s “grief of artistry,” as Cheryl Torsney calls it, led her from Stoddard to Phelps, and, presumably, to herself.67 In fact, all four writers perceived their lives as literary women to be burdened by an inordinate amount of pain, illness, and grief.
Certainly earlier American women writers had also perceived the woman writer’s life as a painful one, even cornering the market on sentimental literature that explored sadness and suffering. Cheryl Walker has noted that many nineteenth-century American women poets employed the “motif [of] ‘the secret sorrow,’” which gave them a singular identity as women poets. By composing the poetry of pain, they carefully avoided “lay[ing] claim to the kinds of power jealously guarded by the patriarchy.”68 But Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Wool-son combined the sentimental self-sacrifice of the prototypical woman writer with the suffering of romantic genius, thereby reenvisioning the unhappy woman writer who sacrifices her health toiling for her family, like Ruth Hall, or whose pain as a mother is her chief motivation to write, as it was initially for Helen Hunt Jackson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The unhappy women writers envisioned by Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson are not burdened by a woman’s or a mother’s pain but by the pain of the stifled artist. And because they are women as well as aspiring artists, their pain is more acute than that of the male genius and its transformation into art is more often thwarted by familial responsibilities or the interference of men. For Avis, Alicia, Ettie, Psyche, and their sister artist heroines, the source of their suffering is their attempt to be artists.
The same is true for the protagonist of Phelps’s story “The Rejected Manuscript” (1893), written near the end of her career. The name of the artist heroine, significantly, is Mary Hathorne. Phelps was a great admirer of Nathaniel Hawthorne (who added the “w” to his family name) and no doubt carefully selected her heroine’s name to suggest both Mary’s tremendous talent and her isolation as a neglected genius who suffers repeated rejection before belated recognition—the romantic form of genius that Hawthorne had come to represent. In making her heroine a female version of Hawthorne, however, Phelps posits a special path to genius for the woman writer. In addition, Phelps seems, in part, to be reflecting back on her own early ambitions. Mary Hathorne “had stumbled upon literary success… . She had written a book, and people had read it. That was all she knew about it. Editors had fought upon it, women had cried over it, and men smoked over it; libraries took twenty copies of it; her dearest poet wrote her about it, and her most dreaded critic recognized her for it—all these facts had puzzled her as much as they pleased her.”69 Using these incidents from her own early career (specifically the publication of The Gates Ajar), Phelps portrays a woman writer whose first success was unanticipated, much like Mrs. B.’s in Wool-son’s story idea, and much like Phelps’s own as she described it in her autobiography. In addition, Mary “was too modest, too naïve, too spontaneous a woman to analyze or train herself” (286), aligning her with the tradition of untutored women writers who stumble upon their fame without ambition. But she cannot go on writing in this way. Phelps suggests that such power cannot be sustained: “She had flashed and puffed out. She was threatened with the fate that meets the gift which has no sustaining power” (286). Relying on instinct, as Stoddard and Woolson’s Ettie Macks discovered, can only take an artist so far.
Long after the success of her first novel has faded, Mary Hathorne is attempting to get her second book published. She is working hard on various literary projects, all the while tending to her home and family, for she is married and has two children. Her health fails steadily over the course of the story, as she suffers through poverty, hard work, and a pregnancy that ends in the premature delivery of a stillborn baby. But just as, if not more, important is the fact that she is also suffering through repeated rejections from publishers. Her very life seems to depend upon the successful publication of her novel. After one rejection, her daughter finds her “lay[ing] unconscious upon the rude lounge” and believes “Mummer’s dead” (289). After enduring several such rejections, she decides to approach the “prince of American publishers” (who seems to be modeled on James T. Fields, the publisher of Hawthorne and Phelps herself). The narrator explains, however, “Her courage was born of her despair. She had never dared to approach him before. Her own publishers [of her first book], selected with her natural timidity and in youth, had been but second-rate folk; and of the firms that had rebuffed her since, not one presumed to compete with the distinguished house to which, at last, so to speak, she crawled” (289). Not deliberately seeking fame or high recognition, she goes to the publisher with the highest reputation only as a last resort. This kind publisher perceives that she “is a dying woman” and encourages her to “Believe in yourself—for the public believes in you; and so do I” (290). However, lacking faith in herself, and waiting so long for the publisher’s reply that she assumes his answer will be no, she gives up her will to live. She tells her husband, “My work is over… . My day is done. I’ve run my race, and I’m not fashionable anymore. I don’t suppose I write after the new style. And I haven’t been very strong, you know” (291). Her breakdown after childbirth clearly has as much to do with the death of her career as the death of her child. Her husband realizes that “she was sinking for lack of a stimulant which he could not give,” presumably literary recognition. Seeming about to breathe her last breath, she tells him, “Don’t let Popsy [their daughter] take to writing” (291). The next day, however, the letter of acceptance comes from the distinguished publisher, telling her that her novel is “a story of a high order” and enclosing a check for a thousand dollars. The accompanying illustration depicts Mary laid out on a lounge as if she were in a coffin. Her daughter stands over her, admonishing her for having dropped her “good-luck letter.” Rather than portray her recovery, which the letter will shortly effect, the illustration emphasizes her physical and emotional decline. Even her eyes are closed, giving the impression that she has died and her daughter is grieving over her. This potent image of the lifeless woman writer, killed by neglect and the exhaustion of motherhood, remains the dominant one of the story.
However, Mary is nonetheless revived by her unexpected success. The publisher’s praise and the money bring Mary back to life. “Hope had done its hearty work. The wine of success sprang to her head and bounded in her veins” (292). But the success of Mary’s novel is not accidental this time. It has everything to do with the grief she has suffered. Just as her baby was born prematurely, so was her career. Time, experience, and much suffering were required to ripen her talents and turn them into the “wine of success.” She discovers that great art is produced not by keeping up with the current style but by creating works that grow out of her experience of suffering. When she was young, the narrator explains, she knew little of what she wrote about: “Poverty she had read about. Poverty—with the assurance of ignorance and youth—she had written about; … but personal poverty, biting, blinding poverty, such as comes to the rich in mind and spirit,” she knew little of, until her marriage to a poor scholar (285). Now, having “come to desperate straits” (284), she has been forced to write for money, but she also continues to strive for recognition. In addition to the “little Sunday-school book, written over a year ago to meet the doctor’s bill” (286), she is writing a “novelette for the Pacific” (287), undoubtedly another name for the Atlantic. But the goal, of course, is that financial and literary success will come together, as they eventually do with the publication of her novel. Although the narrator gives few clues about her novel, it is titled “Love’s Daily Bread,” and is called by one publisher “too ‘earnest’” to be popular (289). These small details suggest that the novel has grown directly out of Mary’s life, in which she is trying desperately to keep her family from the brink of despair and starvation, and that the intensity of her feelings has gone into it. In this more mature work, therefore, has been poured the toil, suffering, and grief that alone (rather than instinct or inspiration) can grant the woman author success and serious recognition.
The woman writer’s path to genius and respect, Alcott, Phelps, Woolson, and Stoddard believed, was not the one that seemed to be reserved for the male romantic genius—selfish devotion to the Muses—but hard work, humility, self-sacrifice, and much suffering. Success would not come easily. Looking forward to the publication of Moods, Alcott hoped it would be well received, and she claimed that “ten or fifteen years of snubbing [was] rather good training for an ambitious body.” Her pride had been stepped on by editors, publishers, and critics, making her ready for success. But the financial success that Alcott also needed would not come until the publication of Little Women in 1868. By then years of struggling and ambition had taken their toll on her, much like the “sick, tired, and too early old” woman writer Kate King in Alcott’s Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), the impoverished women writers in Phelps’s “Plea for Immortality” and “A Rejected Manuscript,” and Davis’s artist figures.70 Physical and psychological suffering were closely intertwined with Alcott’s, Phelps’s, Stoddard’s, and Woolson’s lives as writers, and it was a badge they wore somewhat proudly, couching their claims to genius within a rhetoric of sacrificial womanhood. In essence, they found a space, somewhere at the convergence of the sentimental ideal of the Christlike suffering of woman and the agony of the romantic genius, where they could define themselves as artists. As Gustavus Stadler explains, “The victim, the martyr, the consumptive: in these figures the discourses of romanticism and the literary phenomenon we have come to define as American women’s sentimentalism meet.”71 While the figure of the woman artist as victim or martyr may appear to be a veil behind which to hide their ambitions, it is, ironically, through this veil that we see their highest ambitions to gain serious recognition.
Historians have noted the powerful and enigmatic role that illness and depression played in women’s lives in nineteenth-century Britain and America. And many contemporary observers recorded the prevalence of nervous disorders among women, especially in America. As Elaine Showalter notes in The Female Malady, the numerous nervous illnesses experienced by women in the nineteenth century were linked by doctors to women’s growing “ambition” and desire “to compete with men instead of serving them.”72 One of the most tragic and well-known such cases was that of Alice James, sister of Henry and William. She might easily have been a writer herself, as her diaries reveal much talent, but her family’s severe repression of women’s ambitions outside of domesticity caused her to find the only acceptable “career” that she could, namely invalidism.73 The repressed ambition of the woman writer who could find no way to become an artist often turned into severe illness, as in James’s case.
For Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson, although they did not adopt the role of the invalid, as Alice James did, illness was nonetheless part of their identities as women artists. All four complained of the kinds of ailments that were prevalent among women in the nineteenth century—insomnia, nervous attacks, brain fever, depression, neuralgia, writer’s cramp—and they tried many of the new medicines and cures available. Alcott also suffered from the prolonged effects of poisoning from mercury prescribed when she had typhus during her stint as a Civil War nurse. Growing deafness plagued Woolson during the last fifteen years of her life. At one time, she wore “artificial drums” to aid her hearing, causing her severe discomfort. A doctor claimed that the pain she experienced was the result of “neuralgia.” “‘Neurotic’ was his word,” she wrote, suggesting how common it was for doctors to diagnose women’s illnesses as nervous disorders.74 Phelps and Alcott were proponents of homeopathy, and Alcott unsuccessfully tried the mind cure. Both women also took opium to help them sleep, as Woolson and Stoddard likely did as well. Their physical ailments and the treatments they tried were prominent parts of their lives. As a result, Alcott and Phelps developed close friendships with their doctors, and Woolson and Stoddard were also on familiar terms with doctors they visited frequently. Doctors also appear in their fiction. Stoddard’s story “The Prescription” is specifically about a doctor’s treatment of a woman with a vague illness. And Phelps’s novel Dr. Zay promotes homeopathy and female doctors for female patients.
The maladies these women suffered should not simply be labeled psychosomatic. But it is clear that their suffering was more than physical; it was often attended by deep depression. Woolson conveyed this when she criticized a man who “hasn’t the slightest conception of either grief, or illness. I really think he believes that I cd. have got better soon, if I had only tried! He has never in his life had any real sorrows, or any illness—I mean the illness that hangs on, & baffles effort, & takes heart out of a man.” Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson all lived with illnesses that hung on and sapped their energies, causing prolonged periods of depression and even breakdowns. But they wrote through the pain and viewed their suffering as an emblem of the writer’s life, male or female. However, read together in the context of the grief experienced by so many stifled women at that time, we can link their illnesses to their culture’s messages about the taboo against ambition in women. The same is probably true for Jewett, Davis, and Grimké, who also suffered from depression.75
As these writers achieved success, they reminded themselves and others of the hardships they endured and thus assured themselves and others that they would not be “spoilt,’” as Alcott said. To their families, friends, and readers they insisted that writing was a laborious task, and they often associated creativity and genius with the ailments they experienced. Their frequent illnesses therefore contributed to their self-image as writers. In her autobiography, Phelps referred to herself and other authors as “fevered by the creative faculty.” Similarly, Wool-son wrote, “I get nervous mentally, when very hard at work, and little things wear on me.” To her family, she often made a point of how difficult it was to write. “I don’t suppose any of you realize the amount of time and thought I give to each page of my novels,” she wrote to her niece. “It takes such entire possession of me that when, at last, a book is done, I am pretty nearly done myself.” Phelps’s and Woolson’s depiction of the writing process as “fevered” and taking “possession” of one recalls Alcott’s “vortex” and suggests links to romantic conceptions of authorship and genius.76
They also often attributed their ailments not only to the draining nature of creative endeavor but to overwork. Alcott wrote of her father’s stroke as the result of “overwork and taxation of the brain” and admitted that she was “doing the same thing myself” and could be “stricken down as he is,” despite the fact that she was thirty-three years younger. Her earlier fits of intense writing were also accompanied by illness. After one such instance, in 1867, she wrote, “Sick from too hard work. Did nothing all the month but sit in a dark room & ache. Head and eyes full of neuralgia.” Phelps complained that she was forbidden to write because overwork had made her ill. Alcott, Phelps, and Woolson also recorded breakdowns after they completed novels. And Woolson, who for years had suffered from inherited depression, apparently committed suicide shortly after she finished her final novel, Horace Chase. Her suicide during a prolonged illness was undoubtedly the result of her failing health and her disturbed mental state.77
In their emphasis on the hard work and mental energy they put into their creations, which they described as extremely draining, they ostensibly disavowed the divine inspiration of genius. Echoing Alcott’s protestations about talk of genius and Woolson’s claim that she possessed only “immense perseverance and determination,” Phelps tried to disabuse people of the notion that the writer’s life was an easy one. In her autobiography she explained to aspiring writers,
Emerson’s phrase was, “toiling terribly.” Nothing less will hint at the grinding drudgery of a life spent in living “by your brains.”
Inspiration is all very well; but “genius is the infinite capacity of taking pains.”
Living? It is more likely to be dying by your pen; despairing by your pen; burying hope and heart and youth and courage in your inkstand… .
There are privileges in [a writing career], but there are [also] heart-ache, mortification, discouragement, and eternal doubt.
Phelps drew on the authority of Emerson here to claim her ethic of hard work as the highest aim of the artist. Objecting to the assumption of a friend (“a learned man, accustomed to study from fourteen to eighteen hours a day at his own profession”) that she could dash off a short story in a couple of hours, Phelps described at length the arduous, weeks-long process of writing one. But it was precisely because composing a short story required such hard work that she thought its status should be elevated to that of a “work of art.”78
That pain and suffering were particularly emblematic of the woman writer’s life was simply assumed by all four authors. Sympathizing with her friend John Hay on his recovery from completing a book, Woolson essentially told him that any strain he had experienced did not compare to what she endured. “For my own part, one novel takes my entire strength, & robs me of almost life itself! I am months-recovering. A man, however, is stronger.” Of her mother, Phelps wrote, “She lived one of those rich and piteous lives such as only gifted women know; torn by the civil war of the dual nature which can be given to women only.” After the success of Little Women, Alcott wrote to her publisher, “After toiling so many years along the up-hill road, always a hard one to women writers, it is peculiarly grateful to me to find the way growing easier at last.”79 They had learned from de Staël’s Corinne, Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, and the biographies of Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë, and Eliot that the woman writer’s life was marked by special hardships. Upon the posthumous publication of Eliot’s letters and journals, Woolson wrote to a female friend that she felt their tone was the result of “the bodily weariness of such constant literary toil; and (alas!) the melancholy which seems to me to belong to all creative work in literature, or most all.” Alcott’s and Stoddard’s comments on Brontës hard life have already been noted. Stoddard’s warrant repetition here: “Patience and pain ruled her [Brontës] life, and brought to perfection her wonderful genius.” Alcott’s Life, Letters, and Journals, published shortly after her death, also placed her in this lineage. Woolson read her life story and was “greatly impressed” by Alcott’s “heroic, brave struggles” peculiar to the woman artist.80
But as these women preached the virtues of perseverance and a strong work ethic and seemed to disavow otherworldly inspiration or genius, they also equated the suffering they experienced from their hard work and the unhappiness of their lives with genius, betraying a belief in their powers. By doing so, they aligned themselves with the great male geniuses whose lives were a sublime mixture of ecstasy and despair. In Woolson’s story “A Florentine Experiment” (1880), a character describing the view of life embodied by Michael Angelo’s sculptures concludes, “genius, I suppose, must always be sad. People with that endowment, I have noticed, are almost always very unhappy.” Read in the context of Woolson’s many references to her own depression and her claim that only unhappy women write, it is probable that she saw her sufferings as the burden she must endure and, perhaps, as evidence of at least latent genius, which she would never overtly admit to. Stoddard was the most forthright about her depression and genius. Musing upon death, suffering, and insanity, she confided to a friend, “Sometimes a cloud falls on me and I am so alone in its blackness that I am appalled. You foolish girl, genius is misery—Think of that noble misused creature Byron,” she insisted, associating her own misery with that of the quintessential tortured romantic genius. In her autobiography, Phelps also explicitly equated the suffering she experienced with the maladies experienced by other great writers. In regard to her insomnia, she referred to de Quincey’s similar agonies and wrote that his “Opium-Eater … stands for all time [as] one of the greatest pathological contributions of genius and of suffering to literature.” She also recorded that Longfellow once told her, “No truly sensitive man … can be perfectly well.” In that vein she mused, “I would rather be well than be Shakespeare… . But would I? How can one tell?”81 Illness was simply the price one paid for genius.
These four writers also linked their illnesses with their claims to the grief of genius by commiserating with male writers they admired. As Woolson wrote to John Hay about the illnesses they experienced after finishing a book, “Having just come out of a condition that had some resemblance … with yours, as you describe it, I can fully sympathize with you.” Phelps carried on an extensive correspondence with both Longfellow and Whittier about their shared illnesses, especially insomnia. She sent powders to Longfellow and shared his pain. By equating suffering with the genius’s life and showing these men that they shared their ailments, Woolson and Phelps covertly revealed a conviction that they shared their ambitions and abilities.82
Woolson’s letters to another male writer with whom she commiserated about the tortured writer’s existence most vividly suggest the complex web of pain, ambition, and self-assurance that marked genius. To Paul Hamilton Hayne, she counseled, “I beg you to fight against ‘Depression,’ that evil spirit that haunts all creative minds… . Think of yourself … as well, as highly as you can; be just as ‘conceited’ as possible. It will buoy you up; and [take] my word for it, even then you will probably estimate yourself lower than you ought to.” This last sentence reveals the difficulties she had in taking her own advice. No matter how much she, Alcott, Phelps, and Stoddard tried to bolster themselves with a belief in their abilities, they were confronted with their society’s taboos against such convictions in women. Woolson continued,
You may laugh at my preaching self conceit as a virtue; but I have long thought that a good dose of self conceit was the best medicine for the creative mind. And I think you will find that the great artists are nerved to their greatest works by a sublime consciousness of & belief in their own great powers. And if a creative mind can only be surrounded and buoyed up by the close appreciative warm belief & praise of his own family, then he has reached the highest place this world can give him; he is inspired to do great things. Alas; few, few are so surrounded.83
Woolson seems to speak here from personal experience. That she preaches such self-assurance is a bold step for her, indeed for any woman of the time. She was acutely aware of how important it was for the development of one’s full potential. Underneath the constant endurance of pain, as she reveals, women writers also had to maintain a belief in their powers. The only way they could do so, it seems, was by covertly comparing their suffering to that of the great male writers. The romantic equation of genius and misery helped them to persevere by fueling their belief in their own ailments as a sign of creative powers. And through their suffering, they felt they might earn the right to recognition. Afraid to ask for it boldly, they would “work and wait,” in Alcott’s phrase. They preferred to see themselves essentially as martyrs rather than as vain, ambitious authors. Only thus could they avoid being “despised,” the fate, Stoddard claimed, of women who pursued art seriously.
In their musings about women’s and men’s mental and artistic abilities, their fears of appearing ambitious, and their covert admissions of genius in their complaints of ill health and depression, these four writers negotiated their age’s prejudices against women as artists. In the process, they articulated their ambitions to be women artists, combining the masculine with the feminine and trying to find a way to strive for genius without becoming “unwomanly.” Just as the male romantics adopted the pose of alienated artists, and antebellum women writers often adopted the pose of “scribblers,” so did Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson adopt poses that helped them find authorial identities with which they were comfortable. The pose of the unambitious author has, particularly in the case of Alcott, been misunderstood as the whole of their authorial identities. But this squelching or disavowal of ambitions was not the complete story. The fact that the theme of artistry recurs in their works reflects their desire to contribute to the emerging high literary culture in America. As their female artist characters devote themselves to literature or art, so did these authors understand their work in a new, high cultural sense. Mary, Alicia, Ettie, and Psyche, as well as Avis, Diana, Persis, and Katherine, all aspire to the creation of high art. In fact, the authors’ high aims are reflected in what their female artist figures are capable of achieving, such as Katherine’s book of poetry, Alicia’s or Mary’s novels, Avis’s painting, or Diana’s sculpture. Each of these is regarded as a serious work of art by either the narrator or male authorities referred to in the texts. By creating such heroines, Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson circumvented, to some degree, the impasse facing the woman artist. However pessimistically they portrayed the outcomes of their female artists’ careers, the authors’ successes in these compositions and their identification with the grief of genius and ambition experienced by their artist heroines are testaments to their own ambitions and achievements.