19th Century Women Writers
When I began the project of putting together a syllabus for a class I found that there were a number of excellent anthologies out there that dealt with Nineteenth Century women writers and poets, but none of them contained just the right selections that I had in mind. I decided to take this opportunity to put together my own anthology.
I had no idea that there were this many Women Writers in the 19th Century. I was under the impression that women did not gain a voice until around the turn of the century and then even more so in the 1970s. I had heard of a few women writers prior to 1900, but only a handful and those were considered to be exception and not the norm. The reason for this, I believe, has to do with the suppression of women’s writing (see Joanna Russ’s book How to Suppress Women’s Writing) and the canon. With the exception of Emily Dickinson, none of the women chosen for this anthology/class were never included in anthologies or taught much at all until recently. It wasn’t until scholars began recovering the work of women like Lydia Marie Child and Catherine Maria Sedgwick that the floodgates opened. It was as if, until that moment, that their writing had somehow been lost and forgotten. The texts were deemed unworthy and nearly slipped into oblivion. How tragic it would have been to lose nearly an entire era of writing! We would have never gotten a chance to see how life was lived or what matters were important. We would have never gotten a chance to see life from a woman’s point of view. Surely the great novels of the time by men did not and could not explore matters of sex, marriage, childbirth and parenting in an adequate manor. They may have covered the issues of slavery, spirituality, regionalism, and nationalism, but their views only make up half the picture. Women and their writing complete the picture and bring a very important perspective to the Nineteenth Century.
There are so many important women writers and poets that it was difficult to narrow it down to just a few important authors. It was nearly an impossible task decide who to put in and who to leave out. Many things had to be considered before I could even begin to put anything down on paper. First I had to narrow it down to just poets, because of the time constraint I was under. Even after limiting myself to just poetry, I found that there was more than enough material use. Using the anthologies edited by Jane Gray, Cheryl Walker and Karen Kilcup I set about reading poems and categorizing them. Putting these poems into categories was not an easy task. Most of the poems belong under several headings or no particular heading at all. Many of the poems contained many levels and were about many things, but sometimes I found it hard to decide just what exactly the poet was going for. This lack of a clear subject told me that sometimes a poem can and will defy categorization. In an ideal world these poems would not need categories or labels, but for sake of clarity, I had to choose a category to suit my purposes.
My purpose was to provide a thematic order in which the poets/poems were chronological. This didn’t prove to be an easy task either. In the end, I chose to divide the anthology and the class up into main sections—Native American, Romantic/Transcendental, the Civil War/Slavery, Children and Children’s Verses, Domestic life and Suffrage, and then Toward Modernism. Though the poets often chose to write about various subjects at various times, all these sections will overlap.
The reason I divided up this way is because the Native Americans were here first and provide a good starting point. I thought that I would start things out with a few traditional songs and verses. If I would have had time, or would have not been just looking at poets, I would have liked to include Sedgwick’s “Hope Leslie.” The fact that most of Native American culture and lore was of the oral tradition makes it difficult to portray their voice in writing, and “Hope Leslie” is one of the few piece of writing that paints an accurate and decent portrayal of the Native Americans during this time. The poetry of E. Pauline Johnson and Jane Johnson Schoolcraft do give us a good glimpse into their world. I also added Lydia Sigourney and Mary Fordham, who supported the Native American’s rights so that we might see how the Native American’s were viewed through other’s eyes. Are they portrayed as the portray themselves? Or is there a gap between the two views? Reading them side by side helps to bring these questions to light.
I chose to put the poems about nature, romance and spirituality under the Transcendental section. Though the Transcendental movement began before the Civil war, it stretched beyond it into the end of the Nineteenth Century. I put it before the Victorian era because in Britain the critics put the Romantic Period before the Victorian Period. Though the Transcendental movement is not a direct result of the Romantic Period, it does share many of the same qualities and characteristics. Many of the women who wrote Transcendental poetry and published in Transcendental journals are also the ones who had knowledge of German and often translated Goethe and other Romantics. Margaret Fuller is a prime example of this.
I chose to deal with the Civil War next because it fits in after the Native American issues and before the Transcendental. In Britain and other countries there was no such dividing line. Slavery might have existed, but it never put at nation at odds as it did America. Though slavery was an issue long before the war, it really did not come to the general public consciousness until then. The voice of the African American Woman began to be heard because of the abolition of slavery, and so I think that this is an appropriate section in which to deal with these issues. The Civil War section then contains the poems about race, abolition, war and politics.
Next I put the poems about love, marriage, sex, domestic life, gender, and suffrage together. In Britain all of these topics could have been put under the heading Victorian, but there is no such category in American. Though African American and Native American women often wrote about these issues and women who were considered Transcendental writers also wrote about these issues, it made sense to discuss these issues in this section. Women were writing about these things all throughout the Nineteenth Century, but it isn’t until after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery that Women were able to join together in full political force to push for the vote. As the Twentieth Century approached these issues came to the forefront of women’s minds and women were able to voice their concerns in a much more direct way. Issues were often present in previous writing, but hidden beneath coded language early in the century. Towards the end, the coding becomes less subtle.
It is under this heading or time period that I chose to explore several different themes or genres. When I came across the Zaragoza Club poetry and Queen Lili’Kokalani in “She Wields a Pen” I had to include them as well. It was a good way to further diversify the selection and give a voice to those who might have one other wise. After that I chose to examine Emma Lazarus and her poetry about Judaism. Also under the time period of Victorian I chose to examine poems by Ann Plato, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Julia Ward Howe, Henrietta Cordelia Ray and Alice Cary that all dealt with the woman as an artist. Then I turned to poems by Mary Mapes Dodge, Alice Cary, Sarah Josepha Hale and Lucy Larcom to examine children’s verses of the age.
At the end I decided to address the coming turn of the century. Many poets began using what we would consider modern language and techniques long before the time period categorized as modern. I originally had cited poems by Elizabeth Akers Allen, Emma Lazarus and Lizette Woodworth Reece as heading toward modernism, which they do, but in thinking back over the decision, I might also include Emily Dickinson here as well. Though she wrote around the time of the Civil War and often wrote very spiritual poems, they were very much ahead of their time and not published until the end of the century.
There were many other things that I wish I could have addressed, but simply did not have room for. I would have liked to include poets that were Asian-American and other ethnicities, but there were a shortage of them in the research I did, and I didn’t have time to do much more. I would have liked to have dedicated a week to poems that were humorous, a week to epic romantic poems, and a week to Gothic poetry as well. These were all sub-genres and were able to be left out of the bigger picture I felt, but I still would have liked to expose students to the infinite variety of subjects, themes and styles that women utilized. There were a great many themes that were addressed in “19th Century American Women Writers” that I didn’t really get a chance to dedicate much time to as well. I can only hope that I chose poems that will bring up these topics in discussion.
I have learned a great deal by reading and researching for this project, as I have in doing the same for class. It is my hope that I can now continue to share this knowledge and enlighten the world in the history of women’s writing.