From School to Salon: Reading Nineteenth-Century American Women's Poetry

From School to Salon: Reading Nineteenth-Century American Women's Poetry

by Mary Loeffelholz


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With the transformation and expansion of the nineteenth-century American literary canon in the past two decades, the work of the era's American women poets has come to be widely anthologized. But scant scholarship has arisen to make full sense of it. From School to Salon responds to this glaring gap.

Mary Loeffelholz presents the work of nineteenth-century women poets in the context of the history, culture, and politics of the times. She uses a series of case studies to discuss why the recovery of nineteenth-century women's poetry has been a process of anthologization without succeeding analysis. At the same time, she provides a much-needed account of the changing social contexts through which nineteenth-century American women became poets: initially by reading, reciting, writing, and publishing poetry in school, and later, by doing those same things in literary salons, institutions created by the high-culture movement of the day.

Along the way, Loeffelholz provides detailed analyses of the poetry, much of which has received little or no recent critical attention. She focuses on the works of a remarkably diverse array of poets, including Lucretia Maria Davidson, Lydia Sigourney, Maria Lowell, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Emily Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Annie Fields.

Impeccably researched and gracefully written, From School to Salon moves the study of nineteenth-century women's poetry to a new and momentous level.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691049403
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/08/2004
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Mary Loeffelholz is Associate Professor of English at Northeastern University and the author of Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory.

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From School to Salon

Reading Nineteenth-Century American Women's Poetry
By Mary Loeffelholz

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2004 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-04940-3



The analyst who only knows about those authors from the past who have been recognized by literary history as worthy of being conserved is embracing an intrinsically vicious form of understanding and explanation. Such an analyst can only register, unwittingly, the way the ignored authors have affected, by the logic of action and reaction, the authors to be interpreted-the ones who, by their active rejection, have contributed to the others' disappearance from history. This is to preclude a true understanding of everything in the work of the survivors themselves that is, like their rejections, the indirect product of the existence and action of the vanished authors.

-PIERRE BOURDIEU, "The Conquest of Autonomy"

THIS BOOK, like so many others in American literary scholarship of the past twenty-five years, is fundamentally a recovery project, aimed in the first place at delineating some part of "the existence and action," in Bourdieu's words, of a set of authors who had all but vanished from literary history for most of the past one hundred years: American women poets of the nineteenth century.

Since the early1990s, however, nineteenth-century American women poets have been well on their way to recovery. Nineteenth-century American poetry generally and especially poetry by American women have seen a minor publishing boom recently: John Hollander's two-volume Library of America collection of nineteenth-century American poetry came out to much fanfare in 1993, preceded by Cheryl Walker's 1992 anthology of nineteenth-century American women poets and Jane R. Sherman's African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, and followed in 1997 by Janet Grey's anthology She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century and, a year later, by Paula Bennett's massive Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets: An Anthology. General pedagogical anthologies like the Heath and Norton anthologies of American literature soon began to follow suit by expanding their offerings in poetry, and other presses have followed the first wave of dedicated poetry anthologies with still other compilations. These anthologies clearly indicate a revival of professional interest in nineteenth-century American poetry beyond Dickinson and Whitman, but what is striking about this revival are the specific professional forms this interest has so far taken-and not taken.

Popular nineteenth-century American poets, male and female, are today being copiously anthologized; but the relative dearth of scholarly essays and, even more, of full-length books on these poets suggests that criticism is only just beginning to confer scholarly significance on them. Furthermore, with some recent exceptions, very few general works in American literary and cultural studies have turned to poetry, especially nineteenth-century poetry beyond Whitman and Dickinson, in the course of explicating U.S. cultural histories of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and other national thematics. The new American studies in this respect has so far differed surprisingly little from the old; as Joseph Harrington observed in 1996, American literary studies from the 1950s onward, for all the energies of canon expansion and new historicisms, has generally gone about its business as if "American poetry is not American literature." What has made this now widely anthologized body of poetry so slow to develop a body of interpretive criticism, by contrast with the wealth of literary-critical and cultural work on "recovered" nineteenth-century American fiction? One answer is surely that recovery efforts in nineteenth-century American writing have tended to privilege social themes as a principle of selection and as their central critical means of understanding literature's embeddedness in history. Lyric poetry's traditional foregrounding of formal artifice and individual emotion over thematic social realism is unlikely, on these principles, to seem significant to read and teach as a genre, even if some individual poems can be enlisted within thematic categories already granted professional salience-as literature of the Civil War or of abolition, for example. In Harrington's related analysis, this current division of labor between poetry and fiction in American literary studies is an artifact of critics (whatever their intellectual genealogies otherwise) having "[bought] into a New Critical ideology of poetry": "In the professional imaginary, the corollary of poetry's hypostatization is the notion that fiction provides a privileged access to history" ("Why Poetry Is Not American Literature," 508). Exercising its historicist commitments almost exclusively on fiction and nonfictional prose, the new American studies, like the old, tacitly preserves poetry in its unexamined New Critical role as apolitical and asocial aesthetic object.

And yet the generic particularity of poetry surely preceded the New Criticism, even if it did not take New Critical forms in the nineteenth century. Karen Sánchez-Eppler assumes the historical, not retrospectively New Critical, particularity of poetry when she suggests in her Touching Liberty (1993), which draws on nineteenth-century American poetry, fiction, and prose in analyzing abolition's rhetoric of the body and literary reactions to that rhetoric, that "analyzing lyric poetry ... disables an emphasis on thematic political content and instead reveals how aesthetic, stylistic, and formal mechanisms come to accrue ideological significance." This is not to issue an ahistorical brief for the unique formal apartness of poetry. Rather, along with Sánchez-Eppler, I argue here that analyzing poetry can under some circumstances make evident with special force what is true of literature more broadly, that its social effects and its embeddedness in history lie not only in thematic political content, through which fiction enjoys its "privileged access to history," but also in the politics of genre, which makes "aesthetic, stylistic, and formal mechanisms" available to authors. Beyond that, literature's social effects lie in the changing politics and circumstances of the cultural field itself, in Pierre Bourdieu's famous coinage, which makes authorship itself possible in different ways, at different times, for different social agents. In the current disciplinary circumstances of American literary studies, the study of poetry underlines with special force Tony Bennett's observation, entirely in the spirit of Bourdieu's sociology of culture, that literature "is not something whose social underpinnings must be sought elsewhere; it is a set of social conditions and its analysis consists in identifying the effects of these conditions." Despite the enormous professional energies devoted in the last two decades to reviving a broader canon of nineteenth-century American writing, a great deal of the poetry written by nineteenth-century American women other than Emily Dickinson has yet to be analyzed along the lines laid out by Sánchez-Eppler and Tony Bennett. My aim in this book is to demonstrate that this body of poetry can be not only anthologized but also read critically today. Reading the poetry written by nineteenth-century American women, I argue here, entails not only understanding how a given poem's "aesthetic, stylistic, and formal mechanisms come to accrue ideological significance" but also understanding how particular social contexts or sites of poetry's production and consumption supplied nineteenth-century American women poets with aesthetic and formal possibilities already endowed with social significance. As the book's title schematically implies, my reading of nineteenth-century American women's poetry is embedded in the larger story of the nineteenth-century rise and elaboration of the cultural field in the United States: the emergence of modern forms of cultural hierarchy, including an autonomous realm of aesthetic "high culture," in the United States, and of poetry's movement within that field from the sites of didacticism to those of aestheticism. From School to Salon attempts to trace a broad shift in the social locations in which American women gained access to authorship in the genre of poetry: a shift from reading, reciting, writing, and publishing poetry in the didactic context of primary and secondary schooling to reading, reciting, and publishing poetry in the emergent later nineteenth-century venues of autonomous high culture, like the salon.

Versions of this larger story have been told about nineteenth-century American culture by Lawrence Levine, in his Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988), and by Richard Brodhead, in his Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (1993), among other critics. Like Brod-head in Cultures of Letters, I approach this larger cultural history through close readings of exemplary literary works and exemplary authors' careers. My aim is to perform for these poets the kind of reading Brodhead offers of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a reading that "shows how little the social situation of Alcott's authorship is external to her work" and argues that indeed "one project of Little Women is charting the field of specifically artistic spaces that have opened up at the time of its writing" (Cultures of Letters, 102, 98-99). From School to Salon undertakes to read a set of nineteenth-century American women poets with a view not only to the social situations in which they wrote and were read but also with the assumption that these women's poetic works themselves always formally embody, and sometimes self-consciously chart, the differential possibilities for authorship within the cultural fields they inhabit. The project thus asserts and attempts to demonstrate that this body of poetry can and should be read in ways that bridge the gap between "internal" formalism and "external" historicism, between close readings of works and analysis of their historical conditions of possibility. I open by pairing two early nineteenth-century poets whose access to authorship was rooted in schooling: Lucretia Maria Davidson, a posthumously published child prodigy, the poetess as exemplary beautiful dead student, with her complement in Lydia Sigourney, the sometime Hartford schoolmistress who became the United States' best-selling antebellum author of didactic sentimental poetry. Dead at seventeen of tuberculosis, Lucretia Davidson would live on in the afterlife of elocution textbooks aimed at molding other young ladies of her class; her life, writing, and death became exemplary of early nineteenth-century American transitions in women's education. Lydia Sigourney, by contrast, actively managed her own transition from schoolmistress to didactic poet over the course of her long career, and in doing so became a central fashioner of the domestictutelary complex that enabled Davidson's posthumous career as a prodigy-poetess. These chapters juxtapose extended readings of long poems written by Davidson and Sigourney, Davidson's "Amir Khan" (the title poem of her posthumous collection of 1829) and Sigourney's "Connecticut River" (first published in Samuel G. Goodrich's 1828 gift book, The Token), with readings of exemplary scenes of instruction in posthumous biographies of Davidson and in Sigourney's autobiographical prose. Davidson's and Sigourney's long poems, I argue, in their quite different ways both perform and critique early nineteenth-century relations between poetry and ambitious middle-class women's schooling. For both Davidson and Sigourney, the cultural field surveyed is transatlantic as well as intra-American: Davidson's "Amir Khan" displays its young author's learning in the transatlantic idiom of romantic orientalism, and Sigourney's prospect poem, centered on the American village with its schoolhouse, enters into a transatlantic dialogue of village poems that includes her American precursor Timothy Dwight's Greenfield Hill (1794) and stretches back to Oliver Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village" (1770) and Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751).

The following two chapters pair Maria Lowell's aesthetically ambitious abolitionist poetry with the Reconstruction-era poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Nineteenth-century American women like Lowell and Harper found in the abolitionist movement and in the postwar struggle for African American civil existence important occasions for writing poetry conspicuous for its political themes; at the same time, however, this body of poetry conducts its political arguments in the context of both implicit and explicit questions about cultural capital and aesthetic, as well as moral, education. Like Lucretia Davidson's and Lydia Sigourney's most ambitious poems, Maria Lowell's and Frances Harper's writings both incorporate and revise familiar nineteenth-century scenes of instruction. Chapter 3 centers on Maria Lowell's long poem "Africa," written and published in the culturally elite precincts of the abolitionist movement (it appeared in the Boston Female Antislavery Society's annual gift book, The Liberty Bell, in 1849), which trades both on the cultural capital of imported high British and European romanticism and on popular educational rhetorics and images of race for its poetic and political strategies. Like Maria Lowell's abolitionist poetry, the poetry Frances Harper published after the Civil War functions simultaneously in different cultural registers-popular and elite, written and oral, religious and secular. As Frances Smith Foster observes, Harper's mission in this poetry is "mediating between cultures," speaking to African American audiences of enormously mixed literacies as well as back to white readers; it both represents and performs reconstructed models of education for African Americans. Chapter 4 reads Harper's postwar poetry, then, both against works like Lowell's "Africa" and Oliver Wendell Holmes's "The Chambered Nautilus" (1858) and for its rich internal mediations between different forms of literacy and cultural capital, culminating in Harper's great postwar diptych of Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869) and the "Aunt Chloe" sequence (published in Sketches of Southern Life in 1872). The chapter concludes with a look forward to Harper's fate in American literary canon formation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, contrasting her absence from the Modern Language Association's hardening college-level canon with Harper's afterlife at the turn of the century in what was by then the more popular and heterogeneous discipline of elocution.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Objects of Recovery 1

I. Prodigy and Teacher; or, Poetry in the Domestic-Tutelary Complex 11

Chapter One: Who Killed Lucretia Davidson? 13

Chapter Two: The School of Lydia Sigourney 32

II. Lessons of the Sphinx: Poetry and Cultural Capital in Abolition and Reconstruction 65

Chapter Three: Poetry, Slavery, Personification: Maria Lowell's "Africa" 67

Chapter Four: A Difference in the Vernacular: The Reconstruction Poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper 94

III. The Conquest of Autonomy 129

Chapter Five: "Plied from Nought to Nought": Helen Hunt Jackson and the Field of Emily Dickinson's Refusals 131

Chapter Six: Metropolitan Pastoral: The Salon Poetry of Annie Fields 162

Conclusion: The Sentiments of Recovery: Adrienne Rich and Nineteenth-Century Women's Culture 192

Notes 209

Index 267

What People are Saying About This

Karen Sanchez-Eppler

In asking us to look at this poetry in its own terms, Loeffelholz is raising important issues not only for understanding this literary past, but just as powerfully for assessing the critical prejudices of our academic present. The author's writing is subtle and graceful; it carries its theoretical sophistication and historical detail lightly, pulling out just the tidbits needed.
Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Amherst College

From the Publisher

"By offering precise and substantive evidence for the importance of recognizing the relative autonomy of poetry as a cultural field, From School to Salon undertakes a crucial intervention within nineteenth-century American Studies. It should appeal to a range of readers, including specialists in nineteenth-century American and British literature, African-Americanists, students of women's poetry, and scholars concerned with "recovery" issues in general."—Tricia Lootens, University of Georgia

Tricia Lootens

By offering precise and substantive evidence for the importance of recognizing the relative autonomy of poetry as a cultural field, From School to Salon undertakes a crucial intervention within nineteenth-century American Studies. It should appeal to a range of readers, including specialists in nineteenth-century American and British literature, African-Americanists, students of women's poetry, and scholars concerned with "recovery" issues in general.
Tricia Lootens, University of Georgia

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