Literary Women in America, 1850-1900
Susan S. Williams
"Reclaiming Authorship augments our knowledge of the female literary tradition and enriches our grasp of the process by which women authors sought public status in a literary publishing marketplace which was (and remains) customarily considered to be a masculine realm. It challenges, moreover, basic tenets of the origins of realism and does so by positing a definable historical transition from the romantic and sentimental to the realist."—Cecelia Tichi, Vanderbilt University
There was, in the nineteenth century, a distinction made between "writers" and "authors," Susan S. Williams notes, the former defined as those who composed primarily from mere experience or observation rather than from the unique genius or imagination of the latter. If women were more often cast as writers than authors by the literary establishment, there also emerged in magazines, advice books, fictional accounts, and letters a specific model of female authorship, one that valorized "natural" feminine traits such as observation and emphasis on detail, while also representing the distance between amateur writing and professional authorship.
Attending to biographical and cultural contexts and offering fresh readings of literary works, Reclaiming Authorship focuses on the complex ways writers such as Maria S. Cummins, Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Abigail Dodge, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Constance Fenimore Woolson put this model of female authorship into practice. Williams shows how it sometimes intersected with prevailing notions of male authorship and sometimes diverged from them, and how it is often precisely those moments of divergence when authorship was reclaimed by women.
The current trend to examine "women writers" rather than "authors" marks a full rotation of the circle, and "writers" can indeed be the more capacious term, embracing producers of everything from letters and diaries to published books. Yet certain nineteenth-century women made particular efforts to claim the title "author," Williams demonstrates, and we miss something of significance by ignoring their efforts.
Susan S. Williams is Associate Professor of English at The Ohio State University and author of Confounding Images: Photography and Portraiture in Antebellum American Fiction, also published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.