Victoria Olwell shows how American fiction helped to catalyze democratic models of female genius, especially in the work of such authors as Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Mary Hunter Austin, Jessie Fauset, and Gertrude Stein.
2011 | 304 pages | Cloth $65.00
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Work of Genius
Chapter 1. "It Spoke Itself": Genius, Political Speech, and Louisa May Alcott's Work
Chapter 2. Genius and the Demise of Radical Publics in Henry James's The Bostonians
Chapter 3. Trilby: Double Personality, Intellectual Property, and Mass Genius
Chapter 4. Mary Hunter Austin: Genius, Variation, and the Identity Politics of Innovation
Chapter 5. Imitation as Circulation: Racial Genius and the Problem of National Culture in Jessie Redmon Fauset's There Is Confusion
Coda: Gertrude Stein in Occupied France
The Work of Genius
In an 1855 speech, the labor and women's rights advocate Frances Gage argued in support of married women's control over their own earnings, hoping to nullify married men's legal ownership of their wives' wages. At her rhetorical zenith she proclaimed, "Let us own ourselves, our earnings, our genius." Within the familiar idiom of liberal democracy, Gage's exhortation is exactly two-thirds intelligible. Gage's first two demands, that women own themselves and their wages, clearly spring from the Lockean framework of possessive individualism, under which freedom is grounded, in Locke's words, on the premise that "every man has a property in his own person" and that the "labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his." By invoking possessive individualism, Gage shows here that she understands married women's ownership of their wages to have larger implications than merely giving women control over the money they earn, although she respects that goal. She also is asserting that owning wages will bring women closer to the condition of full democratic citizenship as it was understood within the main tradition of liberal political philosophy and had been recently expanded to include men of small property and male laborers. She asks that married women—and here she means specifically free working-class women, since enslaved women had neither legal self-ownership nor wages and upper-class white women's wealth generally derived from property rather than work—be assimilated to the same form of citizenship that free working men enjoyed.
But she also breaks this frame. She adds to her philosophically familiar call for women workers to own themselves and their wages another demand, that they own their "genius." What could she mean by this? Gage creates a syntactical equivalence, but "genius" differs from her other terms in striking ways. A married woman's ownership of her earnings could be accomplished by changes in the law, and slowly it was. Owning "ourselves" is a related, more abstract political-philosophical goal, but also one widely asserted and theorized. Owning "genius," though, is an aspiration beyond the remedies of the law and outside of the main idiom of post-Lockean democracy. Given how urgently women's rights activists felt the need to alleviate wage-earning women's economic powerlessness and exclusion from the forms and privileges of full citizenship, why would Gage spend any breath on "genius"? What is "our genius," and how could "owning" it assert, as she says, "our right to be free"?
This book recovers the topos on which Gage's last demand—and many other discussions of women's citizenship couched in similar language—becomes intelligible. "Genius" was a familiar term in struggles over women's state citizenship and public presence more generally in the United States during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, a time when gender and public life were together transformed by the forces of political, economic, and cultural modernity. Over this time period, "genius" never designated a monolithic conception. Rich and diverse, references to "genius" were poised atop a highly elaborated set of inquiries into creativity, innovation, and the nature of the mind, most often explicitly in relation to some scene of public life, including such specific entities as audiences, readerships, and political meetings, as well as more abstract projections such as national culture, national character, or universal humanity.
Viewed through a wide lens, discourses on genius contributed to many different cultural and intellectual projects and had effects on aspects of American culture too numerous to list. My major contention here is that the discourses of genius exerted a shaping force over controversies about women's identity, civil status, and participation in public life. In an obvious way discourses on genius provided a location, among many cultural locations, for debates about what women were and what they could or ought to do in the world. Debates raged over whether or not women could possess something called "genius" and how possessing it (or not) might matter (or not) for settling questions about their nature, destinies, opportunities, or access to such benefits of full citizenship as voting. Debates about women's possession of genius, however, stood apart from debates about other characteristics that were used to establish sexual difference. Conceptions of genius had a special status in a long history of thinking about the connections between cognitive experience and democratic culture. This history often pitted models of genius against democratic business as usual, seeing genius as a force capable of overcoming conventional and institutional obstacles to a more egalitarian America.
For this reason, discourses of genius provided means for conceptualizing women's identities and citizenship in opposition to the political forms and ideas that produced their marginality. These oppositional uses of conceptions of genius have been hard to discern because they lie scattered across the discourses and documents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They never achieved a consolidated theory; indeed, part of their utility derived from their unformalized state, which permitted many different kinds of appropriation. Prose fiction, however, had a strong role in wielding conceptions of female genius for oppositional purposes. Within prose fiction, conventions of narrative and characterization organized tropes of genius into sustained conceptual meditations. So while we must first turn to aesthetic and scientific theory to grasp the primary conceptual dimension of genius, fiction ultimately demands the most sustained attention if we hope to comprehend how discourses of genius formulated gender in relation to public life.
Historically discussions of the nature and significance of genius had their first major development within romanticism. The term "genius" had long denoted the special character or nature of a person, place, or abstract social entity, as in the common phrase "the genius of the age" and other similar constructs. This sense of genius as distinct character is part of what Frances Gage conveys in her call for wage-earning women to own their genius, and it allows her both to give value to women, as people possessed of a character not reducible to the labor or wages that they nevertheless deserve to control, and to imagine them as a natural political collectivity bound to agitate for their common interest. The idea of special character persisted in discussions of genius through the twentieth century (and still exist), but it also gave rise in the late eighteenth century to a more specialized usage that defined genius as a highly valued mode of creative cognition marked by originality, spontaneity, and instinct. This romantic theory of creativity displaced an older emphasis on the imitation of masters, sustained effort, and learnedness. More than simply a body of theory about how works of art or technological invention come into the world, though, conceptions of genius redefined the mind and the experience of subjectivity. "Genius" indicated a split state of consciousness and an attenuated state of will by figuring creativity as inspiration, a sudden rushing into the mind of an idea that was totally authentic to its creator and at the same time completely alien to the creator's conscious mind or sense of self.
Formulations of the will-destroying and consciousness-breaching force of genius were common in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century print culture, but Ralph Waldo Emerson's are perhaps the most indelible. In "Self-Reliance" and elsewhere Emerson attached the authenticity of genius to its attenuation of the will: "Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due." Genius, in Emerson's formulations as in others, was a force that invaded the mind; the person in the grips of genius "suffer[ed] the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him." The trope of creativity as a possession is at least as old as classical philosophy, but it became the dominant model of valued creativity and, moreover, a general model of human consciousness in the nineteenth century. Theories of genius were related to other discourses about the mind's capacity for altered states of consciousness and will, such as those developed in radical Protestantism, spiritualism, mesmeric fads, and even modern theories of psychology that posited "unconscious cerebration," double personality, and the more familiar unconscious of psychoanalysis. Discussions about genius shaped these other models of the mind and were in turn shaped by them.
In this broader context of mind theory, however, calling a split state of mind or invaded will "genius" gave it a special character, distinguished not only by the cultural value of the poems, paintings, or speeches that the person of genius produced but also by its means of convening a public. Romantic genius was imagined to create collective moments of shared thought by coordinating particular minds with universal truth. It apparently did so in a way that was magical without being supernatural. As such, genius represented a secularization of Christian conceptions of divine inspiration and conversion. In this secular mode the genius was conceived of as a person both highly distinct and completely representative. Emerson once again provides the most ringing and concise formulation in his description of the ideal poet: "The poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth." The term "common wealth" here is both figurative and literal; "genius" was a concept not just for figuring an abstract "common good" but also for thinking about the formal and social dimensions of a shared political and cultural order.
Despite the precision and similarity of many definitions of genius, one persistent and treasured claim about it was that it exceeded the capacity of words to define it. A writer for the American Phrenological Journal enthused in 1859, for instance, that "we may work away at our adumbration of [genius] till we are gray, and then we shall fail to 'body it forth' with any entireness." Three generations later, well after phrenological models of the mind had been supplanted by pragmatism and then Freudian psychology, a writer for the Living Age began a 1924 review of a recent biography of Olive Shreiner by asserting in similar terms that genius was at once instantly recognizable and impossible to specify, a very certain incertitude: "We cannot define [genius]; but we recognize it, although we may be hard put to it to say what it is." The undefinability, and one might say excess to language, of genius allowed it to signify a kind of human value that maintained its integrity by transcending the dissections of analysis and even dispute. It also made genius a fertile ground for controversy, since the apparent presence of genius inspired certitude but defied proof. Anyone could claim that anything was genius and would necessarily have to feel passionately while doing so, but the claim was also necessarily open to dispute since anyone could disagree. The controversial character of genius was especially pronounced when it intersected with contests over women's capabilities.
Romantic conceptions such as these were remarkably long lived; indeed they are undoubtedly still familiar today. Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, however, the scientific disciplines of biology, neurology, psychology, and statistics undertook investigations of genius that overlapped romantic and popular models. The scientific discussion was profoundly ambivalent about genius. It defined genius in biological or statistical terms, primarily as a deviation or variation from the normal human type. Scientific treatises sometimes exalted genius and sometimes deplored it as a kind of degeneration. Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin and one of the founders of eugenics, praised the variation of genius in his paradigm-setting work Hereditary Genius (1869). Galton reframed genius according to the "law of deviation from an average," which made genius a rare but predictable factor: "Thus, the rarity of commanding ability, and the vast abundance of mediocrity, is no accident, but follows of necessity from the very nature of these things." The Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, by contrast, saw genius as a biological, rather than statistical, form of variation and as a kind of monstrosity, calling it "a special morbid condition" and "congenital mental abnormality."
American discussions cited both of these scientific models and also expressed both praise and horror of genius, sometimes simultaneously, as in a 1919 article: "It is the variant . . . with new ideas, new methods, and new impulses who makes the great success. It is the variant, with new ideas, who commits the crime that curdles the blood." Unlike romantic aesthetic theory, scientific models of genius understood it as a highly explicable phenomenon, although they disagreed over the terms of explicability. Scientific models also differed markedly in their conception of the representative person; they replaced the romantic model of the universal genius with a new conception of the representative person not as the "genius" but as the "average" or "normal" type. Scientific discourses of genius were part of a larger, baldly ideological project of categorizing human types, by gender, of course, but also by race, ethnicity, and nation. Specifically feminist tropes of genius often had to contend with the scientific models, but scientific ways of conceiving of the origin and circulation of creativity also shaped the feminist conversation, changing its ways of understanding the construction of gender, of representative personhood, and of the body in relation to creativity and social life.
The discourses of genius in their various manifestations were in no way inherently liberating. They could be turned in any number of directions for any number of purposes, and were. But they had recognizably liberating uses in relation to women's status. One of the major reasons that conceptions of genius could serve this oppositional function was that, as in Gage's ringing invocation, they could be placed in tension with the dominant political constructs of liberal democracy. Where liberal democracy defined proper citizenship in terms of rationality, individuality, and autonomy, models of genius defined alternative visions of democratic life based on inspiration, collectivity, and magical permutations of agency. Conceptions of genius in general could be used to challenge the social and subjective world described by a liberal democratic order, and they were appropriated by political positions that traversed the spectrum from radically reactionary to radically progressive. Particular feminist adaptations of ideas of genius, however, yoked them to two deeply connected purposes: to reconstructing gender as a political identity category and to imagining political worlds outside of the liberal universe that marginalized women.
Even beyond these explicitly and intentionally feminist uses, discourses of genius provided a set of terms for posing crucial questions about democracy under conditions of an expanding franchise and an emerging mass society. Tropes of genius made it possible to frame such questions as the following: How can particular identities and needs be reconciled with collective aims? Who has the privilege of being a "representative" person? How can agency be deployed under social and political conditions that constrain it? What purpose does a national culture serve, and how is legitimate membership in it determined? How can people excluded from state citizenship and cultural inclusion remedy their marginalization? And most pressing, how can social or political life be radically transformed?
Several factors made these questions urgent in connection with women's identities and status in particular in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States. The most obvious and in a sense finite of these was the struggle for women's suffrage. As suffragists and their opponents well knew, granting women the vote at the national level would change, in a single stroke, women's categorical political status by giving them access to the public sphere of the state, by making them full citizens and eliminating one of the major ways in which the law defined them as private beings. For this reason the decades preceding suffrage and directly following it witnessed controversies over the constitution of "women" as a categorical entity and over the arrangement of public and private spheres traditionally and legally defined by sexual difference, by a masculine public and a feminine private sphere. Discourses of genius in this context took part in struggles over the reconstruction of gendered subjectivity at the same time that they were also projections of alternative ways of creating democratic publics; indeed these two purposes intersected. The time period leading up to and directly following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 thus defines the major historical focus of this book.
Although the formal threshold of the vote was an undeniable factor in reconstructing gender in relation to democracy, it was hardly the only arena where gender and public life were redefined through the language of genius. The public scenes of "genius" were as many as the publics that women seemed to be entering so visibly at the turn of the twentieth century. Before and after becoming full state citizens, women participated in many kinds of political activity not defined by their status in relation to the state, including utopian social experiments, abolitionist and labor activism, club work, settlement houses, conventions, and politically engaged writing. "Genius" was a frequent trope of these inventive political formations. In this era, mass culture produced a variety of public spaces and kinds of social encounter that were open to women. Mass culture saturates public life with the interests of capital; at the same time it provides means of participation, often through consumption and spectatorship, for people excluded from full legal standing in the nation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mass culture produced a distinct sense of anxiety over the shifting and perhaps collapsing relationship between private and public life, and conceptions of genius could be summoned to mediate these anxieties. As different as improvisational political activism and mass culture might seem to be, they both were conceivable in terms of genius. Indeed in a work such as Henry James's The Bostonians, the term "genius" organizes a meditation on the apparent conflation of radical politics and mass culture.
Perhaps the most obvious formation of public life that genius helped to define, however, was that of national culture. Conceptions of genius were ubiquitous in discussions of whether, and to what purpose, the United States could be understood to possess a national culture at all, or at least one whose standing could compete with that of Europe's most admired national cultures. Emerson's calls for American genius to create an original American culture are familiar, and they invite a collective and original effort. One less regarded legacy of this model is that the ideal of a national literary and artistic culture, and of its origins in genius, became useful to those who wanted to create either expansive or exclusionary models of national culture, who wanted, that is, to employ the concept of culture to adjudicate the parameters of legitimate national membership. In the contexts of these discussions, conceptions of genius could be used to define women as either authentic or inauthentic cultural citizens. The idea of national genius became key to the racialization of citizenship in biological terms in the first decades of the twentieth century, a development that sapped the utopian potential from the most progressive models of genius.
In examining the political visions articulated through conceptions of genius, the discussion in this book joins other recent work in American literary studies dedicated to enriching our understanding of the history of struggles over participation in U.S. public life. A rich field of scholarship has diagnosed the limits that the primary categories of American democracy place on citizenship and uncovered other languages through which excluded people generated optimistic visions of new and inclusive political worlds. As Priscilla Wald has established, the major narratives of U.S. culture created exclusive visions of national life that were assailed by inventive literary narrative forms. Other illuminating work has focused our attention on the limiting social vision of liberalism in particular.
Legal state citizenship—the form of national belonging for which suffragists fought—requires a subject stripped of all particular characteristics, a subject that can enter the domain of universality and impartial deliberation by leaving behind the particular body and its interests. As Russ Castronovo has argued, this political form is deadening but at the same time an object of desire for aspirants to full citizenship, who are defined as overembodied because marked by race, gender, ethnicity, class, or other evidence of particularity. Women's citizenship in the United States is complexly constructed, defined by class, race, region, immigration status, and other factors. In a categorical sense, however, women's relation to citizenship has been historically mediated through the institution of marriage. For married women in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States, aspiring to the ghostly form of citizenship available through liberalism promised relief from their technical "legal death" under the laws of coverture, which filed their citizenship under that of their husbands and existed in some of its provisions until well into the 1930s. Marriage in its broader conventional forms, as Elizabeth Maddock Dillon has argued, defined the legal apparatus and structures of feeling that defined women's subordinate citizenship and contradictory relation to a literary public sphere defined in large part by genres of domestic privacy.
At the same time that these limits constrained women's cultural and state citizenship, however, alternative and critical modes of civic engagement and political subjectivity developed. Recent work has shown how expressive voices, such as those of lecturers and singers or even ranting mobs, were imagined capable of expressing political desires that could not reach articulation through the formal mechanisms of the state, such as the franchise, or the public sphere of disembodied rational deliberation. The cultures of sentimentality, however, have provided the richest field of inquiry into liberalism and its discontents. Lauren Berlant's work has been particularly instructive about the appeal that sentimentality had and still has for excluded subjects, as well as the way that sentimental culture functions in tandem with liberalism to depoliticize the desires and subjects it articulates by defining citizenship as "proper feeling" and collapsing the private and intimate spheres into that of the public. Unlike sentimentality, genius never had the fully lived-in quality of a culture, though in the romantic era it was sometimes called a cult. What it provided was a set of metaphors through which controversies over gender and citizenship could be conducted and conceptualized, in ways beyond those made possible by the major recognized political frameworks of the time.
Examining appeals to genius illuminates major predicaments surrounding women's identities and public standing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, showing how they were understood, contested, and, in instances sometimes practical and at others imaginary, overcome. In pursuing this claim, this book joins other recent investigations into the political life of the genius. Literary criticism once used "genius" as an evaluative term; of late it has been more productively concerned with understanding the many uses "genius" had as a category or a discourse for authors, critics, and Euro-American literary culture at large. The connection between particular claims to have genius and the desire to enter an exclusive scene of public life is well established. Anne E. Boyd and Naomi Z. Sofer have in different ways shown how "genius" was a term that nineteenth-century American women writers applied to themselves in order to establish their literary credentials and appeal for entry into a literary culture that increasingly defined itself as a national high culture.
By contrast, in the modernist moment of high culture in the twentieth century, authorial claims to possess genius could serve something similar to the opposite function, reconciling the author's hieratic difficulty with the demands of the market and celebrity culture. In Andrew Elfenbein's account, though, the category of genius in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had less to do with claims about the aesthetic value of a literary work than with what it was possible, or impossible, to say about sexual identity. The "deviance" associated with genius from romanticism through twentieth-century science made it, Elfenbein argues, the perfect trope for staging incipient queer identities in literary culture. Gustavus Stadler's recent analysis of genius as a discursive construction forged from the political contradictions of American culture is perhaps closest to my own commitments. Stadler argues that genius functioned as a discourse of "cultural and intellectual labor" that "was ultimately most useful for rendering, on a mass scale, the consumption of aesthetic culture as a necessary and vital part of the 'freedom' known as good citizenship." Where Stadler analyzes how genius mediated theories of race, work, and consumption from the mid to late nineteenth century, my discussion here emphasizes the ways that genius organized conceptions of gender, citizenship, and public life in the historical moment of women's civic inclusion. Doing so requires tracking specific instances of the discursive formation of genius in relation to gender, from its romantic through its scientific incarnations, and charting particular scenes of the public imagined through genius. The public scenes most relevant to my discussion include political lectures, suffrage activism, mass culture, literary writing, and antiracist political activism staged through the medium of high culture. "Genius," like "gender" and "the public," was a multiple formation. Discerning the shifting configurations among these terms promises to develop our sense of the political imaginary of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States and to bring into focus the particular controversies that defined gendered political subjectivity during the massive reconception of political life necessitated by the erosion of separate spheres ideology.
The work that discourses of genius performed in relation to gender and public life has remained obscure, primarily because of the critical suspicion that has been so generously heaped on conceptions of genius. Genius, in short, has a bad reputation. Critically speaking, "genius" has been roundly condemned as a category of mystification, one that in bad faith suspends creative acts, performed in a seemingly abstracted sphere of "culture," above the social, political, or economic realities that we know are really responsible for the production of poems, symphonies, paintings, scientific discoveries, and other inventive moments conventionally attributed to the sudden inspirations of genius. Genius, in other words, stands accused of fetishizing transcendent individuality at the expense of more social understandings of how ideas or meanings emerge and circulate in the world. Perhaps most famously, Foucault earns his critical suspicion of genius in his canonical essay "What Is an Author?' by defining the discursive principle of limitation locatable in the figure of the author. In Foucault's words, "if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion." Rather than creating limitlessly, the genius "is a certain functional principle by which . . . one impedes the free circulation of, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction." "The genius" is an instance, then, of the "individualization" of culture. "Genius" cloaks social life and its contentious relations of labor, power, materiality, identity, production, and discourse, squelching the potentially utopian possibilities of "free circulation."
It gets worse. Feminist scholars have given genius an adjective that Foucault does not: "masculine." Christine Battersby has shown in detail how the category of genius was defined explicitly to exclude women, even as it designated a kind of gender ambiguity, in the European philosophical and aesthetic discussions that set the terms for most American aesthetic philosophy that aspired to seriousness. Françoise Meltzer, moreover, has connected the idea of "originality" that was central to genius to the specifiably masculine subjectivity of possessive individualism. According to the logic of originality as Meltzer describes it, women of genius were "unimaginable." For Rachel Blau DuPlessis, the literary figure of the "woman of genius" was profoundly incongruous, which is exactly what made it valuable for expressing the situation of bourgeois women in the late nineteenth century, who inhabited two mutually incommensurate ideological positions: that of individuality and that of domestic femininity. The figure of the female genius according to DuPlessis thus renders visible a "contradiction in bourgeois ideology between the ideals of striving, improvement, and visible public works, and the feminine version of that formula: passivity, 'accomplishments,' and invisible private acts." In keeping with such insights, the feminist position on genius thus far has been to expose its implicit and explicit masculinity and to reveal how historical women who aspired to artistic or intellectual achievement managed this particular expression of misogyny.
There are good reasons for taking the view that genius is a category expressive of individualism, especially if one is working with what turns out to be a limited archive on the topic of genius, one based in the high European tradition of aesthetic philosophy, where the most undiluted praise for individual creativity can be found. It is also undeniably the case that many of the most authoritative definitions of genius from the Enlightenment through twentieth-century scientific models were expressly misogynistic, explicitly contending that women could not possess it. One need only dip a hand in the stream of historical discourses of genius to draw out a sampling of gender-differentiating pronouncements. Benjamin Rush's Enlightenment-era medical model of the mind held that the faculty of "understanding" was "less vigorous and less comprehensive in the female," which was why "a Newton, a Bacon, and a Napier, has never appeared among them," and that "the same may be said of their imaginations"; "hence a Homer, a Shakespear [sic], and a Milton, has never appeared among them."
At the turn of the twentieth century, Otto Weininger, whose infamous pseudoscientific Sex and Character (1903) exerted a formative influence on Gertrude Stein and was often cited in the U.S. context, declared that "from genius itself, the common quality of all the different manifestations of genius, woman is debarred." Havelock Ellis's 1930 edition of his major work on sexual difference, Man and Woman, asserted women's lack of genius as an immutable biological condition, claiming that women "possess less spontaneous originality in the highest intellectual spheres. This is an organic tendency which no higher education can eradicate." Women's lack of genius was seen as a scientific and philosophical truism. In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States the prospect of women's fuller citizenship gave point to this truism for those opposed to reform. As a writer for the Scientific American made the connection between genius and citizenship in 1894, "The present very active and enlightening agitation over the question of women's suffrage calls up again the many now established facts about the physiological differences in the nervous system of the sexes." Women's supposed lack of genius was considered not only a clear marker of their unbridgeable difference from men but also a deficit that specifically proved their incapacity for public life, because it expressed a more general inability to be representative thinkers, innovators, or beings capable of originating new thoughts that could invigorate the polis.
To be sure, the gendering of genius in this tradition is complex. Although some of the same distinctions between men's and women's minds were repeated over centuries, these distinctions were grounded in a succession of historical models of the mind that were very different in their basis, and also in models of gender that changed through time. The significance of these shifts forms the subjects of the chapters that follow. It was also the case that discourses of genius sometimes provided room for disarticulating gender from the body. The contortions of this tradition are fully evident, for instance, in the Goncourt brothers' self-consciously elliptical and oft-quoted phrase "There are no women of genius; women of genius are all men." Without a doubt, the "men of genius" often presented their own category deviations; their supposed intuition, instinctiveness, spontaneity, and even physical delicacy associated them with stereotypical femininity. As one commentator summarized this problem, "It would seem, then, that genius must possess the emotional qualities that are the natural endowment of woman; while woman herself is excluded from genius." At the same time, though, scholars of this tradition have not failed to note that the gender ambiguity of the genius trope in aesthetic and scientific discourses is wrapped in the certainty of the ultimate "masculinity" of genius, whether or not it is attached to something that is legible as a male body (though it almost always is). My examples fully suggest that as familiar and long-lived as the assertion of the masculinity of genius was, there was also apparently an imperative to repeat it over and over again, across paradigms of knowledge, as the decades passed.
But, this kind of repetition was necessary only because genius was a controversial rather than an uncontested index of sexual difference or gendered being. Although prestigious aesthetic philosophers and scientists claimed that women of genius were, as Meltzer notes, "unimaginable," the textual archives of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States show that they were imagined all the time, often in moments of contention over the being of "women" and their place in public. When we broaden our archive beyond the works of a handful of Euro-American philosophers and scientists—that is, if we do not by default give priority to the thinkers who already have prestige—we can discern a wide-ranging set of contests over gender and democracy waged in the idiom of genius. When we do so, we can immediately see that feminists and their allies always disputed the claim that women were incapable of possessing the capacity for genius. They sometimes suspected that there was something absurd in having to do so in order to sue for full civic inclusion. As one advocate for women's rights asked in the New York Times in 1915, "Has anyone proposed to make inventive genius a test of citizenship?" Speaking literally, the answer to her rhetorical question was, of course, "no," but her reductio ad absurdum logic points to the fact that in a well-understood figurative sense, the answer was "yes."
Genius figured in debates over what women were, what they could do, and how their capacities mattered for their legal and social status. By stepping outside of the narrow philosophical archive of genius and into what turns out to be a broad conversation conducted across strata of culture and across diverse public spheres, we can see that genius was less a fetish performing the work of ideologically driven concealment and more the field on which competing visions of sexual difference and social organization were staged, and on which feminist critical leverage was often gained. Unfolding these intricate contests will be the work of this book, but it is necessary to say at the outset that they were motivated by the striking fit between models of genius and women's particular forms of exclusion from state membership and national culture membership.
Looking closely at the historical and theoretical conditions of women's exclusion that made conceptions of genius so central to debates about gender and citizenship, one of the primary problems we find is this: as feminist political theory has so richly established, the standard of equal citizenship is framed as a universal standard but is nevertheless built on a particular kind of subjecthood, that of white bourgeois manhood. The universal subject, in other words, is a particular subject. The ideal of universal equality on which liberal democracy is based is thus a condition of limited equality and enfranchisement. This is a contradiction that feminist scholars have described in both historical and theoretical terms. The historical roots of the particular content of the universal subject lie in the Euro-American political revolutions of the eighteenth century, which did away with the ancient regime's basis of power in rank and replaced it with a "natural" and "universal" equality among citizens who create a political order by mutual consent. This universal subject, however, was defined by very particular conditions. In the first instance, it was defined through property ownership, a condition that excluded dependents—white women, wage laborers, children, and with brutal completeness, slaves—and put citizenship within reach only of white men of means and standing.
As property lost salience as a norm of citizenship in the early nineteenth-century United States, constructions of essential difference took over the work of justifying the exclusion of most of these groups. Only white wage laborers were largely exempt from this process and assimilated to new norms of citizenship based in reason, taxpaying, and military service. By contrast, slaves were increasingly racialized, children were rendered as essentially distinct in kind rather than degree from adults in emerging theories of child rearing and pedagogy, and women were retheorized as men's ontologically complementary but subordinate opposites. These processes were unequal in their effects; children often benefited greatly from emerging standards of nurture and the relief from labor that followed from their new status as essentially distinct beings, while the naturalization of slavery as race deepened the oppression of enslaved men and women and imperiled at every moment the civic inclusion and protection of even free blacks in the North.
Across the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the peculiar form of white women's newly posited "essential difference" produced their peculiarly incoherent relation to citizenship. Women's rights advocates from the mid-nineteenth century on argued for admission to full state citizenship on the theoretical basis on which white men ostensibly enjoyed it—that is, on abstract universal equality. By this point, however, they were fighting a losing battle with newly consolidated models of womanhood marked by characteristics in harmony with women's ideal cultural location under separate spheres ideology and associated with motherhood, characteristics that carried value in the culture, such as moral superiority, delicacy, and a maternal orientation toward care. In response women's rights advocates in the late nineteenth century began to add to the rhetoric of equality that had defined the mid-century efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony another and seemingly contradictory set of arguments based on notions of women's special nature. This was a profoundly class- and race-based construction of the category of "woman" shaped by white, bourgeois ideals attainable by few and strictly lived by even fewer. Yet given the power of this class, it is no surprise that it functioned as the universal construct of femininity for many debates about suffrage and women's rights more broadly.
These formations of domestic femininity had enormous cultural power that gave them a certain pragmatic and often sentimental appeal, in keeping with the typically sentimental content of bourgeois constructions of women's being and difference. They were essentially conservative in terms of gender ideology. When turn-of-the-century antisuffragists argued that women should be barred from the vote because their nature suited them to nurture children and exert moral influence, suffragists countered by essentially repeating antisuffragist claims about women's nature while insisting that this nature fitted women for citizenship. Women would use their ability to nurture to help clean up the streets, make sure that food was distributed to needy children, and advocate for better education; their moral superiority would elevate a franchise corrupted by machine politics and the instrumentalities of capitalism. Women's particularity would define their contributions to civic and public life. As the historian Nancy Cott has noted, in turn-of-the-century women's rights advocacy, both equality-based and difference-based arguments flourished: "A tension stretched between emphasis on the rights that women (like men) deserved and emphasis on the particular duties or services that women (unlike men) could offer society. . . . No collective resolution of these tensions occurred and seldom even did individuals permanently resolve them in their own minds." This incoherence reflected the contradictions that defined women's marginality.
Both lines of argument offered tactical benefits to feminists, but together they reflected a theoretical impasse that feminism still struggles with today. Difference-based arguments bound women to the exact construction of their identities that had sponsored their political exclusion in the first place. Such arguments had no power to alter the major terms of liberal democracy, which, as the political theorist Wendy Brown has recently argued, still define the viable political subject through a series of exclusions that operate to marginalize women nearly a century after the achievement of formal equality. Legitimate political subjectivity was and is still based in terms defined by their excluded opposites, opposites that are, as Brown puts it, "marked as 'feminine'": equality as against difference, liberty as against necessity, autonomy as against dependence, rights as against needs, individuals as against family, self-interest against selflessness, public against private, contract in opposition to consent; and we could add to Brown's list universality against particularity. The legitimacy of every dominant term, as Brown writes, "is achieved through its constitution by, dependence upon, and disavowal of the subordinate term," guaranteeing the exclusive rather than universal nature of political incorporation and limiting the possible array of intelligible political needs and demands. Women's "difference" thus operates simultaneously as their mode of entry and the means for their marginalization. It produces the political subject denominated by the term "women" as one that is included precisely through foundational gestures of negation, establishing liberalism, in Brown's words, "as a discourse of male dominance."
By the same token, sameness arguments that emphasize women's universal humanness tend to flounder because of the particular content of the universal subject. Appeals to equality can be powerful and effective, resulting in the practical extension of rights. At the same time, however, women and other subjects marked by difference from this particular construct of the universal always register as themselves particular, rather than universal, and as inescapably embodied, rather than as possessing the capacity of bodily abstraction that defines normative democratic standards of reasoned deliberation and political participation. For these reasons, in Joan W. Scott's apt phrase, liberal democratic theory has had "only paradoxes to offer" feminist attempts both to gain and to conceptualize full citizenship.
Liberalism framed, and still frames, the major conceptions and institutions of constitutional democracy, and thus will continue to command our attention, but it did not engross all possible constructions of subjectivity, participation, and collective life. Stepping from the topos of state citizenship to the topos of genius, as so many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers and thinkers did, meant entering a different conceptual order, one where liberalism's constitutive dualisms were reorganized, depolarized, or rendered moot. Within the primary discourses of genius, terms that are incommensurable and mutually exclusive within liberalism are, by contrast, staged dialectically. Consider, for instance, three of the oppositions that operate historically within liberalism: those between autonomy and dependence, the private and the public, and particularity and universality. These become instead relations characteristic of genius.
To return to Emerson's elaborations of "genius," which set the paradigm for American discussions for decades, genius is conceived of as at once an authentic possession of the self and alien to the self, private and public, particular and universal. As he writes in "Self-Reliance" (1844), "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense." The thought is private but true for all, particular but universal. Directly addressing his readers in the second person, Emerson uses the phrase "your own," but as he writes in "The Poet," genius is a highly ambiguous possession: "In our way of talking we say, 'That is yours, this is mine'; but the poet knows well that it is not his; that it is as strange and beautiful to him as to you; he would fain hear the like eloquence at length." The genius is a self-reliant individual who can set his will against convention and social opinion, and also a cipher, overtaken and controlled by an alien power. Despite the critical contention that "genius" is an individuating category, the split and possessed self of the romantic model confounds the autonomous selfhood of liberal democracy, rendering it an impoverished reduction, just as it replaces the polarities of private and public, particular and universal with mediations.
Emerson gendered genius male by default, but feminist appropriations of genius often seized on the critical response to liberalism generated by romanticism and turned it to their own purposes, seeing the figure of female genius to address questions about authority and consensus in ways that emphasized women's public inclusion. This was in part possible because of a remarkable dovetailing of many of the tropes of genius—spontaneity, intuition, instinct, and attenuated personal agency prime among them—with what were otherwise marginalizing stereotypes of female subjectivity—that women were intuitive rather than rational and possessors of highly compromised agency. As one early twentieth-century writer on gender expressed this connection, "So also with all the mental qualities we shall find, I believe, the same connection between the special characters of woman and those of genius." At certain moments, as the chapters that follow more fully show, the discourse on female genius exploited this coincidence to intervene in contests about women's formal state citizenship and enfranchisement. Yet even when this was the case, the complexity of each exemplary instance of female genius in narrative fiction suggests how reductive it would be to see the discourse on female genius merely as reinscribing stereotypes of femininity. Wrenched from the liberal ideology of separate spheres and resituated within notions of genius, these stereotypes are no longer really, simply themselves. They stage, rather, ambiguations within the realm of gender and destabilize some of the major structuring categories of public life.
More than this, the attenuated personal agency of genius was imagined to realize extremely potent forces of world-transforming agency. Not only does genius violate agency in the service of agency's fuller manifestation, but it also unleashes the ability to reconceptualize and renovate social life. Emerson formulated this idea concisely in "Politics" (1844): "Every thought which genius and piety throws into the world, alters the world." In its emphasis on transformation, this conception of genius resonates with more recent theoretical models of both politics and female genius. The world-altering power ascribed to genius points toward the grounding conditions of political life, insofar as the political is based in the principle of transformability. Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, has perhaps most forcefully argued that nothing that is untransformable can properly attain a political character, which is why for her, the private, in both the domestic and economic senses, must be kept separate from the political, because the private is the realm of necessity where bodies are reproduced and sustained according to inexorable dictates of biological life. Freedom, for Arendt, is the opposite of necessity, where action realizes the principle of newness. "To act," she writes, "in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin." In this understanding, beginning takes the form of radical rupture: "It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before . . . the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle."
Genius figured in just such a miracle. For some theorists, it still does. In a recent essay on "feminine genius," Julia Kristeva rhetorically asks, "Is not genius precisely the breakthrough that consists in going beyond the situation?" When Kristeva frames this question, she means to describe what she terms "feminine genius" to be an actually existing conceptual resource, a kind of unique individual force of creativity defined by a feminine psychosexual particularity ("FG," 499-501). (Interestingly, Hannah Arendt is one of her exemplars of feminine genius.) Kristeva sees current debates over women's modern social status to be stuck in "the question of their equality or their difference with regard to men," the very binary that plagued early twentieth-century suffrage advocacy ("FG," 503). Feminist theory, she contends, totalizes women's condition, concerning itself "only with the conditions" of "womankind as a whole" to the "neglect of the importance of the subject" ("FG," 496). Kristeva sees "feminine genius" to include both a feminine particularity, not limited to biological or socially recognized women but realized in a psychoanalytically intelligible feminine sexuality, and a unique individual creativity irreducible to the social conditions that surround it and therefore capable of opposing them. As she writes, modern freedom becomes possible "through the risks that each of us is prepared to take by calling into question thought, language, one's own age, and any identity that resides in them. You are a genius to the extent that you are able to challenge the sociohistorical conditions of your identity" ("FG," 504).
It would be possible to read assertions of women's genius in the fiction and print culture of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States through Kristeva's conception, linking them to expressly psychosexual creativity. But that is not what I am attempting here. While Kristeva approaches "feminine genius" as an actually existing resource for social transformation and the production of democratic freedom, I am interested instead in how and why the idea of female genius became associated, historically and conceptually, with social transformation and democratic emancipation. Indeed, from my perspective, Kristeva's formulation, for all of its theoretical sophistication and complex grounding in the lives of extraordinary twentieth-century women, looks like a modern extension of the historical discourse I want to uncover. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, narratives of female genius developed the idea that genius possessed world-transforming capacities and that these served feminist and activist purposes.
Consider, for instance, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's short story "The Two Offers," published in the Anglo-African in 1859. Most well known today for her widely taught novel about slavery and Reconstruction, Iola Leroy (1892). Harper was an abolitionist, antiracist activist, and advocate for women's rights who lectured and wrote widely on these topics during her long career over the second half of the nineteenth century. "The Two Offers" puts the conceit of female genius in tension with the conventions of romantic fiction and sets it against the institution of slavery. The story opens on the scene of two cousins, Janette Alston and Laura Lagrange, sitting together while Janette knits and Laura writes letter after letter, only to tear up each one. Laura explains, "Well, it is an important matter: I have two offers for marriage, and I do not know which to choose." Her problem, it seems, is one of the most familiar dilemmas of romance fiction, perhaps the dilemma. In keeping with the conventionality of the problem, Janette offers predictable counsel, advising Laura not to marry at all since she feels "not love enough for either to make a choice." Without love, Janette warns, the marriage would commodify her and "only be a mere matter of bargain and sale" ("TO," 106). Laura concedes that she does not "regard either [man] as a woman should the man she chooses for her husband" but worries that if she refuses both, "there is the risk of being an old maid, and that is not to be thought of" ("TO," 106). Janette then urges her to consider that "a loveless home" might be much worse than "the lot of the old maid who accepts her earthly mission as a gift from God" ("TO," 106). As it turns out, Laura falls in love with one of her suitors and marries him. He is a cad, though, and briefly regards her as a "prize"—she has apparently been sold even though she was in love—before he resumes his life of drink and dissipation. She suffers "deep anguish" at the loss of their only child, and after several years she succumbs to "a slow wasting of the vital forces, the sickness of the soul" ("TO," 113). On her deathbed she vainly calls out for her husband to return, but he never arrives. Since love has killed her, we can easily imagine that she would have fared rather better in a "loveless home."
Yet even then she could hardly have fared as well as her cousin. Janette, we learn, is a genius. At the time of her opening conversation with her cousin, she is already famous: "The achievements of genius had won her a position in the literary world, where she shone as one of its bright particular stars" ("TO," 107). As Laura slips away into death, Janette's vitality grows. She resolves to "kindle the fires of her genius" in the service of abolition: "In her the downtrodden slave found an earnest advocate" ("TO," 114).
On the face of it this is, quite frankly, a puzzling story. It opens by establishing a set of binary choices: the choice between one man and another, the choice between marrying for love and marrying for money, and the choice between a sham marriage and the life of a useful old maid. The story, though, never seriously pursues these oppositions; indeed, once having introduced them, it goes out of its way to display their irrelevance. We are never given a way to assess Laura's "two offers" as we usually would be within the conventions of romantic fiction. One of the suitors is never sketched at all, and the cad whom Laura marries is depicted only after the wedding. The choice between a loving and a loveless marriage is similarly moot. Janette warns Laura that she should not marry because she does not love, but then Laura does fall in love with one of her suitors; in the narrator's words, "she learned that great lesson of human experience and woman's life, to love the man who bowed at her shrine" ("TO," 109). The opposition between the sham marriage and the useful life of an old maid similarly collapses, not only because the disastrous marriage is one based on love—the kind of marriage that Janette's criteria would have urged Laura to accept—but also because it has to bear the enormous weight of Janette's genius.
To make the point that an unmarried woman can contribute to the community and derive satisfaction from doing so, Harper would need only to show Janette pursuing useful but ordinary activities—visiting the sick, helping her family, engaging in philanthropic activities, working as a nurse or teacher, or choosing a life of service such as the one she later imagines for the heroine of Iola Leroy. Instead, Harper gives her a life far beyond the means of choice. Janette is a woman "whose genius gave life and vivacity to the social circle" ("TO," 107); in consequence, "Men hailed her as one of earth's strangely gifted children, and wreathed garlands of fame for her brow" ("TO," 108). When she politicizes her genius, she does not simply work for abolition as anyone might; she instead "had a higher and better object in all her writings than the mere acquisition of gold, or acquirement of fame. She felt that she had a high and holy mission on the battlefield of existence" ("TO," 114). But fame she still gets: "Little children learned to name her with affection, the poor called her blessed. . . . Her life was like a beautiful story, only it was clothed with the dignity of reality and invested with the sublimity of truth" ("TO," 114). Although her life is "like a beautiful story," it is a distinctly different story than the one with which we seemed to have begun. Janette's life—her genius—looms in extraordinary excess to the frame of choice and the narrative paths that initiate the story.
In the grips of such excess, the story teeters on the brink of incoherence and incomprehensibility—at least for us. The discourse on female genius that this story organizes, however, renders the story intelligible as an inquiry into the grounding conditions of women's political life. The main opposition in the story is between Laura's stasis and Janette's ability to transform and be transformed. Laura is entirely constrained by the social, economic, and conceptual limits of bourgeois womanhood. These frame her choice between this man and that, love or instrumentality. Incapable of thinking beyond them, Laura cannot even entertain the idea of a useful spinsterhood—hardly a radical option—that Janette suggests. Laura's catastrophic narrative arc toward lonely death demonstrates that such choices are not really choices because their preconditions already constrain agency. She wastes her life by trying to live within the primary written convention of a woman's life—the marriage plot—a situation metaphorized by the paper she wastes in the opening as she writes one unsatisfactory letter after another, unable to write her own satisfactory conclusion. In parallel with her paper, her own body becomes waste material as she slowly and inexorably dies. In contrast, Janette's genius is a principle of transformation. Janette has her own drama of failed romance, but rather than killing her, it feeds her developing genius. When her affair develops, "love quickened her talents, inspired her genius" ("TO," 107). After she separates from her lover and his death prevents any chance of reunion, "her genius gained strength from suffering and wonderous power and brilliancy from the agony hid within the desolate chambers of her soul" ("TO," 107-8). Faced with her own heartbreak, she transforms. Faced with Laura's death from heartbreak, she becomes an ardent abolitionist.
Where Laura suffers the deadening effects of conventional bourgeois femininity, Janette not only transforms herself but also, as Kristeva would hope, is "a genius to the extent that [she is] able to challenge the sociohistorical conditions of [her] identity" ("FG," 504). She gains this superabundant political agency, moreover, through the attenuation of her personal agency. Where Laura's agency is stunted by the social and cognitive conventions of bourgeois womanhood that prevent her from not only having options but also being able to think about this situation, Janette's personal agency is deferred to her genius. Janette does not have genius; it has her. In a crucial and literally grammatical sense, Janette is the indirect object, rather than the subject, of her genius; as the narrator notes, "The achievement of her genius had won her a position in the literary world" ("TO," 107). It is not Janette but her "genius" that "gave life and vivacity to the social circle," her "genius that gathered strength from suffering." The fact of her possession by genius then enables her fight against an illegitimate possession, that of one person by another under slavery, so that her negated agency helps her strive to ameliorate, in a sense, the negated agency of the slave. She becomes a political agent, then, by channeling an agency authentic to her but not the same as her. This is the circuitous structure of agency characteristic of the tropes of female genius, and it typically operates not to affirm but to complicate and often ameliorate conventional feminine dilemmas of action, thought, and political possibility.
What is the significance of Janette's abolitionism and how does it relate to the conditions of her identity? If the direction of her political energy is a narrative surprise, then Laura's story prepares the groundwork for it. Laura's inadvertent "self sale" forms part of the story's critique of the existing state of marriage. Laura's husband regards marriage as a means of gaining her as a piece of legal human property: "he looked upon marriage not as a divine sacrament for the soul's development and human progression, but as the title-deed that gave him possession of the woman he thought he loved" ("TO," 109). As if in response to this parallel, Janette responds to women's predicament in the domain of bourgeois gender by turning her genius to the task of alleviating the slave's predicament in the national domain of race. In light of this move from gender to race, it might be tempting to read Janette and "The Two Offers" more generally according to Karen Sánchez-Eppler's critique of white feminist abolitionists who protested the sexual suffering of slave women as a way of safely opposing some of the constraining conditions of their own lives. But there is more here than a figurative connection between bourgeois marriage and slavery. Laura and Janette are assigned no race in the story, and their bodies bear the slightest descriptive burdens; at most, the narrator calls Janette "that pale intellectual woman" ("TO," 107), and Laura at her death has "dark locks" on her "marble brow" ("TO," 114).
In a white-authored American text published in a white-directed periodical, such minimal racial marking would affirm white racial privilege by meaning that they were white. "The Two Offers," though, is, as far as we know, the first short story published by an African American, and it appeared in the Anglo-African, a periodical featuring African American writers and directed toward an African American audience. Janette's paleness is a weak indication of whiteness, given Harper's frequent turn in her fiction to light-skinned African American heroines. Janette's abolitionist work mirrors Harper's own tireless political activism, giving her the character of an author surrogate. One kind of argument would insist that Harper embraces the American national default of whiteness here in and through her attempt to represent characters definitive of bourgeois womanhood. Another would see African American abolitionism as the explicit assumption of readers of the Anglo-African. Yet although I would agree with the latter claim, it remains conspicuous that Harper, who so often defines her heroines through explicit predicaments of ambiguous racial identity, remains reticent about the heroine's race here but not about slavery. The answer to this puzzle lies in the way that discourses of female genius manage bodily particularity. The general pattern, as in "The Two Offers," is to vault over the politically freighted body in the service of articulating and protesting its conditions, not leaving it conceptually behind but mediating between particular distressed embodiments and an abstract domain of genius. Janette might, in Kristeva's words, possess a genius capable of creating "the breakthrough that consists in going beyond the situation" ("FG," 496), but she moves beyond the situation in order to address it, smashing convention and transforming context.
Discourses on genius and gender were widespread in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States. They sometimes coalesced into coherent conversations and recognized debates. There were, to be sure, historically long-running threads of systematic inquiry—essays defining genius, chapters of scientific or aesthetic monographs either supporting or denying women's capacity for it, feminist and antifeminist speculations on women's "special" genius, and so on. In their totality, though, they were far from constituting a systematic body of thought. They existed, rather, as a loose confederation of tropes, critical moves, scientific problems, clichés, genres, and aesthetic inquiries; and analyzing these is a crucial aspect of this project. The primary focus for my discussion, however, is literary fiction that situates female genius in particular scenes of women's emergent publicity. There are, of course, other possible ways to locate the issue of female genius, just as there are other approaches to transformations in the gender of public life and citizenship more generally. One could look to the autobiographical writings of painters, poets, or dancers; to journalism and nonfiction about famous "women of genius," such as Margaret Fuller, who were salon hostesses; to theories of acting onstage and in film or to theories of musical performance in relation to both live audiences and recording; to shifting conceptions of poetry writing and gender from romanticism through postmodernism; or to the larger history of the conceptions of genius as a kind of characteristic spirit that exists above the materiality of the nation yet defines national life. Reviewing scenes such as these has been part of the work of writing this book, and many of them are relevant to the discussion that follows.
But fiction has provided a particularly productive ground of inquiry because within it, the scattered tropes and discursive instantiations of female genius were organized into sustained investigations. Prose fiction featuring female genius in relation to public life did not simply register political debates or contests over gender that were happening elsewhere, though they need to be situated in relevant discussions; nor did it merely thematize a set of problems surrounding the new woman, women's citizenship, liberalism, or transformations in gender. Instead fiction served as the primary cultural institution where the scattered tropes of gender and genius achieved form as political narratives. One reason that fiction could serve this purpose is because of its relatively broad accessibility. The misogynistic constructions of genius in aesthetic philosophy and the sciences—the constructions that have so far been granted the most visibility in current scholarship—had enormous cultural authority behind them but also a necessarily restricted audience and an even more dramatically restricted authorship. Fiction writing and reading were by far more accessible, and the novel's famous capacity to consume and reconstruct other languages and discourses allowed it to incorporate but also transform authoritative models of genius. There is not, then, a "whole" theory of genius of which each invocation of genius in novels is a part. But there are patterns of emergence that prose fiction allows us to see, and these can help us reconstitute the problematics of women's social and state citizenship that the genius discourse framed, and the hopes, moreover, that it uniquely fostered.
Rather than attempting to discern the unified field constituted by notions of female genius, then, I turn to novels that work out this trope at length, that orchestrate it in ways that produce its critical salience and a highly specified form of coherence—the formal coherence, as far as there is any, of the fictional narrative. It is within fiction that the discourses of female genius become, as it were, fully discursive, subject to the kinds of "development" that novels formally pursue by, for instance, engaging the conventions of love story, Bildung, realism and romance and those of character and linear time, as well as through the ability of novels to absorb and reshape the languages of other disciplines, other genres. Just as the discourses of gender and genius have no monolithic form, they have no special genre of fiction, though the overlap with the female Künstlerroman is clear. However, where the Künstlerroman typically concerns the figure of the artist in opposition to conventional social expectations, and in the case of those about women deals extensively with the conflict between vocation and domesticity, tropes of genius have specifically to do with distinct cognitive formations of creativity and the dialectics between universality and particularity, public and private, agency and attenuated will that genius was thought to sustain.
There also exist, however, profound tensions between the forms of the novel and the construct of genius, and these demand our attention as well. In some ways the logic of genius grates against the grain of prose fiction. Genius indicates a sudden break with existing forms and paradigms, and so its emergence as a topic, or as a dramatized experience, jars the worlds of novels whose narrative principles otherwise objectify incremental development or long chains of causality. Genius, in other words, often does not fit within the narratives that stage it, and that very misfit, or excess, produces its conspicuous alterity to the ordinary interpretive paradigms for understanding the mechanisms of political change. Each chapter in this book materializes a nexus of problems around a particular scene of women's relation to public and civic life; each centers in a novel exemplary of that problem and then radiates selectively into those shards of the discourse on female genius most necessary to illuminate the novel's organization of the genius trope.
The chapters that follow are organized around readings of novels that open the way to particular constellations of genius, gender, and public life. The first chapter traces the U.S. translation of the aesthetic theory of genius into a political trope. Stretching back to the late eighteenth century, the operation of women's "genius"—defined as their distinctive talents and spiritual liveness—was held by Enlightenment pedagogy to signify America's freedom from tyranny, as realized in women's freedom to actualize their personal capacities on their own behalf, even if they were dispossessed of actual civil authority and economic power. The romantic revolution in aesthetic philosophy reached the United States by the 1830s; one of its primary Americanizers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, folded its developments into his work, linking it at the same time with concerns about American democratic forms. Reasonable debate and self-proprietorship, this chapter argues, had long been dominant—but contested—ideals. Where critics of disinterested deliberation worried that it failed to engage the passions, that it produced only grudging forms of consent, and that it failed to form a satisfactory collective social life from its populace's disparate opinions, Emerson proposed genius as a force that would forge authentic collectivity from an otherwise atomized franchise. Emerson's model of genius proved a useful one for legitimizing the authority and appeal of women's political speech; insofar as women were disqualified from political debate because they were held not to possess the reason, disinterest, and universality of men, the trope of genius provided another, more attainable route of access. At the same time, however, Emerson's implicit critique of the public sphere of rational debate made "genius" not only a convenience for female speakers but also a critical discourse useful for conceptualizing and resisting the terms of women's exclusion from politics. As a way of demonstrating this, I explore the critical operations of the female genius discourse in Louisa May Alcott's novel Work: A Story of Experience, which concludes by framing a protofeminist activist movement grounded in female genius.
While Chapter 1 considers the history of genius as a trope for counterliberal public making that could be used to imagine women's civic and political inclusion, Chapter 2 explores the continuity between genius and modalities of thought associated with women's privacy. At the same time that the trope of genius has a public life, its emphasis on passivity, intuitive knowledge, self-fracture, and instinct brings it remarkably close to the stereotypes of domestic femininity. The genius's creativity is theorized as supremely innocent, uncalculated, and unwilled. In some ways the passivity of the genius to his inspiration coincides with women's ideal passivity; the genius asserted himself through negation, mirroring women's ideal selflessness. Chapter 2 considers Henry James's satirical exploitation of this latent analogy in The Bostonians (1886). In this semihistorical novel James models the character of Verena Tarrant on the figure of the female genius-orator discussed in Chapter 1. However, while the convention of female genius oration stood in critical relation to the dominant frameworks for citizenship and proposed alternative models of women's participation in political activism and collective struggle, James sees the conventions of female genius only as proliferating and diversifying forms of privacy, flooding the public with privacy's desires, affects, and sensations. James stages Verena's genius as a historically new destruction of the boundary between public and private, accomplished when the women's movement intrudes women and their conventional privacy into the public and abetted by the ability of the mass press to commodify and publicize private life.
Yet while this is the problem that the novel defines for itself, the novel also, I argue, symptomatizes another condition: that the definition of privacy had recently expanded from the sphere of private property to the personal sphere and, with that transition had delegitimized radical politics and languages that had their roots in the pre-Civil War United States. With this movement discourses of the personal, erotic, and sentimental that had previously enjoyed political life in such settings as the free love movement, abolitionism, and U.S. associationist social experiments thus looked, retrospectively, obscenely personal and antipolitical. This chapter describes one trajectory along which the public/private split was increasingly reified during the second half of the nineteenth century, creating conditions that depleted the resources for flexible, affective, and radical publics.
In The Bostonians the fractured female psyche becomes the means by which Verena is cleared from the public; in George Du Maurier's Trilby (1894) it becomes the means of mapping mass publicity. Chapter 3 argues that Trilby catalyzes contemporary psychological understandings of dissociated states of consciousness in order to provoke a crisis in the concept of originality that, in turn, undermines the legal and conventional association between originality and intellectual property. If, as Michel Foucault has argued and historians of copyright have demonstrated, the concept of authorship, anchored in the figure of the original genius, ties creativity to the concept of the individual in order to facilitate a system of property exchange, then this chapter argues that Trilby challenges such an ideology of individualism and property by staging Trilby's split personality and hypnotic collaboration with Svengali. When the "origin" of Trilby's genius for singing is ambiguated, so is its proprietary status. The problem of ambiguated originality that the novel thematizes became central in its reception, as the novel's copyright holders found themselves embroiled in a seemingly endless set of disputes over their proprietary right in a fiction that was being pirated, staged in unlicensed productions, and adapted in part by circus performers, amateur actors, parodists, photographers, and advertisers. The general tendency of the mass cultural reception, I argue, was to claim Trilby as a collectively held fiction, available for multiple appropriations and reworkings. This possibility gains a liberatory dimension when seen in light of the novel's own narrative of the ways in which the concept of individual authorship obscures more complex relations of identity and production. Ultimately, however, the implications of Trilby's relation to genius for a freer circulation of fiction reaches its disappearing point in the intersection between the discourse of advertising and the psychological discourse on split consciousness, which saw the divided mind as an ideal medium for transmitting discourses and ideas unconsciously absorbed from the atmosphere and mistaken by the subject for its own original ideas. As stage parodies and advertising burlesques of Trilby suggest, the divided mind and the ambiguated originality it promised could become a cipher for advertising, rather than a rebuke to a restrictive system of intellectual property.
Chapter 4 centers on the American novelist Mary Hunter Austin's writings on women, citizenship, and genius: her 1912 novel, A Woman of Genius; her 1918 citizenship guide, The Young Woman Citizen; and her 1923 self-help book, Everyman's Genius. I situate these texts within a scientific and popular debate about whether or not women could possess genius and if they could, of what it might consist. Most commonly we consider sexual difference to position women as different from men, who form a standard in relation to which women are a deviation. The controversies over women's genius, however, reveal another construction in which men are marked by self-difference, realized in their capacity for variation, and women are marked by sameness; women, in one feminist's summary of the antifeminist argument, differ from men in that they are less prone to the organic and intellectual variations in which progressive biological evolution and transformative politics alike are imagined to take place: "The male is the agent of variation; the female is the agent of type conservation."
Austin's conception of genius in A Woman of Genius and The Young Woman Citizen allies women with a principle of variation that promises not only to sponsor their greater civic participation but also to make the identity category of "woman" the object of women's self-conscious expansion, variation, and transformation. But if "woman" becomes a space of change and politics in these works, Austin's self-help book, Everyman's Genius, exposes the depoliticizing tendency latent in the emancipatory identities she imagined through the trope of genius in her earlier work. Drawing on recent developments in ethnology and psychology, Austin ultimately racializes and psychologizes genius. While genius had operated in debates before suffrage as a trope for transformation and change that could be staged publicly and collectively, this postsuffrage work allies genius with an ontology of the untransformability of racial identity and the privacy of the psyche and its mysteries. In this turn genius ultimately functions as a category of reification rather than improvisation, of organic determinism rather than democratic open-endedness, and of therapeutic self-improvement rather than collectivity.
Chapter 5 charts Jessie Redmon Fauset's intervention into the racial reifications of the genius discourse in her novel There Is Confusion (1924). The discourse on racial genius had interacted with that on gendered genius since at least the late eighteenth century, when political philosophies of universal equality were counterbalanced by constructions of essential differences of race and gender that were designed to account for the civic exclusion of women and racial others, particularly African Americans. In tandem with the increasing racialization of U.S. citizenship in the 1920s, however, racial genius became a primary cultural ground of contest not only over equality but also over national cultural membership. Within these contests ethnologists and scientists within the white supremacist tradition not only denied the existence of black genius but also claimed that the lack of genius rightfully excluded African Americans from national cultural membership. Such arguments exploited a proprietary logic of creativity, in which originality legitimated ownership and ownership defined membership. At the same time African American intellectuals and artists undertook their own improvisations on the theme of genius, sometimes asserting that equal genius proved black equality with whites, sometimes elaborating a logic of black genius as a revolutionary means of creating resistant black collectivity, and sometimes using the proprietary logic of the genius trope to argue for black cultural ownership of U.S. national culture and, by a parallel logic, economic ownership of the national wealth that African American labor had created. Working against the grain of these approaches, Fauset shows the limits of the genius discourse for African American cultural politics. In its place she advances a cultural logic of imitation. Her protagonist, Joanna Marshall, fulfills the stereotypes of both women and blacks as imitative, and her narrative arc suggests how copying could function as a means of cultural collaboration and perpetuation if only it could avoid the operations of the market.
My investigation concludes with a coda on two of Gertrude Stein's war memoirs, "The Winner Loses" (1940) and Wars I Have Seen (1945). Stein made herself into a widely recognized icon of modernist genius, abstracted from the kinds of political terrain the concept of genius inhabited in the United States. Her situation in occupied France during World War II, however, was characterized by the complete suspension of civil order and rights, by the constant terror of violence and the abrogation of agency. It was also characterized by her own compromised position as an early supporter of the Vichy regime who accepted the help of a longtime friend who was later convicted of Nazi collaboration. In this context Stein employs "genius" as a distressed trope through which she represents the traumas of war and abnegated citizenship while also dramatizing a predicament of agency that has absorbed recent critical models of her work done during the war.
Thus this book ultimately examines how the emancipatory possibilities carried by the genius discourse reach their limits. Yet however much the seeds of such an end may have been carried in the discourse on genius throughout the period of its relevance to women's citizenship, this ultimate end did not fully determine or structure the meaning of "genius" for the particular contexts and moments when it offered a language for posing liberatory and often critical alternatives to the usual and legitimate frameworks for democratic capacity and citizenship. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century commentators often saw genius as a kind of productive pathology, a symptom of underlying organic problems that, nevertheless, produced marvelous and cherished effects because of its deviations from the normative and ordinary. We can see in their attitude an apt metaphor for the project that follows: if genius can be traced at certain points to ideologies obstructive to models of democracy and personality that we might wish to stand behind, then it also breaks the frame of normative constructions of democracy in a manner we need to observe and might come to value.