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Writing for Immortality

, 326 pages

8 halftones

June 2004



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Writing for Immortality

Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America

Open Access Edition Available at Project MUSE

Before the Civil War, American writers such as Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Harriet Beecher Stowe had established authorship as a respectable profession for women. But though they had written some of the most popular and influential novels of the century, they accepted the taboo against female writers, regarding themselves as educators and businesswomen. During and after the Civil War, some women writers began to challenge this view, seeing themselves as artists writing for themselves and for posterity.

Writing for Immortality studies the lives and works of four prominent members of the first generation of American women who strived for recognition as serious literary artists: Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Elizabeth Stoddard, and Constance Fenimore Woolson. Combining literary criticism and cultural history, Anne E. Boyd examines how these authors negotiated the masculine connotation of "artist," imagining a space for themselves in the literary pantheon. Redrawing the boundaries between male and female literary spheres, and between American and British literary traditions, Boyd shows how these writers rejected the didacticism of the previous generation of women writers and instead drew their inspiration from the most prominent "literary" writers of their day: Emerson, James, Barrett Browning, and Eliot.

Placing the works and experiences of Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson within contemporary discussions about "genius" and the "American artist," Boyd reaches a sobering conclusion. Although these women were encouraged by the democratic ideals implicit in such concepts, they were equally discouraged by lingering prejudices about their applicability to women.

Anne E. Boyd is an associate professor of English and women’s studies at the University of New Orleans and editor of Wielding the Pen: Writings on Authorship by American Women of the Nineteenth Century, also published by Johns Hopkins.

"Scholars interested in examining the contributions of 19th-century women writers to American literature will appreciate the fresh perspective offered here."

"Radically expands the literary world of nineteenth-century American women, considering them in conversation with European women writers as well as male writers in Europe and America."

"Boyd's close textual work gives the reader a valuable introduction to the work and lives of these four authors."

"Boyd successfully reconstructs the era through an examination of the historical evidence, ranging from letters, diaries, reviews, essays, and literary social events, and close readings of the fiction of Alcott, Phelps, Stoddard, and Woolson to demonstrate that these pioneering artists took an active role in contemporary discussions on the nature of genius and art."

"A comprehensively researched and impressively detailed study."

"A highly satisfying analysis of the contexts within which women's literary ambitions shifted and the sensibilities of the male literary elite were forcefully challenged."

"Boyd offers a multi-layered thesis in this important book."

"Well written and appealingly produced, it is a thoughtful contribution to the field of late-nineteenth-century American literature and to the women, men, and above all institutions that produced it."

"This book is an innovative and carefully-researched analysis of the trajectory of female authorship in the nineteenth-century United States. Focusing on four significant but undervalued writers, Anne Boyd draws on and then advances the 'separate spheres' approach to women's literary history during this period, challenging much of the received wisdom about this subject. Boyd's study of the careers, cultural contexts, and aspirations of Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Elizabeth Stoddard, and Constance Fenimore Woolson is likely to stand as a solid historicist achievement for some time to come."

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