AMERICAN WOMEN IN ESTABLISHING REALISM AS GENRE
Much of the credit for establishing American literary realism as the most important mode for women writers should go to Harriet Beecher Stowe, who is still best known as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe scholars have always been divided on the issue of whether her importance in our literary history should rest largely on this sensationalistic and sentimental novel or on her contribution to the development of local color. Those who know only Uncle Tom’s Cabin may fail to recognize the impact Stowe had on Jewett, Freeman, and other New England women writers. Stowe’s ability to capture the specific qualities of Maine life in The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862) and of Massachusetts village life in Oldtown Folks (1869) had much to do with making verisimilitude and precision of detail into literary traits to be desired and emulated. Her meticulous attention to dialect and to the small details that characterized domestic life in New England villages were important elements in her careful rendering of memorable character types. One of these characters, the genial do-nothing Sam Lawson, proved so popular that Stowe used him as the narrator for a series of tales and legends in Sam Lawson’s Old Town Fireside Stories (1872), which some critics regard as one of Stowe’s best books.
Stowe’s contributions to the development of American realism can be summarized easily. She was responsible for showing later writers the possibilities of regionalism, of the accurate depiction of language and dialect, and of the way in which a realistic treatment can capture the emotional lives of individuals that had previously been neglected by literary writers, especially children, the elderly, and women. Stowe’s treatment of New England village life was an implicit rejection of the romantic tendency to seek idealized or abstracted landscapes which serve primarily as the backdrop for some symbolic adventure. Her fiction asserted that the daily lives of real people lived within a real setting merited attention and that there was no need to seek wild adventures in the distant past, or fierce wilderness, or some essentially symbolic landscape. Stowe taught a generation of American writers that the apparently quiet life of a New England village actually offered the real material for dramatic interest. All an author had to do was look closely enough at the details of daily life and record them with accuracy and precision.
Later women realists, especially Freeman and Jewett, learned a great deal from Stowe. For instance, the fascination with forms of failed communication in Freeman’s best stories — «A Village Singer,» «A New England Nun,» and «The Revolt of ‘Mother’ » — can be seen as stemming from Stowe’s dialect tales. Stowe based her New England stories on her memories of her childhood (and on her husband’s memories of his childhood). They often contain the same quality of nostalgia which one finds in local color works depicting a simple, pastoral past that is set in implicit contradiction to the troublesome present. Yet, it would be a mistake to see Stowe’s vision of the New England village as escapist. A genial vein of humor runs throughout many of the stories, and she tends to approach characters with sympathy and compassion. But there is also a strong satiric spirit at the heart of many of the stories as well as a clear willingness to acknowledge the repressiveness and hypocrisy that can mark village life. For instance, her portrait of Miss Asphyxia in chapter eight of Oldtown Folks is devastating in its depiction of cruelty hiding under religious pretension. Stowe’s most important contribution to the development of realism as it would be practiced by women writers may be her ability to pinpoint the specific details of external life that define the hidden and sometimes repressed emotional lives of her characters. And it is important to remember that realism at its best is concerned with the hidden emotional life of characters, especially women. In depicting a wide range of emotional States in her fiction, Stowe opened new paths that later women realists followed.
Stowe was not the only female pioneer of literary realism. At least three others, Rebecca Harding Davis, Rose Terry Cooke, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, merit our attention for developing realism into the form that has dominated feminist literature in the United States. In the space remaining, there is only time to note the contributions each made. Davis has recently re-entered the canon of American literature with one story, «Life in the Iron Mills,» which drew wide acclaim when it appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861 and again when it was republished in a Feminist Press edition (1972) with a substantial introduction by Tillie Olsen. The tale’s importance is that it marks the first significant attempt by an American writer to deal with the grim realities of industrialized life. Its vivid and detailed portrayal of the harsh, dehumanizing nature of life in the iron mills was combined with a willingness to recognize the sharp differences between social classes and the devastating effects of poverty.
Davis was one of the first writers of fiction to suggest that the promises of American life were reserved for the well-to-do. Her memorable portrait of Hugh Wolfe, the poor and despairing ironworker whose artistic soul strives for expression, is a remarkable rebuke to all the claims that the United States has ever made about being the land of freedom and opportunity. In its grim determinism, «Life in the Iron Mills» is really more a forerunner of naturalism than of realism, but Davis introduced a sense of social consciousness into American realistic fiction.
Of the women writers of short stories who developed the transition to realism, no-one is more important than Rose Terry Cooke. Her short fiction was not collected into book form until the appearance of Somebody’s Neighbors in 1881, which was followed by other collections, most notably The Sphinx’s Children (1886) and Huckleberries Gathered from New England Hills (1891). Her most significant stories originally appeared in major magazines in the 1860s and 1870s. Her first stories were rather undistinguished contributions to the romantic mode, but she found her true voice with the publication of the realistic story, «Miss Lucinda» in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861.
Like Stowe, her fiction emphasized the use of dialect and the accurate depiction of New England life, while adding a strong willingness to criticize the institution of marriage and to depict in enormous detail the misery of women entrapped in bad marriages. Although her published stories encompass a wide range of moods (including conventional love stories, sentimental tales, playfully comic sketches, and pious religious pieces), the works that give her a claim on our attention are the handful of powerful pieces she wrote about the entrapment of women, including «Freedom Wheeler’s Controversy with Providence» (1877, reprinted in Somebody’s Neighbors), «How Celia Changed Her Mind» (Serial publication not known: Huckleberries), and «Too Late» (1875, reprinted in Sphinx’s Children).
These stories deserve an important place in the history of American literary feminism for several reasons. Cooke was among the first writers to suggest that strong women run the risk of losing their strength, their individuality, and perhaps even their sense of personal integrity when they submit to the conventions of marriage and family life. Patriarchal authority and Calvinistic repression receive severe criticism from Cooke as she details the moral desolation inflicted upon women victimized in and by marriage. In her questioning of marriage, her portrayal of the social pressures that can victimize women, and her suggestion that a strong woman might be better off remaining a spinster, Cooke pioneered themes that would be treated later by Freeman and Jewett and a host of other women writers. Although now generally neglected, she was one of the most popular and most respected writers of her time, and it would be difficult to over-estimate her influence on the women writers of New England who followed her.
Like Cooke, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was once stupendously popular and is now under-rated. Remembered mostly for her bestselling fictional depiction of heaven in The Gates Ajar (1868), she deserves to be better known for two much more impressive novels, The Silent Partner (1871) and The Story of Avis (1877), and for her short fiction. In some ironic way, earlier The Silent Partner fulfills the promise of Davis’ «Life in the Iron Mills. » Phelps’s book is an extended inquiry into the destructive nature of American factory life and an impassioned plea for social and political reform. It also insists that women should have a place within the business world and not be denied access to power. As the title implies, the silencing of women is a main issue of the book, which asserts that both working people and women have voices that must be heard. Although the influence of Davis seems clear, Phelps was also obviously influenced by the British writer Elizabeth Gaskell, whose novel Mary Barton (1848) deals with similar themes. Yet, this achievement should be recognized on its own ternis. The Silent Partner is one of the first American novels to explore social, economic, and political issues thoughtfully and with literary skill. Equally impressive is The Story of Avis, a Kunstlerroman which deals at great length with an important feminist issue: the difficulty of reconciling the world of artistic achievement with the demands of home, family and marriage.
It would be possible to note other women writers who played vital roles in the emergence of realism. For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches (1863) and Little Women (1868) have helped to define the genre. Nevertheless, the essential point of this essay has been to sketch the contributions of a number of generally neglected women writers to the development of American realism in the 1860s and 1870s. Most of these women remain largely unknown except to a relatively small number of specialists in American literary feminism, but their literary achievements deserve respect and attention. Although largely neglected by literary critics, these writers pioneered realism in the United States. Furthermore, they introduced the basic themes and techniques that have come to characterize this literary movement and shape it into the mode most suited to American women writers.