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American Culture, Canons, and the Case of Elizabeth Stoddard
By Robert McClure Smith, Ellen Weinauer
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2003 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
"Among a Crowd, I Find Myself Alone"
Elizabeth Stoddard and the Canon of Nineteenth-Century American Women's Poetry
Robert McClure Smith
The Poets light but Lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate —
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
I would go free, and change
Into a star above the multitude,
To shine afar, and penetrate where those
Who in the darkling boughs are prisoned close,
But when they catch my rays, will borrow light,
Believing it their own, and it will serve.
Elizabeth Stoddard, "Above the Tree"
An analysis of the marginal canonical status of Elizabeth Stoddard's poetry can, to a degree, elucidate the question of her equally problematic placement in the new canon of nineteenth-century American women's fiction. Moreover, the reception and evaluation of that poetry offers a convenient and revelatory case study in the larger dynamics of canon formation. In particular, the example of Stoddard's poetry and its marginal status, in American literary canons past and present, provides a useful demonstration of why nineteenth-century American women's poetry presents for contemporary scholars intent on historical revision such immense problems of categorization. The modernist notion that oppositional writing takes disjunctive forms — the critical model that facilitated the canonization of Emily Dickinson in the 1950s — has in recent years been complicated by the assertion that women's poetry of the era, although rigidly adhering to mainstream sentimental conventions and the expressive limitations of traditional forms, performs significant "cultural work" that foregrounds, and occasionally complicates, our understanding of gender formation in the nineteenth century. These two categories (which inscribe the position that gendered subjectivity in this era is best understood either through the socially disengaged formal experimentation of the Dickinson lyric or through the cultural performativity of the sentimental poetic conventions of a Lydia Sigourney or Helen Hunt Jackson) are dangerously monolithic. Stoddard, who had no sympathy for the formal experimentation of Dickinson (or Walt Whitman) and who was temperamentally incapable of completely valorizing the "affectional connection and commitment" that constituted the "generative core of sentimental experience" (Dobson, "Reclaiming" 267), offers a useful complication of the dual paradigm. Indeed, a study of the liminal position of Stoddard's poetry might facilitate an alternative understanding of literary gender representation in the nineteenth century.
If it has been difficult for previous scholars to take Stoddard seriously as a poet, this may be because her own remarks about her published poetry are often self-deprecating and, at times, airily dismissive. On 3 August 1856, she notes in her Daily Alta California column, "The day I send my last letter to California will be a sad day; I shall cry, and howl, and refuse to be comforted by the other little children of my brain, that have a feeble existence in the corners of news-papers, and spaces that 'must be filled up' in magazines." Stoddard's description of her poems and stories as diminutive in scale, as "little" and "feeble" offspring, is consistent throughout her correspondence. Indeed, in 1895 she responds to an inquiry about her newly released Poems with "[I] am lost in astonishment to hear that someone has bought my little book. I have seen no blaze on the river as yet" (qtd. in Matlack, "Literary Career" 604). Since Stoddard's remarks indicate that she did not hold her own poetic efforts in high regard, her biographers, following her lead, have found little to say about her verse. James Matlack observes that Stoddard's 1895 collection is a "worthy cumulative performance but, as Elizabeth herself said, for a first volume by a young poet it would have been a promising start; as the collected verse of a lifetime, it was a slender, almost sad offering." For Matlack, Stoddard's poetry is useful only for its potential biographical revelations: "At their best, the emotional intensity, elegiac reflection, and morbid self-revelation of the poetry help to illuminate her personality and her fiction" (607). Following Matlack's lead, Sandra Zagarell argues that "the metric constraints on which [her husband] insisted, the slenderness of her own poetic gift and a sense that she would have greater freedom in a medium in which [he] did not constitute himself an authority probably soon directed her main interest to prose" ("Profile" 43). Like Thoreau, so the argument might proceed, Stoddard became a poet only in prose. Curiously, Stoddard's biographers do not merely echo the sentiments in her letters regarding the limitations of her own poetic talent: they uncannily repeat her image of stunted growth. Stoddard's "little" and "feeble" offspring become "slender, almost sad," the product of a "slender gift." But it is worth considering whether Stoddard's assessment of her poetry is actually genuine or at all deeply felt. For any writer dealing with commercial failure, the self-deprecating diminution of the art may serve as a necessary defense mechanism. And for Stoddard, commercial success — as much as, if not more than, critical respect — represented a tangible validation of worth. Her volume's commercial failure may have affirmed her sense of her poems' "feeble existence," but there is little indication that she considered her poems, the work of a lifetime, to have a "feeble" worth. "I have seen no blaze on the river as yet," she informs her sympathetic reader. The final two words are telling in their implication that Stoddard was as ambitious for the success of her poetry as for her fiction. By the end of the century, after all, Stoddard had seen many of her female contemporaries find a place in the canon of American poetry, or so it must have seemed.
When Stoddard's friend (and, later, her most significant correspondent) Edmund Clarence Stedman published An American Anthology in 1900, he would, in fact, include the work of more than 150 women poets. Fifty years later, one of the most notable consequences of the triumph of formalist criticism, and in particular of the technique of close reading cultivated and championed by the American New Critics, was the succinct erasure of the majority of these female poets from the historical record. Moreover, as Paula Bennett remarks, perhaps no other group of writers in American literary history has "been subject to more consistent denigration than nineteenth-century women, especially the poets," their work being "damned for its conventionality, its simplistic Christianity, its addiction to morbidity, its excessive reliance on tears" (Anthology xxxvi). By the 1980s, however, a feminist scholarly enterprise of critical salvage and reassessment was well under way. A nascent cultural criticism, with a proclivity for resituating women's literature in a web of class, race, gender, and economic affiliations, soon complicated and re-defined our understanding of sentimental conventions and the subversive rhetoric of what Jane Tompkins, in her provocative and influential reassessment of antebellum literature, would dub "sentimental power." Moving from the modernist-inspired focus on the literary text as a self-contained artifact, a "well-wrought urn" of paradoxical tensions, toward a more complex theorization of how an artwork performs cultural work in particular historical and social contexts, the new scholarship advocated the recovery of nineteenth-century women's literature as a means of understanding the cultural and psychological contours of women's lives in the period. Ann Douglass's earlier argument that American women's literature in the mid–nineteenth century evidenced the decay of community-oriented Calvinism into rancid individualism and the beginnings of a death-inflected and debased mass culture met increasing opposition from scholars who now found in the literature of the period a subtle and often rhetorically complex textual affirmation of female power. These were literary texts best evaluated by their social and moral objectives, comprehended in the context of their political intent and outcomes rather than by any possibly invidious comparisons with the work of male writers of the so-called American Renaissance, comparisons inevitably grounded in the ideologically suspect realm of aesthetics.
There are problems with this New Historical paradigm of nineteenth-century American women's literature. These problems are significant enough to have prevented the reception model from completely reifying into a critical orthodoxy. Identifying one of the key limitations, Judith Fetterley observes that a primary emphasis on the context in which these texts were originally read diminishes their potential significance for today's readers unless they are to be given a thorough critical education in the horizon of expectations of their nineteenth-century predecessors ("Commentary"). Inevitably, a focus on the cultural work of the literary text eschews (even necessarily disregards) difficult questions of aesthetic value that inhere in its formal structure. And yet — perhaps to state the obvious — the frisson of literary works, their power of reader seduction, is often a feature of their rhetorical and linguistic complexity, the consequence of a stylistic sophistication (and occasional jolt of innovation) that offers to the reader those fleeting moments of identification and self-loss we call, for lack of a better word, pleasure. The cultural-studies-centered interpretation of nineteenth-century women's literature has, thus, been better able to offer compelling readings of fiction than it has of compressed and linguistically charged poetry. As a result, although the contours of a new canon of nineteenth-century fiction have assumed preliminary, if still contestable, shape, in her editor's introduction to Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets: An Anthology, Bennett can still pointedly observe that to claim that "the canon which, for better or worse, will sort this material out has yet to be established is a mammoth understatement" (xxxix).
That Stoddard presents a particular problem of "sorting" is immediately evident from her quite different, although equally problematic, status in two of the most widely used anthologies of nineteenth-century women's verse. In Anthology, Bennett selects poets primarily on the basis of their formal, aesthetic achievement. Although one of the founding principles of the volume is that the "heart" of American women's verse lay "not in the poet but in the poem" (xl), that "nineteenth-century women's poetry was most accurately thought of as, figuratively if not literally, an 'anonymous' art ... where making — not being — was the dominant mode, and where moments of substantive creativity could be discovered ... scattered diffusely through a population of unknowns" (xl), Bennett also divides her anthology into two sections whose organizing principles are author-centered and, ultimately, contoured by decidedly hierarchical value distinctions made on the basis of formal merit. The first section, "Principal Poets," offers substantial and varied selections from the work of Lydia Sigourney, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Frances Osgood, Alice Cary, Phoebe Cary, Lucy Larcom, Rose Terry Cooke, Helen Hunt Jackson, and other key "principals." It is in the second section, "Poems from Regional, National, and Special Interest Newspapers and Periodicals, arranged chronologically," that we find Stoddard represented by two poems identified by periodical publication and date — "Mercedes" (Atlantic, 1858) and "Before the Mirror" (Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1860). Obviously, the brief and selective sampling from poets identified by Bennett as having "non-principal" status could never hope to represent fully the range and power of an idiosyncratic poetic voice. This is the necessary limitation of any literary anthology. However, given the power of the anthology to institutionalize evolving literary canons, a brief selection may also prove quite sufficient to misrepresent a poetic voice. In fact, neither of the poems chosen by Bennett is entirely typical of Stoddard's work. Indeed, the poet herself, in an 1882 letter to E. A. Allan, complains of her husband's decision to represent her poetry, in his editorial revision of the standard Griswold anthology, with one of the poems Bennett selects as representative: "Do you think Stoddard would have represented me by that 'Mercedes' — an artificial bit of makeup?" (qtd. in Matlack, "Literary Career" 176).
Contrarily, Janet Gray, in her anthology She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century, offers a more extensive and varied selection of Stoddard's poetry, excluding "Mercedes." "Before the Mirror" is now accompanied by "House by the Sea," "Nameless Pain," "The Wife Speaks," "One Morn I Left Him in His Bed," and "Above the Tree." But while Gray's anthology represents her more fully (and, I believe, more adequately), Stoddard's position within an evolving canon whose key founding principle is the "cultural work" performed by the literary text remains, to say the least, an extremely marginal one. In the editor's introduction, Gray locates herself firmly in the mainstream of feminist cultural studies orthodoxy in arguing that "we need to explore not just the formal qualities of the text itself but the cultural work that such an utterance, localized in time and space, might do" (xxxv). Since women poets "wrote in the context of their participation in groups and movements whose purposes extended beyond literary production" (xxx), the poetry selected for the anthology "with few exceptions, appeared in print in the context of social purposes beyond the making of poems" (xxviii–xxix). A perusal of the anthology reveals Stoddard to be one of the anthologist's "few exceptions," an exceptional status reinforced by Gray's brief explanatory note on the Stoddard selections: "Like her fiction, [Stoddard's] poems show the influence of such Gothic authors as Emily Brontë in depicting family tensions, incest and decaying households" (97). Gray's pigeonholing of Stoddard as a Brontë-inspired gothicist makes the "cultural work" of her poetry, especially in the larger American context of sentimentalism evoked by the volume's other selections, somewhat opaque to say the least.
In these two anthologies we can see how scholars of nineteenth-century American literature, through the institution of literary study, have set about constructing a canon of women's poetry; we are also witness to how the selectivity of this institutionalized canon might effectively govern and delimit literary study and instruction. Bennett accords Stoddard's poetry marginal status on comparative aesthetic grounds: Stoddard's poetry is just not as formally distinguished (or good?) and, hence, not as significant as the poetry of, say, Elizabeth Oakes Smith. Gray complicates the question of marginality by granting the same work exceptional status (in both senses of the word) as a poetics on the margin; Stoddard's poetic text does not fit easily in Gray's anthology because it is, in some sense, other to the established category narrative, but perhaps worthy of a more substantial representation for precisely that hint of otherness.
If Stoddard's different representation within these contemporary anthologies begs the question of what it means to be a marginal poet, her own poetic text offers a sustained and detailed meditation on precisely that issue. This was a poet only too aware of her own marginal status, of her own difficult self-location in the gap between residual and emergent nineteenth-century poetic categories. Stoddard's consequent attempt to create an artistic space for herself by interdigitating mutually incompatible elements ensured that she was already, in her own lifetime, quite simply an uncategorizable poet.
Certainly, while she could not escape its stock conventions, Stoddard had little intuitive sympathy for the prevalent subject matter of the women's poetic establishment. Although women's poetry of the period was not as engaged with public issues as women's fiction, Elizabeth Petrino observes that while conforming to the "dominant narratives concerning women's lives," the poetry also often promoted "a sense of social cohesion" and "a forum from which to address issues of national importance, such as slavery, alcohol abuse, animal rights, children's education, woman's suffrage, and the forcible removal and divestment of Indians from their lands" (208). That Stoddard's poetry would eschew "social cohesion" is not surprising. In her early newspaper columns, Stoddard questioned the efficacy of popular reform movements. Her temperamental opposition to moral reform in all its guises is evident in this wry Daily Alta column: "I have intimated a doubt whether purity can be legislated into men by the imprisonment of lewd women, so I doubt whether law can keep a man sober. ... The tendency of all life is to excess" (19 May 1855). Excess, we might note, is also a defining feature of Stoddard's own remarks on the position of women in the nineteenth century. While in recent years scholars have argued that much of the women's poetry of this era is concerned with a subtle negotiation of the paradoxes of their "Angel in the House" status, there is precious little subtlety evident in Stoddard's addressing of the issues of paradox and subterfuge in women's subaltern status in her fiction, journalism, or poetry.
Excerpted from American Culture, Canons, and the Case of Elizabeth Stoddard by Robert McClure Smith, Ellen Weinauer. Copyright © 2003 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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