English, Department of

 

Date of this Version

2007

Citation

SHARP News (2007) 16(2): Article 1.

Comments

Copyright 2007, Johns Hopkins University. Used by permission.

Abstract

Like Naomi Z. Sofer's Making the America of Art (2005) and Anne E. Boyd's Writing for Immorality (2004), Susan Williams Reclaiming Authorship seeks to recreate and analyze how American women authors in the second half of the nineteenth century understood their own authorship. All three include Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Constance Fenimore Woolson as subjects, but Williams includes authors who did not conceive of their authorship in a high cultural mode (Maria Cummins, Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Abigail Dodge), and she traverses the careers of Alcott and Phelps so as to emphasize their movements in and out of high cultural authorship.

In her preface, introduction, and first chapter, Williams makes a number of sharp and sophisticated theoretical maneuvers, persuasively setting a new agenda for understanding and interpreting women's authorship. She criticizes "oppositional" modes of scholarship that define authorial practices in binaristic or developmental terms - e.g. authors write either from economic necessity or for art's sake, or they "progress" from the "lower" market driven practice to the more autonomous one. Instead, she asks scholars to recognize the flexibility and variety of positions that authors assumed over the course of their careers. Drawing on nineteenth-century fiction, nonfiction commentaries on authorship, and women authors' letters and journals, she describes a trajectory of female authorship that begins in manuscript production and the domestic space of the parlor but that does not end there. Instead, the women who have successfully crossed over to print and have acquired expertise exercise become "disciplinary gatekeepers" who advise aspirants about the innate talent and hard work required to move out of the parlor; they "make clear that although writing was a 'universal' middle class act, authorship was an earned privilege." Although such professionalized authors serve a disciplinary function, they were not alienated from or antagonistic toward the social world. Instead, they had long and satisfying careers that they understood to be socially useful.