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“To bend without breaking”: American women's authorship and the New Woman, 1900-1935

Amber Harris Leichner, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation focuses on constructions of female authorship in selected prose narratives of four American women writers in the early twentieth century: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Zitkala-Ša, and Gertrude Schalk. Specifically, it examines portraits of women in pieces that appeared in national magazines from 1900-1935 that bracket these writers' careers and that reflect anxieties about their professional authorial identities complicated by gender and, in the case of Native American Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Sioux) and African American Gertrude Schalk, race as well. In a period characterized by fierce debates over the role of women in a dawning modern age, these writers participated in cultural fascination with the New Woman by fashioning narratives that spoke to that interest but that also reflected conflicts or issues in the writer's own life impacting her construction of literary authority in the public eye. I see a pattern of interest in the project of authorship across all four of these writers from the beginning of their careers until the end in my study of some of their first published pieces and some of their last. After a contextual overview, I move chronologically through my four writers. I focus first on Wharton's novella The Touchstone (1900) and its resonance in the story "Pomegranate Seed" (1931), tracing Wharton's efforts to construct herself as a professional writer entering a male-dominated public arena. I next explore Cather's "Office Wives" stories (1916-1919) and novel Lucy Gayheart (1935), connecting her anxious position as a professional female author with her critical attitudes toward the office and artistic production. Finally, I examine Zitkala-Ša's construction of literary authority and her paradoxical status as a New Woman through themes of domesticity and liberty in her autobiographical sketches (1900) and story "The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman" (1921). I then identify prominent themes Schalk carries over from her late 1920's urban realism fiction to her 1930's romance formula fiction to reveal her constructions of gender, class, and race as at once fixed and fluid negotiations.

Subject Area

African American Studies|Modern literature|Black studies|Womens studies|American literature|Native American studies

Recommended Citation

Leichner, Amber Harris, "“To bend without breaking”: American women's authorship and the New Woman, 1900-1935" (2012). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3522173.