Date of this Version
In: Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Lucinda L. Damon-Bach and Victoria Clements. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003. pp. 19-35.
The idea that women in past centuries withheld their names because they experienced their own authorship as shameful or scandalous has achieved the character of received wisdom. Ask a typical lower-level undergraduate what she knows about women's authorship in the United States during the years of Sedgwick's greatest productivity (the 1820s through the 1840s), and she will tell you: "It wasn't considered respectable for women to write back then, so they didn't give their names, or they took male pseudonyms." I argue instead that Sedgwick's anonymity was a market strategy for constructing an authorial persona rather than an absence of an author or a denial of authorship, and her anonymity serves as a useful example through which we can reconsider the function of women's anonymous publication in the 1820S, '30s, and '40s. Michel Foucault argues in "What is an Author?" that the name of the author serves to classify certain texts, grouping them together, defining them, and differentiating them from and contrasting them to others under the sign of the name of the author, but reviewers of Sedgwick's books managed to perform this task of classification in the absence of the author's name. As Robert Griffin astutely notes in his analysis of anonymous publication practices in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, Foucault's "author function ... can be shown to operate quite smoothly in the absence of the author's name," and the example of Catharine Sedgwick bears out this observation. My analysis of Sedgwick's authorship shifts the focus away from Sedgwick's privately expressed doubts about authorship and publicity (the basis of Mary Kelley's portrait of her) to the public record of her authorship available to her early-nineteenth-century readers. This record consists of three elements: her fictional texts (especially the self-effacing heroines of these texts, who function to construct a public persona for the author who created them), the "paratext" (as defined by theorist Gerard Genette, the "threshold" between the "inside" and the "outside" of a text: the materials such as title pages, dedications, and prefaces that "[enable] a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers"), and contemporary reviews of her fiction'? Sedgwick's withholding of her name from her books' title pages did not orphan her texts, leaving them without an author. Instead, those title pages and the reviews of those books construct the female body of an unnamed author behind the books.