Posted by: zhiv | May 23, 2010

From HB Stowe to Virginia Woolf

I missed the Woolf in Winter stuff back at the beginning of the year. At the time I did some thinking about To The Lighthouse, without rereading it of course, and I was considering how a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading for the last few years (Sarah Orne Jewett, Olive Schreiner, Kate Chopin) is an attempt to fill in the background of Feminist-Modernist fiction. Somehow I got sidetracked onto Harriet Beecher Stowe, and now that I’m currently reading Stowe (The Pearl of Orr’s Island), I thought I would type up the stuff from the first part of the year, just to get things going.

I’ve been interested in reading books that attempt to solve the feminist-modernist equation for some time now. So let’s start with that, this equation, whatever it is. It’s funny to think of the “feminist-modernist equation,” forming at the beginning of the new 20th century, as a sort of literary theory of relativity. Einstein, working with his mathematician first wife Mileva Maric, whom he would later abandon when he went to Berlin, published on relativity in 1902, and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams had appeared in 1899. My sense is that when I was back in school there were often discussions and lectures on the revolution in consciousness that began before the First World War, that almost seemed to generate it somehow. Between the war and the coincidental deadly flu epidemic, there was a clear Before and After, the 19th century and the dead on one side, and the living on the other. Some of the living, mature and in middle age and still mindful of the world of the past, the world that they knew which had been erased, felt like they were surrounded by ghosts. That’s where you get The Wasteland and other similar postwar works. Their parents, the late Victorians, themselves connected intimately to the “greatest generation” of the 19th century, were gone, but so many contemporaries had died as well. Virginia Woolf herself was acutely aware of the shift in consciousness, as well as the absent presence of the dead. Those are just some of the social backgrounds to the writing of To The Lighthouse, notes on what it is trying to express, to capture. That’s a quick glimpse of the modernist element of the equation I guess.

The feminist element is perhaps more radical and just as revolutionary. My approach would be to trace the evolving formation of the canon of novelists, plugging my own reading history into it. One way to start is to look at the current status of literary icons as we move into the next century. If we put ourselves into Edwardian England and 1910, exactly 100 years ago, the literary heroes marking the beginning of the previous century are the Romantic poets, emitting a final burst of creativity at the end of the age of democratic revolution. It’s a decidedly male group, of course. The novelists, our general sense of them at least, were just getting started, but there’s already an amazing complement and bookend of sorts to the 20th century modernists, in Jane Austen and Walter Scott. The modernist icons, where I’m heading here, are Woolf and James Joyce. Isn’t it a rather neat fit? What did Austen and Scott look like to readers in 1910, and in 2010 don’t they resemble, just a little bit, our view of Woolf and Joyce now? It’s not an exact comparison of course, but perhaps it does say something about male and female and time and reputation. There’s no female counterpart to Shakespeare and Milton, or Pope and Swift, although we can study early women writers and female voices grew much stronger during the 18th century. Jane Austen didn’t come out of nowhere, and one could obviously spend all sorts of time on 18th century gender studies and female antecedents. Let’s remember here, as always, that I have only the vaguest idea of what I’m talking about. Austen has gone up in readership and relevance, while Scott has declined fairly steadily. I’m not sure what that means, or even the point here, although I suppose I’m curious about where Woolf and Joyce will stand a century from now.

The story of female novelists of the 19th century and their 20th century reputations is rather amazing, something I’ve been curious about and exploring. It’s the road that leads from Austen and Pride and Prejudice to Virginia Woolf and To The Lighthouse. The British sequence of female novelists seems pretty straightforward, with a pair of icons holding up the bridge between Austen and Woolf. The Brontes (whom I like to categorize as a single unit: it’s very satisfying somehow) are early Victorians, and George Eliot is just a bit on the late-middle side. Elizabeth Gaskell and many others generated a sturdy substructure beneath these women and the twin star male writers, Dickens and Thackeray, along with the other male novelists. Let’s say that the secondary male British novelists are Collins, Trollope, Hardy and Meredith, leaving aside distinctions between late Victorians and a couple of other important names.

I’m just beginning to learn about the “substructure” of female novelists on the American side. I have Nina Baym’s 1979 book, Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women, 1820-1870, but I haven’t really looked at it yet. The only novel I’ve actually read that comes close to this category is Catherine Maria Sidgwick’s A New England Tale, but that’s really from the end of the previous period, closer to Austen. Otherwise it’s a blank at this point. The male American heavyweights are as obvious as the British, Hawthorne and Melville and Mark Twain, along with Henry James and WD Howells. Melville’s 19th century reputation, or lack thereof, needs to be noted of course, and there’s no shortage of well-known male writers whose work was held in high esteem.

I feel like my own early approach to all this was relatively balanced. I was an Austen-Bronte-George Eliot-Woolf reader just as much as I was a Richardson-Fielding-Scott-Dickens-Thackeray-Trollope-Hardy-Conrad reader, and that’s being generous to Walter Scott. For a while I settled on George Eliot, who was an astonishing popular success from the moment of the publication of Adam Bede, and she took up the pastoral mantle from Wordsworth. The scope and intelligence of her fiction as it evolved must have been a surprise, as it was unimaginable in the 1850s that she would form the third side of the Victorian triangle with Dickens and Thackeray.

But I was much less aware of the 19th century American women writers, and my sense is that their status was generally poor until the rise of feminist criticism. It’s rather hard to count Melville as a preeminent figure, because it took so long for his work to be reintroduced and celebrated, but in many ways he was the ideal male author for critical tastes and attention from 1920 to 1960 and beyond. The latter day rise of Melville and his work and his master text, Moby Dick, provided an ambitious elite-level work that could hold its own against Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Flaubert. Hawthorne was already established as a first rate novelist, a good bridge in fiction and the novel from the intellectual foundation established by Emerson. But it was hard to stack Hawthorne’s romances against Flaubert or Tolstoy. And if Emerson was easily tied to Thoreau and Hawthorne as well, it was a nice piece of luck that Melville had a similar personal attachment to Hawthorne. Hawthorne and Melville teamed up both easily and uneasily, not so differently from Dickens and Thackeray, or Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and the American Renaissance tradition was thus created as a seamless and even intimate grouping. Throw in Whitman, who provides both poetic and New York flavor, and sketch the transition to James and Twain and Howells, with James becoming a transatlantic author, Howells making the move from Boston to New York, and Twain covering the West, and you’re good to go. Perhaps the most important part of this clustering was that it was so easily taught, an introductory sequence with a natural rising movement. It could be contained in a single course, and also expanded to a year long survey. I happened to take the classic American Renaissance course myself. And if I recall correctly (I’m sure I don’t), the only woman writer mentioned the entire time was Emily Dickinson, thrown in at the end alongside Leaves of Grass.

This is all an old, well-known story, and I’m just trying to trace my own personal experience of the phenomenon. There was just no American woman writer of the mid-19th century who was necessary reading, no recognizable name until you got to Edith Wharton, who made a nice, more accessible complement to the later fiction of Henry James. I vaguely remember hearing about Country of the Pointed Firs and Sarah Orne Jewett moving along the margins, and Olive Schreiner on the British/Colonial side too, but that was feminist stuff, which was specialized and just forming and I wasn’t especially interested in it at the time.

It was much later, after I had bailed out of the academy, that I read the specific essay that changed my point of view. The essay was written by Jane Smiley, probably my favorite author at the time, and it appeared in the Atlantic with the misleading but effective title, “Say It Ain’t So, Huck.” I didn’t register its deeper and long term effects, but looking back now I can see how it changed everything for me. Smiley deftly set up her essay as a critique on Huck Finn’s status as the Great American Novel, and her title, with its baseball reference, is a respectful, gentle, and slightly forlorn tweaking at the status and reputation of the longtime champ. She tips over the statue gingerly, but she’s still determined to do it. The title is effective but misleading because it doesn’t say what the essay is really about: that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is really the Great American Novel. Would I have read the same essay with a different title, with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the foreground? Probably not, although I was keeping close tract of Smiley just then, so who knows. But Uncle Tom, if not Stowe, still had a stigma attached to it, one that exists to a lesser extent today. It was a brilliant strategy for Smiley to build her argument based on the preeminence of Huck Finn, and to proceed by drawing out the comparisons.

Smiley’s essay, as I remember it, confined itself largely to the merits of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the critical and central, representative 19th century American text. UTC obviously had phenomenal popularity and political consequences, and it was seen in the 19th century as the indispensable American novel. My response was simple: wow–who knew?–I should read that book! And I did, and I was more than impressed. The novel was perfectly readable and it had scope and depth and powerful imaginative energy. It could be labeled as sentimental and melodramatic, but these categories are more complex than they seem. If it’s anything, it occurs to me just now, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Dickensian, and Dickens’s work labored under the same critical judgments even as it was hugely popular. The interesting thing is that Dickens’s work was analyzed and celebrated in a steady rise through the 20th century, while Uncle Tom’s Cabin declined and languished. It turned out to be difficult material, a book about race and slavery, and it was written by a woman.

Of course no book was ever more popular than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not even anything in Dickens, and it changed the nation. I’m reminded of my early excitement in reading Oliver Twist, and all of the preconceived notions I had of the story and Dickens from seeing Oliver as a kid. Uncle Tom’s Cabin arrived with all sorts of baggage, and my first exposure to it came from another big family movie of the 60s, The King and I, but reading it was a very different experience. I was perhaps most impressed at the time by the intensity of the story once it moves down the river and Tom becomes a Christ-like figure on the plantation of Simon Legree. This was a number of years ago now, and the parallels to Schindler’s List and its concentration camp setting were palpable at the time. That seemed a direct way to understand its subject and themes.

Smiley’s essay was hardly seminal, regardless of its influence on me personally, and it was inspired and informed by previous work by Jane Tompkins, Nina Baym and other influential feminist critics that I’m just discovering now. The interesting thing, as far as my own evolution goes, is that I didn’t view the book from a feminist perspective or as part of neglected, continuous tradition (of domestic or sentimental fiction), and I was content to set it up at the highest level as Smiley did and walk away. I had a new American triangle, Hawthorne, Melville and Stowe, to go with the long-established British one. Things were different now, but I didn’t know it yet.

These are all pointless ramblings as they relate to moving towards Virginia Woolf and To the Lighthouse. My reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin dates back to well before the blogging era. And I also haven’t written much directly about To The Lighthouse here before, I don’t think–but that’s not true, since I wrote about the connection between Lighthouse and Schreiner’s African Farm. It seems rather amazing, considering things, how Lighthouse seems to be such a strong and central text, how it provides so much continuity to the reading I’ve been doing the past couple of years, largely as a synthesis and summation. Eventually the pressure of Stowe as part of the feminist traditon revealed itself to me, even if I had originally read UTC in something of a vacuum. I didn’t spend much time thinking back on it as I read Jewett and Cather and more recently Chopin, but it was there as a strong foundation. It also, incidentlaly, probably balanced out my reading of Hawthorne, Howells and James last year, again without me knowing it. It’s a rather nice feeling to have a familiarty with an essential text, where you almost take it for granted but still have a strong general sense of its power and place.

Another point of connection with Stowe is to SO Jewett and Annie Fields. Stowe was an important part of the life of Jewett and Fields, and Fields even wrote Stowe’s biography. I happen to own that book, and I’d like to read it. But I’m also reading Maine Novels most recently, and Stowe wrote an important and influential one, The Pearl of Orr’s Island, which is on my short list. Now that I’ve thought of the obvious comparison betwen Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dickens, which will be interesting to explore, I’m intrigued (as always) by the Annie Fields connection. Annie Fields and her husband JT were Dickens’s hosts on his second trip to America, and I’ve written before about how they became obsessed with him. I’ve neglected to look at Fields and Stowe as yet, but the biography is there, and perhaps there’s a larger connection with Dickens. Stowe was impossible to ignore and I’d like to see how her success and celebrity collided with that of Dickens, perhaps even through Annie fields specifically.

At the moment I’m still looking at the “war” between the Stephen family and Dickens, which includes Virginia Woolf. Dickens was viciously attacked by Woolf’s uncle, James Fitzjames Stephen, and Woolf herself mostly ignored Dickens. What was Woolf’s view of Stowe (within this Dickensian context), and how do we get from Stowe to Woolf and to the Lighthouse? The specific item (Woolf’s view of Stowe) is a good question, but the general sweep of fiction by women from Uncle Tom’s Caboin to To the Lighthouse provides plenty of filters and incremental advances. As I said in an earlier post on The Awakening, one course back in the day reading Jewett, Chopin, Wharton and Cather would have gone a very long way. Today I’m reminding myself that I would begin that course with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although I’m going to try to find out what Nina Baym and others have to say about that. And it would be great to finish the course with To the Lighthouse. Figuring out what to put in between has been keeping me busy and happy for awhile now.



  1. Are you familiar with Elaine Showalter’s new history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers? It’s a great source of information and background to what you’ve got going here.

  2. Interesting. I just looked it up on Amazon. I wonder how it moves past the Nina Baym book, which is 30 years old now, and what has happened in between–hopefully there’s some discussion of all this. I want to look at it. I have Showalter’s Literature of Their Own and the Feminist Criticism collection she edited in 1985, and I feel like I’m in a time warp, all of it 25-30 years ago. So I’m eager to see some new stuff. Another Showalter book I’m curious about (besides her book on Academic novels) is one called Teaching Literature.

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