Essays

Literary Foremothers: EBS and Me

Elizabeth-Stoddard

The nineteenth-century writer Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard (called affectionately EBS by her admirers) is one of my literary foremothers and a favorite among those I claim. Her first novel, The Morgesons, published in 1862, was a radical bildungsroman that celebrated the values of individual experience and self-determination, notions deeply at odds with the norms of the Victorian American womanhood of the time. Piety, purity, submission, and domesticity were the virtues expected of a middle-class, white woman like EBS, but she was never playing that game.

Cassandra, the first-person narrator of The Morgesons, is a wild child who hangs out with a tattooed friend and who gets a crush on a married man who, alas, dies due to his obsession with spirited, untamable horseflesh (and that only takes us to the middle of the novel). In addition to writing fiction, EBS was the New York correspondent from 1854 until 1858 for the Daily Alta California of San Francisco, the first daily newspaper of the West. Her weekly column came to be called, “From Our Lady Correspondent” and appeared on the paper’s front page. In a column published January 18, 1857, EBS lamented the limited employment opportunities available to women. She wrote:

“At such times I gnash my teeth, (not those that were filled,) and swear that I will make money, forgetting that I am a woman, and that I have not even a chance of being a defaulter, an embezzler, or a forger. At plain sewing I could earn seventy-five cents a day; at dressmaking, one dollar. If I set up any kind of shop, or if I became a simple school teacher, I shall no longer be invited to the moiré antique parties I am so fond of! If I turn literary woman, I shall become of the horror of the male sex, and the ridicule of my own.”

Making money and participating in public life were important to EBS, who reported in her column not only on the economic realities of her milieu, but also on dinners, banquets, literary receptions, concerts, plays, the opera, state fairs, the Seventh Annual Woman’s Rights Convention, P. T. Barnum’s Baby Show, and the New York Crystal Palace. She also reviewed the work of other writers like George Sand, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Bronte sisters, Thoreau, and Whitman, and more than once the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose lecture-sermons she frequently attended.

It’s strange to me when contemporary scholars like Sandra A. Zagarell say that EBS “had few models for the type of expression she craved” because, although “an indigenous American discourse for exploring subjectivity was being created during her time, it was generally unavailable to her.” Reading EBS’s journalism, stories, and novels, it’s clear to me that her authority was inspired in large part by the Transcendentalist movement and by Emerson’s call for a new American literature. The Morgesons is distinctly different from the novels being written by her female peers (like Catherine Maria Sedgwick and Harriet Beecher Stowe), those “damned scribbling women” who wrote “sentimental novels.” EBS’s ambition to be a writer with a unique voice is clearly expressed in a Daily Alta column published on August 20, 1855:

“Who has written the song of the skeeter characteristically? No one. Like the American epic, in spite of Buchanan Read, it remains to be done. Abstractly, I respect the mosquito; he is apparently an insignificance, but he sings and stings satanically. I am but a small bit myself; so I admire power in smallness.”

The Morgesons, an American epic, came out in 1862, not a good year for novels, and a terrible year for America, unless we view the Civil War as necessary for reforming a unified nation in service of its founding ideals of liberty and justice for all. While The Morgesons elicited praise from contemporaries like Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, Longfellow, and George Ripley, who wrote in The New York Tribune that, “Mrs. Stoddard’s style is a model of transparent and beautiful clearness, bright and pure as an icicle, and as cold,” her novel failed to succeed commercially. Two novels followed and also failed to sell, a reality that discouraged EBS, who gave up novel-writing for the next three decades of her life in favor of short pieces of prose and occasionally poetry.

It might comfort EBS to know that, despite lackluster early sales, The Morgesons has never, since its first publication, been out of print. And that she influenced the next generation of writers, including Henry James, who had read her work. Indeed, EBS is one of the American women writers who James disparaged in reviews but whose plots and heroines he appropriated in his own fiction. His novella, The Aspern Papers, is clearly influenced by EBS’s story, “Collected by a Valetudinarian,” published in Harper’s Magazine in 1870. Both texts focus on the disputed ownership and value of a deceased poet’s work. Though the characters are certain that the deceased poets are geniuses, the reader never gets to decide. We don’t have access to the actual poems, but rather get to see the conflicted drama that plays out around them.

EBS lived long enough to see her novels re-issued twice, in 1888 and 1889, when her work was embraced by writers like James. Even so, the public readership and acclaim that she longed for never materialized. Her disappointment, but also her tenacious confidence, is in evidence in a letter that she wrote to Edmund Clarence Stedman in August, 1891:

“The failure of my novels to sell is always the ‘black drop,’ when they are praised, and it chokes me into silence….I have constantly to struggle between the feelings of others…and my own feelings of inward power of life, and achievement. I remind myself of that celebrated Irish gentleman who died lately, he was without arms and legs, but he left eight children!”

What EBS left behind was a body of literature that insists on the power of subjectivity, on a “self-reliant” Transcendentalist conscience embodied in hungry reality, whether the individual is male or female. Even in the end, she tipped her hat to Emerson. In the 1901 edition of her second novel, Two Men, published the year before she died, EBS added an epigraph borrowed from Emerson’s lecture “Experience”: “Let us treat men and women as if they are real.”

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