America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash—and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the ‘Lamplighter,’ and other books neither better nor worse?—worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, from a letter to his publisher William D. Ticknor, January 1855
Our course title comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s bitter letter to his publisher, as he derided the “popular” novels written by some of his female contemporaries. There were many reasons why, starting in the mid nineteenth century, American women published more fiction, as well as texts in other genres—reasons that have to do with “public taste,” but also with expanding literacy, developments in the technology of printing, and urbanization. One particular connection will serve as our point of departure this semester: this boom in women’s writing evolved in tandem with the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.
Women’s suffrage movements over the past two hundred years have transformed the political landscape. Women in most nations are now able to assume the fundamental responsibilities and privileges of civic engagement, voting and holding elected office. Women’s suffrage has also helped promote gender equality more generally, which has led to changes in educational and employment patterns; sports and leisure opportunities; ideas, practices, and laws regarding sex, pregnancy, romance, marriage, and child-rearing; and allied efforts to expand rights for gender and sexual minorities, among many other effects. That said, the struggle for equality continues on many fronts… including the right to vote.
Suffrage did not operate alone in securing for women a legally sanctioned political role. Women in patriarchal societies have often found ways to participate in public life, and one of the most important for women in the United States, especially in the decades before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, was through writing and publication. The premise of this course is that writing and publication, by re-enacting and transgressing the private versus public divide along which gender was often organized in this period, were important means by which women prepared the way for political rights and expanded them.
The political struggle for suffrage will not be our main focus in this class, although it will operate in the background, with occasional direct appearances. Our interest lies mainly in the expanded imaginative horizons that suffrage seemed to offer, or at least to symbolize. For example, did political marginalization on the basis of gender make it harder for women writers to make claims for the significance of women’s experiences? Did suffrage, or its possibility, influence the way women conceived of themselves as writers and their access to a public voice? What other kinds of opportunities and rights did women need in order to take public roles—opportunities and rights linked not just to gender, but to other structuring experiences like race and class?
These questions are too big to answer definitively in a single semester. Nevertheless, they provide a good general framework for our investigations of the intersection of gender, race, class, and textual production in works by a range of North American women who were writing and publishing from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. Please note the phrase “textual production.” We will consider both public and private forms of writing, and if and how a written work was made available to other readers: through private circulation, print publication, new editions, adaptations, and so on. We will also consider if and when writing in these forms, public and private, ended up in libraries and online, to be made available to still more readers and preserved for future generations. Collectively, these many textual products, along with many forms of access and preservation, could be called “the literary archive.”
As we examine and discuss our texts, in other words, we will ask not just what they are about as works of literature—their possible meanings and their relationships to other texts. We will also ask, what kinds of labor, time, money, and opportunity did it take to produce a given text? What did it take to make it public, if it was made public? If it was not made public, why not? Who had access to it, and who did not? What was the fate of that work after its initial creation? How do we have access to it now? What do we not have access to, as twenty-first century readers, and why? How did gender, race, and class in the period we will examine influence textual production, reproduction, and preservation?
The specific texts we will use and the projects we will undertake this semester are also aligned with these concerns. Many of our readings will be available online; we will think about differences between these digital forms—and when our texts are not available online, we will think about why. Much of your work for this class will be published in some form, on our class website or in other public fora. There are many reasons to read, think, and write “in public”: to share our work with the world, and thus to share the benefits we enjoy as members of the Johns Hopkins community; to contribute to larger conversations about our writers (some of whom have suffered from critical neglect in the past); and to develop a more thoughtful approach to our online lives.