Gregory Jay
Department of English
University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee
Milwaukee, WI 53201
gjay@csd.uwm.edu

Women Writers and Resisting Readers

(copyright 1998 by Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. Vol. 15,  no. 1. pp. 104-110)
 
 
 
This Paper Originally Presented at the Conference: "19th-Century American Women Writers in the 21st Century"

Trinity College and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
Hartford, CT May 30-June 2, 1996]

In her classic study The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (1977), Judith Fetterley declares that the "major works of American fiction constitute a series of designs on the female reader." Discerning the designs of the canon of male American texts, the feminist critic must, argues Fetterley, "become a resisting rather than an assenting reader," since much male writing is hostile to women and their interests. What happens, then, when the feminist reader senses that there is danger in the designs of works by American women writers? This question has arisen with a kind of vengeance as the process of recovering the wealth of writing by nineteenth-century women presents readers with an entirely different canon (and, for that matter, with different versions of the canon of nineteenth-century women writers).

While the process of recovery seems to require a certain amount of advocacy or partisanship, or at least a suspension of disbelief, once we turn from doing scholarship and literary history and start writing criticism we find resistance shadows appreciation. Literature by nineteenth-century women has designs upon its readers, and not all of these will be welcome to us as we move into the twenty-first century. A continuing challenge for feminist criticism has become, indeed, clarifying what it means for a feminist reader to resist a woman's text, and what consequences this has for scholarship and literary history and the writing of criticism. In my talk I will offer a few examples as provocation to further discussion. I do so not because this problem is peculiar to feminism or to the field of nineteenth century women's writing; on the contrary, the problem here is exemplary of a much more widespread phenomenon today, as the general commitment to being resisting readers runs into the general commitment to being advocates of the previously unheard or marginalized.

In sum, the questions I would like to offer for exploration could be put in the following way:

 1. Once I have become a resisting reader, what is at stake when I begin to resist the very works whose recovery I have supported and celebrated? How do I see the relation of resistance to the work of criticism, and how does this relation complicate my idea of the cultural work the text performed, or the cultural work I think I am performing?

 2. Do I recover, study, and teach only those texts that appear to support my current set of values? Does this create a strong enough foundation for an alternative canon? And if I choose to recover texts that violate my values or offend others, how do I present and teach them, and what cultural work do I think I am accomplishing in the process?

I want to begin by briefly putting the question of the reader's resistance in relation to what we now call "cultural work" theory. Contemporary "cultural work" criticism, I would argue, owes a good deal to feminist theory, and shares with it certain problems. Fetterley's emphasis on the power of literary texts to shape the beliefs and actions of readers and whole societies helped start a wave of literary criticism now associated with the term "cultural work" (see also Lauter, Davidson). Instead of producing technical descriptions or aesthetic appreciations of literary forms, this kind of analysis aims to produce an account of the cultural work done by texts as they make their way into the minds of readers and cultures. According to the cultural work thesis, we should reconstruct literary history (and our syllabi) by studying the cultural work that texts have done - for the people who wrote them, published them, sold them, bought them, read them, borrowed them, or wrote about them. The cultural work thesis is attractive because it seems to end-run interminable debates about literary value - about which are the best timeless works to study and teach. Now we choose, well, not every text that was published, but at least everything influential.

Measuring the cultural work done by a text is a bit tricky. Obviously one can try to document and interpret the sales, reception, use, and popularity of texts, contextualizing their cultural work both empirically and ideologically (though Davidson smartly shows how difficult this is to do with any great confidence). Yet one can also make a case for the overlooked and unread, as in arguments that a widely ignored book - such as Walden or Our Nig - can nonetheless be a solid indicator of the contemporary cultural work done by the kind of representational ideologies it uses or expresses, such as those regarding race, industry, and religion. In other words, the cultural work of overlooked texts may belong to the political unconscious of a group or era or period. So understood, the cultural work of a text seems to slip back into the category of the "representative," and we assign it less because of the work it did than because it represents the cultural imaginary of its period or place.

The hierarchy of works created by cultural work methods appears more democratic than in the aesthetic model. It allows us to respect the audience that bought Susan Warner's Wide, Wide World and preferred Ruth Hallto The Scarlet Letter. It also prompts us to question the discipline that delegitimated the extraordinarily influential Uncle Tom's Cabin while simultaneously resuscitating Moby Dick decades after readers had apparently decided that it did no useful work for them. But we soon run once more into the problem of what kind of cultural work we value, whether among the texts we assign or those we write about, and this decision is inseparable from our agonizing over what kind of cultural work our own performances as scholars, critics, and teachers are doing. Claims to "critical" or "radical" pedagogy are claims about the kind of cultural work done by professional educators and academic writers. I may at times confuse the cultural work of the texts and authors I study with the cultural work accomplished by my own syllabus, journal article, or critical study. In my desire to be a resisting reader or resisting scholar, I may choose to privilege those texts that I think embody the kind of resistance I myself value, and I will resist those texts whose cultural work (in the past, present, or future) I perceive as a threat to my own values.

Even the best revisionists have trouble denying that the texts they choose to study are the texts that do the kind of cultural work that they, today, as politicized academics and citizens, want to see done. (Of course, many wouldn't think of such a denial, and make this claim an explicit part of their method.) I may assign women writers and writers of color not only because I respect and want to teach the struggles they undertook, but because I see such teaching as integral to our own struggles today against racism and sex discrimination. In time this means that as our own ideas about how to conduct such struggles change, as they inevitably will, our evaluation of past writers will alter as well. Where once a text or author was an effective source of resistance, she now may be an encumbrance; or where once a mode of ideology seemed to promise liberation, we now see it as a trap. Our twenty-first century accounts of nineteenth-century women writers, then, may depend largely on the kind of cultural work we want such accounts to produce, and on our perception of the usefulness of specific nineteenth-century texts to that scenario.

In her Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860 (1985), Jane Tompkins echoes (but does not cite or footnote) Fetterley's theory that American literary texts constitute a "series of designs on female readers," though now the focus is more on texts written by women. Tompkins's subtitle explicitly ties her brand of reader response theory to the cultural work movement, bridging the kind of historical scholarship already done by Nina Baym in Woman's Fiction (1978) with the critical methods of the New Historicism. Tompkins finesses the question of resistance through her announced intention "to recreate, as sympathetically as possible, the context from which [novels by nineteenth-century women] sprang and the specific problems to which they were addressed. I have therefore not criticized the social and political attitudes that motivated these writers, but have tried instead to inhabit and make available to a modern audience the viewpoint from which their politics made sense." (xiii).

This kind of sympathy is in accord with the general spirit of appreciation that runs through much of the movement to "recover" lost or marginalized literatures, a spirit quite different from the spirit of critique that energizes deconstructions of patriarchal writing. I assume that everyone in this room is aware of the revolution that Tompkins's book helped produce in our evaluation of what is termed "sentimental" fiction, whose reversal of fortune has been mirrored by revisionist revaluations of the cultural work of nineteenth-century domestic ideology. Domestic ideology and the sentimental, it is argued, did powerful work in expressing women's lives, in bonding women with each other, and in making women effective agents for social and political change. But do we study sentimental literature because of its objective historical influence or because its ideology may be in conformity with our own? Tompkins's concluding pages seem to want to have it both ways. On the one hand, she states that "I see them as doing a certain kind of cultural work within a specific historical situation, and value them for that reason." Yet the "historical situation" of the nineteenth century gives way, in her final sentence, to the specific historical situation of today, as Tompkins draws a clear, identificatory parallel between her own cultural work and the cultural work of the writers she studies: "The struggle now being waged in the professoriate over which writers deserve canonical status is not just a struggle over the relative merits of literary geniuses; it is a struggle among contending factions for the right to be represented in the picture America draws of itself" (200-01). According to Tompkins, the resistance of the once male-dominated academy to sentimental literature must itself be resisted. Here, and in her excellent "afterword" to the reprint of Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, Tompkins urges that our sympathies go to texts whose apparent ideologies of Christian submission and domestic motherhood can be seen as an empowering discourse in surprising harmony with the contemporary aims of women's liberation.

Many are aware that Tompkins's way of recovering sentimental literature has been challenged, and I'll come back to that later in discussing Betsy Erkkila's recent critiques of feminist literary history. I now want (all too quickly) to bring Harriet Jacobs into this conversation. While sentimental fiction such as Warner's has occasioned a good deal of renewed resistance, Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl has now been canonized, as the editors of a recent collection of criticism on Jacobs note. The racism and sexism that consigned this book to oblivion have been overcome, and Jacobs meets little or no resistance in the critical literature or the curriculum. (I recognize that many local instances of resistance to Jacobs can be recounted, but I rely here on the general account of Jacobs's status presented by Zafar and Garfield.) Judging by the example of Frederick Douglass, who now regularly comes under attack for his ideas about masculinity and his later political view, Jacobs will eventually be judged by future critics as complicit with any number of oppressive ideologies.

While most recovered authors are granted a kind of "honeymoon" away from critique during their initial re-entry into the canon, Jacobs's strength as a model of readerly resistance also has its roots in the text. As Hazel Carby shows, Jacobs's Incidents offers a self-conscious critique of the "cult of true womanhood" popular among white women such as Warner in the nineteenth century. While Jacobs uses many of the conventions of sentimental literature (so much so that her narrative was long taken to be fictional), she carefully inscribes herself as a resisting reader of master narratives. In fact, two of the essays in the collection I mentioned have the word "resistance" in their title. Frances Foster's "Resisting Incidents" provides an expert summary of the many ways this book was resisted by readers for over a century. Aware of the popularity today of being resistant readers, Foster warns that "Although resistance may be absolutely the right way to read a particular text or a particular author, the fact that literary productions of African American writers, particularly of those who were or had been slaves, are habitually greeted with resistance is provoking and problematic" (58).

In other words, what's good for reading Hawthorne and Fitzgerald is not so good for reading Jacobs or Harriet Wilson. I think there is good common sense in this distinction, though I wonder how "absolutely" we can tell when advocacy or resistance is the "right way to read a particular text." In Jacobs's case, as Foster, Anne Warner, and others have shown, the text leads the way because of its many formal resistances and revisions of dominant narrative and ideological structures, including those of the seduction novel and domestic fiction. Jacobs announces her self-consciousness about writing for a white female audience imbued with those traditions when , in her "Preface" and elsewhere, she notes that the revelations she will make may well place her beyond the pale of true womanhood in some people's eyes. Moreover, Jacobs emplots the theme of the resisting reader when Linda actively refuses the letters her Master thrusts upon her (in scenes that make the correlation of literary, racial, and phallic violence all too clear). Later Jacobs becomes the trickster of letters as she disguises her hand and her notes, sending the evil Flint North in search of her while all the while she remains secure (if imprisoned) in her garret.

Arguments about how readers have resisted a text, then, quickly become arguments for the text's intentional strategies of resistance (to the point, perhaps, that we shouldn't then be surprised when readers resist it). Anne Warner subtitles her essay "Resistance In Incidents" to stress this focus on the text's own subversions of master narratives, concluding that "Jacob's text is decidedly radical and literary, self-consciously intertextual and signifying . . . . undermining the static notion of a representative heroine. . . . revers[ing] the conventional closure of the sentimental plot. . . . deconstruct[ing] the Biblical context for the slave's choice." In sum, Warner claims that Jacobs "ends the absence of a literary tradition for the silenced black woman with an open text and a voice that, because it questions the nature of official authority, will not silence others." This rather postmodernist version of Jacobs is made to carry quite a critical load as Incidents becomes the paradigm text for literary radicalism per se.

While I do not wish to start a movement to silence Jacobs or deny the great power of her book, I do want to note the problem with such an uncritical celebration of it, especially when done in a language so full of our own values and so distant from Jacobs's. I also wonder what authority is left to Jacobs or her text when the final lesson to be learned is simply to "question the nature of official authority." What, then, of Jacobs's authority, especially as it has now become part of the official literary canon and the official pedagogy? Is her authority unquestionable, even if we grant that she was indisputably the author of Incidents? If Incidents can be so massively adopted and institutionalized by courses in English, History, Women's Studies, Ethnic Studies, et al., and become such a popular textbook, what does this say about the book's power to be subversive and resistant? Are the book's acts of resistance self-evident and univocal, or must they be to some degree produced by and for readers through strategies of interpretation? If many African Americans, especially students, object to the constant equation of their race with the episode of slavery, does teaching Incidents so repetitively go very far in undoing or subverting the master narrative about racism in America? As Carla Peterson argues, the use of Jacobs or even Harriet Wilson as the token text used to diversify the curriculum or the critical study has the effect of obscuring the great number of works in many genres written by African American women in the nineteenth-century which may be at least equally deserving of our attention (this is a paraphrase of a comment made by Peterson during her presentation at the Hartford conference). In suggesting that we stop and resist the overexposure of Incidents, then, I am asking less about its prior history of being resisted and its demonstrable intention to thematize resistance than I am, finally, asking about what kind of resistance we think we are performing in studying and teaching it. Depending, of course, on who "we" are.

One thing that the contemporary discussion of Jacobs has succeeded in resisting is the category of the "sentimental." After Hazel Carby, the term "sentimental" cannot be used without acknowledging the racial and class limitations that hindered it in its original setting and subsequent theoretical application. The debate over whether sentimental literature is complicit with or resistant to patriarchy might be displaced by offering a category other than the "sentimental" to define the major movement of nineteenth-century literature by women. Even before the debate took off in the 1980s, Nina Baym had already tried to do this in Woman's Fiction, her title referring to a category of texts by women that expressed what Baym called a "pragmatic feminism." "The many novels all tell," said Baym, "a single tale. In essence, it is the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her way in the world" (11). She does this by taking responsibility for her own destiny and demanding more of herself in the process. Although these novels describe women's degraded and dependent position in society, they also "insist that in nineteenth-century America women have the opportunity and responsibility to change their situation by changing their personalities" (19). The success of these stories with a mass audience was achieved "by engaging and channeling the emotions of the readers through identification with the heroine" (17).

Contrary to previous accounts of this literature, Baym argues that "these novels see their old world as neither affectional nor domestic and they hope to impose these values on a society that seems to them governed purely by mercenary and exploitative considerations. They espouse a so-called 'cult of domesticity' but not as that cult is generally analyzed, as a conservative or traditional ethos" (20). Domesticity, in other words, was an agency of resistance for nineteenth-century women writers. Baym explicitly rejects the descriptor "sentimental" in regards to this literature, since it has accrued a host of negative and misleading connotations. Baym reminds us that the "plots repeatedly identify immersion in feeling as one of the great temptations and dangers for a developing woman. They show that feeling must be controlled, and they exalt heroines who have as much will and intelligence as emotion" (25).

Baym's effort to establish a revisionary history of "woman's fiction" clearly established much of the foundation (and a lot of the specifics) for Tompkins, though Baym's "pragmatic feminism" locates the cultural work of her scholarship in a rather different space than Tompkins's new historicism. Whereas Tompkins focuses more on theoretical questions of "power" and religious discourse, Baym produces a more traditionally historical account of a broader spectrum of texts addressing a range of social issues. And whereas Tompkins believes that these novels "focus exclusively on the emotions, and specifically on the psychological dynamics of living in a condition of servitude" (173), Baym sees a plot in which a thoughtful heroine chooses self-development over compliance and takes an active role in reforming not only what people feel, but what they do.

Although Tompkins's book was titled Sensational Designs, it was her work on what one chapter called "sentimental power" that proved most influential. The term "sentimental" reentered critical discourse with a new, more positive valuation that eventually overshadowed Baym's attempt to replace "sentimental" with "woman's fiction." As I mentioned in regards to Carby's work on Jacobs, this positive revaluation of the sentimental has not been universally accepted. In her recent book The Wicked Sisters, Betsy Erkkila reverts to using the term in almost uniformly negative ways (her list of works cited does not include either Woman's Fiction or Sensational Designs). According to Erkkila, "It was precisely this rhetoric of female moral superiority, deployed by women reformers and popularized by sentimental women writers of her time, that [Emily] Dickinson sought to resist in representing herself as one of 'the bad ones,' who took pleasure in being 'evil' rather than 'good'" (43).

Like the male Modernist critics, Erkkila values Dickinson for her resistance to the sentimental; moreover, Erkkila makes her argument as part of her own resistance to what she perceives as a rather sentimental movement in contemporary feminist criticism, which she believes has wrongly identified its cultural work with that of the nineteenth century novelists. Erkkila contends that "recent feminist representations of women's literary history have tended to romanticize, maternalize, essentialize, and eternalize women writers" and so to reinforce "the very gender stereotypes and polarities that have been historically the ground of women's oppression" (3). "Against the tendency of earlier feminist critics to celebrate women writers and the female literary tradition, and to heroize strong literary foremothers and communities of women," writes Erkkila, "this book considers the historical struggles and conflicts among women poets, as well as the problems of difference and otherness among and within women poets themselves." This stress on "problems of difference," especially those of race and class, marks Erkkila's book as a post-1980s cultural work, influenced by the widespread critique of white women's feminism first articulated by black women. After quoting from Audre Lorde, Erkkila asserts that "the bonds of assistance and resistance that women poets have formed with other women have also been bonds formed by the exclusion, silencing, and demonization of other women -- particularly women of another race, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation" (14-15).

This is an old story, of course, dating back at least to the tensions between black and white women in the abolitionist and suffragist movements of the nineteenth century. When Erkkila tries to apply this attention to "problems of difference" in the case of Emily Dickinson, the results are ambivalent. On the one hand, Dickinson's linguistic resistance to patriarchy and her creation of a sisterhood of readers are read positively by Erkkila as important achievements; her formal departure from the poetic, economic, and ideological laws of the fathers is seen as liberating. Here Dickinson is seen as a compatriot of the novelists: "Like Catharine Sedgwick, Lydia Sigourney, and other domestic novelists of the time, Dickinson set a familial and essentially women-centered culture of affection and mutual nurturance against the commercial ethos of self-interest and capital gains" (47). On the other hand, Emily Dickinson was a white woman of middle-class privilege utterly unconcerned with the vital social issues of her day: "the bonds of assistance and resistance she formed with her women friends," asserts Erkkila, "lacked any larger political reference" (49).

Holding Dickinson to the standards of political correctness, Erkkila observes that Dickinson "manifested little concern about the problems of slavery, industrialism, the urban poor, and the dispossession of American Indians," problems that were addressed by Lydia Child, Helen Jackson, and many other women writers, call them what you may (50).

Dickinson, then, turns out to be of good service in resisting narratives of idealized female solidarity but relatively useless as a model for the writer as political activist. Despite her own reference to the solid involvement of American women writers in social issues, Erkkila's next sections contend that Dickinson could find no helpful models of resistance in the "domestic ideology" and "feminine" writing of her contemporaries, and so had to turn to the Brontes, George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning for inspiration. Of course these authors were not writing about the American political problems that Dickinson ignored, and so it is hard to see why we should value Dickinson for turning to them and in so doing resisting the American women writers who were in fact addressing "the problems of slavery, industrialism, the urban poor, and the dispossession of American Indians" (as Erkkila's final look at Helen Jackson intimates). Perhaps some of the confusion here results from not considering the complex relationship between these problems and the genres of sentimental literature and domestic fiction. Rather than participate in the dispute over whether nineteenth century women writers were resistant to or complicit with the oppressive forces of their era, Erkkila seems to say that they were both without explaining how this could be.

I would return, then, to Nina Baym's suggestion that we avoid too much reliance on the category of the "sentimental," since it appears to rejuvenate unproductive impasses. Such a categorization also tends to overlook the scholarship that has given us a much more diverse and complex picture of the genres in which 19th century women wrote, and thus of the cultural work that their texts performed. Today much productive criticism turns our attention to travel writing, the sketch, and spiritual autobiography, to name just three. Or take, for a particularly important example, Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse's anthology on American women regionalists. "In creating this anthology," write the editors, "we are asserting the existence of a tradition among nineteenth-century American women writers that we term regionalism." Here "regionalism" becomes a heuristic term for naming a writing practice that shares some of the qualities of "woman's fiction," some of the values of "domestic ideology," some of the epistemologies of the "sentimental," and yet which finally differs in its history, scope, and effects from any of these. What distinguishes "regionalists" from "local colorists," they argue, is "their desire not to hold up regional characters to potential ridicule by eastern urban readers but rather to present regional experience from within, so as to engage the reader's sympathy and identification" (xii).

Most controversial, of course, is the editors' judgment that local color writing is predominantly male, and that women created a distinct "regionalist" tradition of their own. Like Baym, Fetterley and Pryse see identification and empathy as central to the production and reception of woman-centered texts: the "region" they write of, then, is as much one of sex and gender as of geography. They readily acknowledge rehabilitating the distinction between the "man's world" and "woman's sphere," since that distinction was a lived material, social, and spiritual one for women of the nineteenth century. Contra Erkkila, this is an historicist, not an essentialist, premise on their part. Unlike Baym, they place less importance on plot than character, and so look to the genre of the sketch more than that of the novel for tales of women's lives.

Fetterley and Pryse share the stress that Tompkins placed on women's agency and empowerment, though they locate this less in the tropes of religious discourse than in the social and emotional possibilities established by narrative structure: "the narrator" of regionalist fiction, they contend, "frequently appears to be an inhabitant herself" of these women's spheres. She does not undermine them with satire or judgment, but rather adopts "the narrator's stance of careful listening" that "fosters an empathic connection between the reader of the work and the lives the work depicts" (xvii). This empathy, I think, is meant to be qualitatively different from the unearned emotional sympathies criticized by Erkkila as too unreal a foundation for women's community or political action (much less literary accomplishment). And this empathy produces a different story than do interpretations that focus on resistance. The regions of age, race, class, geography, and sexual difference inhabited by the women in Fetterley and Pryse's anthology exhibit a variety not found in much of "woman's fiction" or "sentimental literature," at least as these have often been described. The woman-centered character of the regionalist tradition retains an insistence on the specific separateness of woman's experience and literary history without basing these on transhistorical or dogmatic assertions about women's nature or women's lives. The strong critique of masculinity and of patriarchy is also retained as fundamental to the feminist lessons that these texts teach, and which were often their consciously intended message.

Fetterley and Pryse, like all the critics I have cited, are honest about the connections they see between the regions of literature they study and the contemporary spaces of resistance and affiliation (social, political, aesthetic, intellectual, academic) that they themselves inhabit. In their conclusion to the introduction they affirm the cultural work that these texts may do in our own time, and the time to come. This commitment to doing women's literary history in conscious dialogue with the twin imperatives of historical integrity and contemporary urgency is one I see shared by most of the best work in our field. Whatever resistances lay ahead, I am confident that this commitment will continue to produce new regions of knowing as we move into the uncertain space of the future.

 

Works Cited

Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.
Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Fetterley, Judith and Marjorie Pryse, eds. American Women Regionalists 1850-1910. New York: Norton, 1992.
Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.
Garfield, Deborah M. and Rafia Zafar, eds. Harriet Jacobs and "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl". New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Lauter, Paul. Canons and Contexts. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.