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Books & Authors

Women writing in 19th Century America

In the 1820s, James Fenimore Cooper's publisher stated that "the utmost limits to which the sale of a popular book can be published" would be 6,500. In 1850, Susan Warner's (1819-1885) The Wide, Wide World--the story of an orphaned girl forced to find her spiritual path in an often oppressive world--shattered that prediction, going through 14 editions in two years and becoming the first novel to reach the one million mark in sales. Two years later,Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe--a book with the openly-stated purpose of opening the eyes of the American public to the evils of slavery--sold over 50,000 copies within the first two months. Women authors had come into their own, as both an economic and social force. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne complained about the "damned mob of scribbling women" who were ruining his chances for financial success. 

Toward the end of the century, Helen Hunt Jackson used the novel form for a different political purpose. Angered by what she learned about the United States government's treatment of Native Americans, Jackson researched and wrote a nonfiction account entitled A Century of Dishonor (1881) and mailed a copy to every United States senator. When she received no response, Jackson wrote Ramona (1884), a novel centered on the love story of a Native-American man and a young mixed-blood woman. Through the tragic experience of Ramona and her love, Jackson awakened the conscience of the American public. Like Stowe, Jackson was a white observer who used melodrama to achieve her purpose of rousing public opinion.

Other authors used novels to draw their readers into critique of women's status in society. Probably the most controversial was a novel by Kate Chopin (1851-1904), The Awakening (1899), which explored the attempts of a 28-year-old woman/wife/mother to achieve sexual and personal independence within a restrictive Creole society. The book is forthright in its description of Edna Pontellier's growing awareness of her own sexuality and her determination to control her own life, and the scandal the book triggered affected Chopin for the rest of her life.

Chopin was not the first novelist to use literature to examine the status of women.  In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) wrote a novella, The Yellow Wall-paper, based upon her own experience with 19th-century cures for depression among women. Forbidden by her husband/doctor to read or write, Gilman's unnamed narrator slowly but surely goes insane. Her horrifying journey is recounted through the journal she writes in secret. 

Although women authors were popular and often critically admired in the 19th century, by the 1950s they had disappeared from most anthologies. The work of a large and diverse group of women was often lumped and then dismissed under one label--"sentimental" or "domestic" literature. Only recently has literature by 19th-century American women found its way back into bookstores, anthologies, and classrooms.


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