Tuesday, April 29, 2014
April 29, 2014: Reading New England Women: Elizabeth Stoddard
[Many of the writers and works that have been “re-discovered” in the academy over the last few decades remain largely and unfortunately unread in our broader society. That’s definitely true for a great many of the wonderful New England women writers we’ve brought back into the canon. So this week, I’ll highlight an exemplary work by five such New England women writers. Check ‘em out!]
On a messy, compelling novel that’s got it all, and then some.
Elizabeth Stoddard’s multi-generational family novel slash bildungsroman slash New England regionalist fiction slash gothic The Morgesons (1862) features a more self-aware and –critical narrator/protagonist than Jane Eyre, a rebellious sister who might be possessed by the devil, two brothers/romantic leads with substance abuse and anger management issues respectively, an adulterous and semi-incestuous affair that ends in a shocking carriage accident, more rich and complex female characters than most of the rest of the decade’s novels combined, allusions to everything from Arctic adventure chronicles to sea shanties, and a scene where our heroine quite literally communes with the spirit of the ocean. No, I’m not making any of that up.
So why isn’t Stoddard’s novel, which is not like any other 19th century American work (to say the least), more well-known? It’s not an easy read, but we’re talking mid-19th century, and it’s certainly a lot more consistently accessible than the far more famous Moby Dick. It was written and published during the Civil War, however, and so perhaps has been overshadowed in our collective memories by the era’s more significant historical events, as well as by a novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin that connects directly to those events. It’s also, and I would argue even more crucially, big and messy, and so suffers in comparison to a brilliantly structured, far more high-school-teachable contemporary classic like The Scarlet Letter. In short, some of the very things that make Stoddard’s novel so full and compelling make it hard to wrap our heads around—and we’re big on sound bite descriptions for our famous works, I’d say.
I’m not going to argue that The Morgesons should become a high school American literature standby, although I have taught it successfully in a couple past sections of a pre-1950 American novel course (and wrote my own favorite college paper on it to boot). But if you’re a fan of the Bronte sisters, of the gothic, of unique narrative voices, of New England’s deep-rooted families and historic houses and rocky beaches, or of books that just plain surprise you at every turn, I can’t recommend Stoddard’s novel highly enough. If you fit any of those demographics (and who among us doesn’t fit at least one?!), lend Cassandra Morgeson your ear, and you won’t be disappointed.
Next writer and work tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other under-read writers or works you’d share?