On two complex questions raised by the career of one of our more under-appreciated authors.
One of the other panels I had the chance to attend focused on the mid-19th century novelist and activist Rebecca Harding Davis, and specifically on some of the stories she serialized in Peterson’s Magazine. Arielle Zibrak, a faculty member at Case Western Reserve University, analyzed The Second Life; Sarah Gray-Panesi, a PhD candidate at Middle Tennessee State University, focused on Put Out of the Way; and Jane Rose, Associate Professor of English at Purdue University North Central, read A Wife, Yet Not a Wife. As the absence of a link for that last story, and the less than ideal ones for the other two, indicate, these are texts that have barely been recovered at all, much less read extensively, so I greatly appreciated hearing more about all three.
The three papers also collectively highlighted a couple of complex issues, not only in how we read Davis and these works, but in how we approach 19th century American literature more generally. For one thing, Peterson’s was a popular magazine, and the stories that Davis contributed to it were similarly popular in genre and tone—in categories such as sensation fiction and gothic stories, as the three presenters alternately designated them. That classification is at least partly why these stories have received far less attention than Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills (1861), which appeared in the more highbrow Atlantic Monthly. But all three presenters did a great job complicating any such divisions or hierarchies, not only by arguing for the complexity and value of these particular texts overall, but also by making a more specific and compelling case for the texts’ own combination of realism and sensationalism, reform and entertainment. Sarah in particular noted our problematic tendency to separate sales from seriousness, and these stories certainly seem to challenge that separation.
In the question and answer portion of the panel, the presenters raised a second interesting and important question. Noting that both Second Life and A Wife feature disturbingly negative portrayals of women, characters who are at best weak and at worst entirely self-destructive, both Arielle and Jane pushed on the question of how we read such characters, particularly in light of Davis’ lifelong commitment to social reform and activism (including for women’s rights). Of course, an author of fiction—especially realistic fiction—can and must create all types of characters, including unattractive and weak ones. But if we are to make the case for these works as serious and socially engaged, I would argue that we can’t at the same time ignore such questions about their characters and how they represent social and cultural identities and experiences. So as our readings of stories like these move forward, it’d be important to consider further what we make of these characters—and these three great presentations provided strong starting points for that question, as well as many others about these works.
Next follow up tomorrow,
BenPS. Were you at ALA? If so, what stood out to you?
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