History 246 Reading Guide

The “Scribbling Women”:  Women writers on “womanhood”

  • Joan D. Hedrick, “Parlor Literature:  Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Question of ‘Great Women Artists’,” Signs 17.2 (1992), 275-303.  JSTOR
  • Beth Maclay Doriani, “Black Womanhood in 19th Century America:  Subversion and Self-Construction in Two Women’s Autobiographies,” American Quarterly 43.2 (1991), 199-222.  JSTOR

Further reading:

  • Joanne Dobson, “The Hidden Hand:  Subversion of Cultural Ideology in Three Mid-19th Century American Women’s Novels,” American Quarterly 38.2 (1986), 223-42.  JSTOR

“America is now wholly given over to a d****d 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 innumberable editions of The Lamplighter [by Maria Susanna Cummins], and other books neither better nor worse?  Worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne, Letter to his publisher, William D. Ticknor (1855).


  • How does Hedrick begin to answer the rhetorical question: “why are there no great women artists”?  What does she offer as a final answer to that question?
  • How does Hedrick describe the early sources and traditions of Stowe’s narrative style?  How does she characterize the evolution of “parlor literature” and of Stowe’s narrative “voice” in Litchfield, Conn., and Cleveland, Ohio?
  • According to Hedrick, what caused the decline of the influence and authority of parlor literature?
  • According to Doriani, when mid-19th century African American women’s writings were considered at all, among which genres were they considered, and how well did they fare?
  • Doriani describes how both Harriet Jacob’s autobiography and Harriet Wilson’s “novel” had to be rescued from an obscurity that began with their initial publication?  Why the obscurity?  Why did Jean Yellin and Henry Gates have to prove their “authenticity”?
  • What does Doriani’s comparison of Jacob’s autobiography and Wilson’s novel enable her to argue about each and both of these writers?
  • What kind of voice did they achieve?  How?