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"What mighty transformations!": disfigurement and self-improvement in Emma May Buckingham's A Self-Made Woman.

In Emma May Buckingham's little-known 1873 novel, A Self-Made Woman; or, Mary Idyl's Trials and Triumphs, a young girl embarks on a program of self-construction common to legions of nineteenth-century American males and familiar to readers inundated, by late century, with textual examples from the popular self-improvement genre. (1) As Buckingham notes in her novel's preface, "We often hear the remark: -- 'He is a self-made man;' but the term is rarely applied to a woman" (9). Historians of self-culture tend to corroborate this view: Daniel Walker Howe's Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln suggests that the nineteenth century witnessed a profusion of texts purporting to teach white American males how to access and fulfill their individual potential, to nurture and grow the perfection God had planted in each of them like a seed, "to make oneself better--mentally, morally, and physically--[and] use one's abilities to proper advantage" (123). Yet as Sylvia D. Hoffert's work on midcentury female self-making sums it up, "the most socially acceptable way" for a woman to improve her station "was to marry well"; men alone were "glorified" for the "pluck and luck [that] brought them economic success and the personal autonomy, social influence, and political power that accompanied it" (35). Nina Baym's study of woman's fiction also bears this out: Although large numbers of nineteenth-century women's novels tell about a young female who "win [s] her own way in the world," a young woman's "'own way' ... seldom involves more than domestic comfort, a social network, and a companionable husband" (ix). Nevertheless, Buckingham's novel appropriates the self-improvement genre for a female protagonist and is dedicated to female readers who may be "struggling up towards a higher moral and intellectual life," presenting a rare tale of female self-culture and self-construction (9). Athough Mary begins the novel in despair, "disowned" by her father for pursuing an education and thereby impoverished (29), over the course of nearly a quarter century (from the 1850s to the 1870s) she shapes her own destiny and becomes a wildly popular novelist, wealthy colliery owner, Civil War nurse, proprietor of a school for orphaned children, and happily married mother of two.

If Buckingham's novel is striking for the agency and self-realization it affords a female character and female readers, it is additionally remarkable for the fact that its protagonist also begins her narrative as a "sickly, puny" ten-year-old, "dwarfed [and] deformed" in face and limb by a bout of scarlet fever she endured before the novel's start (17, 9). (2) Despite the censure of her father, doctors' warnings against brain work for sickly girls, and her own poor health and constant pain, Mary educates herself with scavenged books, becomes a teacher and governess for several young children, and saves her earnings to fund both her own formal education and a set of radical, brutal elective surgeries that lengthen her contracted limbs and correct the facial features distorted by her illness. In keeping with the novel's emphasis on total self-improvement, Mary's inner development--the cultivation of her mind and heart--is reflected in her outward physical transformation: By the end of the novel, she is described as a "noble-hearted" intellectual who is also physically lovely and even "perfect" (342).

In this essay I trace the function of Mary's disfigurement in Buckingham's novel to question its centrality to the project of her self-making and to interrogate the meaning of its gradual, somewhat troubling "eradicat[ion]" (9). I am intrigued, on the one hand, by the work of disability studies scholars Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, who argue that disabled figures in literature have long functioned not as representations of real people with real bodies but as "narrative prosthesis: "a metaphoric signifier: and "a crutch on which literary narratives lean for their representative power, disruptive potential, and social critique" (Mitchell 16, 17). Assuming this is true of Buckingham's novel on female self-making, what larger crisis might Mary's body--her "crooked" mouth and stunted, "lame" leg--signify (19, 60)? On the other hand, if Mary's disfigurement is not only metaphoric--if it is, as I argue here, also to be read literally, "in terms of its own significance"--what does Buckingham's novel suggest about the lived experience of women with non-standard bodies in a mid- to late-nineteenth-century American culture that demanded physical uniformity (Mitchell 25)? What can we learn from this novel that contains both apparently antithetical approaches to representations of disability--a novel in which disfigurement is both metaphoric and literal?

Although A Self-Made Woman garnered attention in the nineteenth century, scholars have long overlooked Buckingham's first and most autobiographical novel, as well as her other work, perhaps not least because reviews of her fiction and poetry were quite mixed, ranging from high praise to scathing criticism. I want to begin recovering this writer for three reasons. First, Buckingham's novel belongs in an expanding "body of lost books" that many disability studies scholars have lamented does not yet exist as a "canon for teaching and research" (Cassuto 219). My evidence suggests that Buckingham wrote with an insider's knowledge of disability, having been an "invalid" in childhood and having suffered, as an adult, from periodic bouts of debilitating illness (Centennial and Illustrated Wayne County 92). Moreover, her Mary Idyl narrates the majority of the novel with a voice "emanating from [an] atypical bod[y] and experience although the narration is also interrupted at key points by an unnamed, presumably able-bodied speaker who admires Mary and wants to persuade her to share her story with the world (Cassuto 230). This multivocal aspect of the novel "bring[s] the inside perspective on disability ... together with the outside perspective that has been mined so effectively in disability studies so far" and has the potential "to bring into alignment what the world sees as the disabled subject and the world through which the disabled subject sees" (Cassuto 221; Davidson 16). Second, Buckingham's novel suggests how nineteenth-century America's massive self-culture movement was by turns available and unavailable to women and how women with non-standard bodies might have grappled with that movement's edicts and availed themselves of its methods, "challeng[ing] the notion that [female and disease-impaired] biology is destiny" (Linton 143). Critical praise for A Self-Made Woman published in Buckingham's own lifetime frequently noted the novel's exploration of these themes; a review in the Science of Health offers one illustrative example:
  The true novel is not altogether a work of fiction,
  for the reason that it has a close relation to the
  actual experience of human life; and we readily
  appreciate its hearings and purpose from our
  knowledge of those experiences. In fact, the nearer
  the novelist or dramatist approaches the natural,
  the firmer is his grasp upon the minds and hearts
  of his readers. ... Imagination lights up the work
  of Miss Buckingham with a vivid play of warm
  description and earnest sentiment; but the ground-work
  of reality now and then peeps out in refreshing
  contrast with its brilliant setting. The highly
  organized, intense, anxious, soaring student,
  teacher, and governess, finds her path hemmed in
  with difficulties of a most discouraging character;
  but determined on self-improvement, she. ... halts
  in no effort to reach her goal. Circumstances bend
  before her nervous onset, and after long years of
  toil and suffering. ... the poor, neglected, malformed,
  struggling girl becomes the fascinating, triumphant
  woman. ("A Self-Made Woman")

The reviewer asserts that the strength of the novel lies in its presentation of a historically and culturally "true," "actual," and "natural" but not-often-narrated experience of illness, as well as in its depiction of a "malformed" girl who transforms herself into a "triumphant" woman.

Finally, Buckingham's larger oeuvre--which begins with A Self-Made Woman in the 1870s and continues across more than three decades to include another novel, two books of poetry, a collection of short stories, and multiple essays on self-culture--displays her connections to a variety of nineteenth-century social reform efforts involving women and navigating physical impairment to varying degrees in such fields as education, the temperance movement, phrenology, and eugenics. This essay seeks to elucidate some of the ways her first novel acts as a kind of prism, producing a spectrum of concerns about disfigured women and self-making in the nineteenth century, and it suggests how we might productively explore Buckingham's larger body of work in order to learn more about the social construction of disability in nineteenth-century American life and culture.

My discussion begins with a look at Buckingham's life and career, the better to understand how this novel about disfigurement and its erasure fit within the wider framework of her personal and professional concerns and within the larger, overlapping contexts of such nineteenth-century American literary traditions as the female Bildungsroman and manual of self-making, as well as a variety of social reform movements, including phrenology and eugenics. Next, I focus on A Self-Made Woman's metaphoric and literal treatments of illness and the non-standard body. In its uneasy mix of attitudes toward non-standard bodies--sometimes accepting and other times recoiling--Buckingham's novel records a set of unresolved tensions around disability and women in late-nineteenth-century America, productively revealing how one writer navigated her culture's messy and unstable stances on gender and illness.


The nineteenth-century American notion of the "self-made man," a phrase coined by Henry Clay in 1832, referred to "the development of human potential broadly conceived." The self-made man was "distinguished" by the fact "that his identity was a voluntarily chosen, conscious construction" expressing as much concern "with social utility and personal fulfillment as with social mobility" (Howe 136, 137). In Making the Body Beautiful, Sander L. Gilman explains further: "It was the Enlightenment ideology [of the nineteenth century] that each individual could remake him- or herself in the pursuit of happiness that provided the basis for the modern culture of aesthetic surgery. ... Enlightenment self-remaking took place in public, and was dependent on being 'seen' by others as transformed. This extended to the reshaping of the body" (17-18). David D. Yuan notes that, after the Civil War, "American society [recognized] an obligation to recuperate ... disfigured [soldiers] and offer them the opportunity to make themselves presentable" through surgery and prosthetics, firming up a "nationalist body aesthetics" that equated being able to act as a citizen with appearing able (82, 72). (3) As historian Michael Sappol has memorably put it, the era of the self-made man that began in earnest in the American 1830s had become by the 1870s the era of the man-made self, in which (bourgeois, white) citizens, especially, could take advantage of the increasingly available scientific-medical discourses and technologies of self-creation (131).

Emma May Buckingham (1836-1919) came to maturity during this shift, and an examination of her life and work reveals her to have wrestled with the various tensions inherent in it. Emma May was born Mary Emma Buckingham in the Pennsylvania milling and mining town of Paupack, in the Pocono Mountains, the fifth of ten children and the fourth of seven girls (Chapman 277). She described herself to the authors of the Centennial and Illustrated Wayne County (a kind of who's who of the region encompassing Paupack) as having been "an invalid during her childhood," and she reported in her essay Health of Teachers" that she was "so feeble in childhood that none of my friends supposed that I would reach womanhood" (92, 134). Still, much like her heroine Mary Idyl, she "early evinced an uncontrollable desire for an education" (Centennial and Illustrated Wayne County 92). As was common for young women of her generation, and again like her heroine, Buckingham alternated periods of formal study with periods of paid labor as a teacher. She stayed close to home, attending a private school in Hawley, Pennsylvania, then teaching in small towns nearby, and eventually returning to her studies at Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, Pennsylvania, from which she graduated in 1856. Unlike many other educated young women of her generation, however, who typically married by their early twenties (as Buckingham's sisters all did), Emma May never married. She quickly returned to school for "post graduate" art studies at the Fair Haven Young Ladies' Seminary in New Haven, Connecticut, and again at Wyoming Seminary, for one year each (Centennial and Illustrated Wayne County 92). Around 1858 she began to teach in various graded schools throughout Pennsylvania but was "obliged to resign" a Scranton high school teaching position around 1866, at the age of thirty, "on account of nervous debility" brought on by "over-much study" (Centennial and Illustrated Wayne County 92; qtd. in Chapman 227). The next year, Buckingham returned to the field of education, becoming principal of an academy at Westbrook, Connecticut (1867-70), and then a teacher in Honesdale, Pennsylvania (1870-73), before finally leaving the teaching profession for good to devote herself to writing and, more specifically, to "superintend the sale of her new book," A Self-Made Woman (Centennial and Illustrated Wayne County 92).

Throughout her teaching career, Buckingham "wrote regularly for the local papers and a large number of magazines" (Centennial and Illustrated Wayne County 92), and in the year immediately after she left teaching she was especially prolific, publishing articles on both teaching and self-culture in a variety of small publications, such as the Pennsylvania School Journal, the Wisconsin Journal of Education, and Science of Health. These articles posit not only her own lay medical theories about the physical ills of teachers ("dyspepsia" and "nervous debility" are ascribed to the lack of ventilation in poorly constructed school buildings, for example, which leads to the breathing in of overheated and pestilent air exhaled by unwell and unclean students) but also her assessment of the ills obtaining in American character and how schoolteachers might remedy them by crafting curricula after self-improvement models for cultivating the mind, heart, and body together ("Ill Health of Teachers" 133). In a series of short essays on "Culture in Taste" published in the Pennsylvania School Journal, Buckingham laments:
  An undue practicality is the greatest fault of the age.
  We are losing sight of the inner graces of the heart,
  of the intellect, of the finer sensibilities of the
  soul, of the attractions of nature and art-culture for
  the hard, grasping, every-day struggle for money, for
  fashionable appearance and costly houses and equipages.
  Everything of feeling, of suffering, of romance, or of
  imagination, is laughed at, even scoffed at. ...

  ... Do you ask me ... how this fault may be counteracted? ...
  I answer: By culture; by the formation of a correct taste;
  by instilling into the minds of the young a love for the
  aesthetics of nature, of the fine arts, of the sciences,
  of belles-lettres, of ideal creations. (47)

Later installments in this series are remarkable for their embrace of what Tobin Siebers calls "the ideology of ability" (8) or what Michael Davidson refers to as the "one-size-fits-all model of embodiment" that flourished in the mid-nineteenth century (222). In her next article, for example, Buckingham explains that "our Creator saw that beauty would be beneficial to the race in the formation of character" but left it to teachers to cultivate "taste" so that everyone can rightly appreciate beauty ("Aesthetic Culture" 123). Her description of those whose tastes are yet uncultivated rely on some fairly common but--given the compassion Buckingham otherwise evinces in A Self-Made Woman--surprisingly insensitive language choices:
  [H]ow many intelligent people pass by all this wealth
  of nature, dumb to its questions, oblivious to its
  gentle teachings, deaf to its sweet sounds, blind
  to its infinitesimal forms with their graduated
  shades of coloring! The eye, the ear, the taste,
  the imagination must be carefully cultured, as well
  as the hands, in playing on the piano, or the feet
  in keeping time to the music. ...

  Let a boy pass through his school-days deaf to
  the choral symphonies of nature, oblivious to
  her beauties, and he will walk through youth
  and manhood, aye, even to his grave, with his
  eyes closed! But fully arouse his dormant
  faculties, teach him to love music, pictures,
  statuary, poetry, and natural history, and you
  at once open up vistas in the tangled mazes of
  thought's wilderness, through which the celestial
  idea of beauty will enter and find an abiding
  home in his soul, that "holy of holies" in the
  human temple. ("Aesthetic Culture" 123)

Other essays in this series continue in this vein, asserting that "[t]he soul is reached through the channel of hearing" ("Music in Taste-Culture" 190), and "so also is it affected by the sense of seeing" ("Eye and Hand Culture" 384). Although Buckingham ostensibly makes these claims to support her argument that drawing as well as "music, both vocal and instrumental, should be thoroughly taught in our schools," she also implies that self-actualization is only available to those who have the full use of their hands, feet, and sensory organs ("Music in Taste-Culture" 190). With each successive essay, Buckingham sets out an ideology of ability that imagines most readers to be fully able-bodied and assumes that deafness, blindness, and an inability to use one's hands or feet limits access to one's own thoughts, to God and the celestial, and even to one's own soul.

It is unclear precisely when Buckingham began work on her first fiction manuscript or how she selected her publisher (to whom she dedicates the novel), but it is clear that the match between author and publisher was serendipitous. Samuel R. Wells, a onetime medical student whose personal motto was "Self-Made or Never Made," ran the publishing arm of the booming Fowler and Wells phrenology business from its headquarters in New York (Stern 53). There the firm printed the American Phrenological Journal (and its many subsequent iterations), received visitors, and, via lectures, publications, and skull readings, popularized a science aimed at delineating one's character traits by identifying how the shape of one's head corresponded to the contours of one's brain and thus to one's personality (Stern 34). Fowler and Wells's brand of phrenology combined its "scientific" principles with the nation's enthusiasm for self-improvement, such that after identifying a subject's strengths and deficiencies based on a reading of his skull, the subject would be better positioned to compensate for and remediate those deficiencies in an effort to perfect his character and improve his life (Stern xii). Madeline B. Stern explains: "With the self-knowledge given by phrenology came freedom of choice; with freedom of choice came the possibility of improvability--that 'practical watch-word of the age'; with improvability came the hope of reform. By their insistence upon this aspect of practical phrenology [Wells and] the Fowlers truly Americanized the science" (34-35).

As publishers, Fowler and Wells famously brought out Whitman's controversial Leaves of Grass (1855) and Susan B. Anthony's two-volume History of Woman Suffrage (1881-82) when no other publishers would have them; other popular texts in their lineup (though far less well known today) included Orson Fowler's own Self-Culture and the Perfection of Character (1843), Wells's Wedlock; or, the Right Relations of the Sexes. A Scientific Treatise Disclosing the Laws of Conjugal Selection and Prenatal Influences, also Showing Who Ought and Who Ought Not to Marry (1860), Benjamin G. Ferris's challenge to Darwinian evolutionary theory, titled A New Theory of the Origin of Species (1883), and the remainder of Buckingham's literary output, including Pearl: A Centennial Poem (1877); The Silver Chalice and Other Poems (1878), a reprint of her 1880 novel, Parson Thorne's Trial, published under the new title, His Second Love (1896); and Modern Ghost Stories: A Medley of Dreams, Impressions, and Spectral Illusions (1906). Although each of Buckingham's texts privileges its own distinct themes and ideas, she frequently includes characters she calls invalids and cripples for whom disfigurement is usually a trial and a roadblock--either temporary or permanent--to living a successful, triumphant life. (The physical crisis must be overcome, remediated, or erased before the subject can be declared a success.) The resulting picture is of an author, like many others on the Fowler and Wells roster, deeply invested in portraying physical infirmity and corporeal difference and driven by a desire both to investigate "[t]he inherent vulnerability and variability of bodies" and to give readers access to perfection via the norming refinement and improvement of their bodies as well as their characters (Mitchell 16-17).

In her last known work, Modern Ghost Stories, Buckingham moves away from grappling with questions about how to improve the existing self and toward more eugenic-sounding questions about how to improve heredity and ensure the fitness of future generations, especially in her story "A Young Wife's Trial." (4) Here, young Helen Ward marries William Earle, "a deformed man" with "a withered hand and foot" (60, 61). Helen loves William and has freely chosen to marry him, yet she lives in constant fear of giving birth to a deformed child. When she does give birth, the child's "lower extremities were terribly deformed--were twisted, shapeless stumps, without feet. Her husband's infirmity had been transmitted to the child in a more dreadful form" (64). The young mother immediately and cruelly rejects both husband and child, crying, "Take this thing from my sight--let me never look upon it again!" and "Take your hated hand from my head. ... Let it never touch me again! As Heaven is my witness, I will never bear you another cripple, William Earle!" (64). Helen and William eventually reconcile and raise their child together until he dies at age three, after which they have another child, whose "form and face, hands and limbs are as perfect as Raphael's picture of the infant Jesus" (68). In the end, both Helen and the narrator voice a "warning ... to all women who are addicted to borrowing trouble and meeting it half-way." Helen
  undoubtedly brought her sorrow upon herself [during her first
  pregnancy] by allowing her mind to dwell so persistently on
  her husband's deformity. If she had loved him better, or
  placed more confidence in a protecting Providence, it is
  probable that the affliction which nearly wrecked her happiness
  would have been averted. By fretting over and fostering any
  pre-natal delusion ... great harm may be done. ... On the other
  hand, as in Mrs. Earle's latter experience, the happiest results
  follow an unwavering determination to allow no unpleasant
  thoughts or fears to agitate the mind. (68)

Although she sets readers up early on to hear confirmation that William's infirmity is passed along by hereditary means, Buckingham ultimately resists blaming the child's "deformed" father for the baby's disfigurement. Instead, she argues, the mother is uniquely responsible for allowing his deformity to affect their child, by some combination of his biology and her attitude toward it. The warning that ends the story affirms the then widely held theory of maternal impressions, which suggested that women bear tremendous responsibility for, as well as tremendous power over, the bodies of their offspring: If they "allow no unpleasant thoughts," mothers can often keep even biologically determined fate at bay.

We do not yet know whether Buckingham's own invalidism in childhood sprang from scarlet fever or some other ailment, nor whether her childhood illness affected her body permanently (and if so, how?), nor whether she endured surgeries or procedures anything like her fictional Mary Idyl's. But we do know that Buckingham defied her friends' expectations by reaching womanhood and achieving both professional success and financial independence, in part by writing about impairment and trying to give other women a road map to self-improvement. (5)


Buckingham's portrayal of physical infirmity in A Self-Made Woman is complex and varied, encompassing both literal and metaphorical representations of the non-standard body. The novel features two extended metaphors: One correlates Mary's disfigurement with the national crises of slavery and war, and the other links her pursuit of self-improvement to the study of geology. Mary's favorite academic subject, geology was a science much occupied in the nineteenth century with questions about the role of natural catastrophe in the shaping or transformation of the planet.

The plot of A Self-Made Woman connects Mary's broken body and physical repair to the breaking and remaking of the nation via the Civil War. In the first half of the novel, Mary's mouth and then her leg are taken apart and reconstructed in two different surgeries; in its second half, the national body is rent in two and then repaired as hundreds of thousands of Northerners and Southerners are killed or maimed, slavery is abolished, and Reconstruction efforts get under way. Buckingham makes these parallels explicit by repeatedly referring to both Mary's illness and the war as necessary and God-given "trials" that inspire both the individual (Mary) and the larger nation to perfect themselves (30, 108, 211, 219, 270, 291, 339).

For example, in a conversation between Mary and her husband, Lloyd, the nation is imagined as both a populated place and a female figure, Columbia, whose otherwise beautiful form is diseased by slavery: "Only fire and blood," says Lloyd, "can wipe out that one damning blot upon our 'Star-spangled Banner,' that black plague-spot upon the beautiful escutcheon of our beloved country--slavery!" Mary responds, "Oh, Lloyd! Will nothing else atone for our great national sin? ... Must our God-ordained, discovered, peopled and prospered Columbia, be deluged with blood again?" Lloyd replies, "Yes, Mary, nothing can avert the impending crisis; but we shall come out of the crucible purified, by fire and sword, from the dross of our national sins--a sorely chastened, but, I believe, a wiser and better people" (280; cf. 319-20, 333). As was common among blacks and whites, North and South, during the Civil War, Mary and Lloyd's conversation invokes the Exodus tale to explain and allegorize the entire national political experience (Langston 16); here, the image is of God delivering innocent and slavery-hating Americans (black and white) from the tyranny of the "national sins" inherent in the slave system. But it also describes slavery as a "black plague spot" that must be removed, thereby likening slavery to a disease requiring painful but necessary surgery. This medical analogy explaining the necessity of the war was also, apparently, common: David Yuan explores Oliver Wendell Holmes's remarkably similar allegorizing of the war as both a national fall and a bloody but life-saving surgical operation. Holmes writes in 1863, "We are in trouble just now, on account of a neglected hereditary melanosis"; we must "eliminate the 'materies morbi' if the body politic is to be cured" (qtd. in Yuan 75). As with Buckingham's later allegory, Holmes equates slavery with a "cancer" that is "often deadly if untreated" (Yuan 88n20). (6) Where Holmes's allegory reflects his extensive medical knowledge (he was a doctor and head of Harvard Medical School), Buckingham's vision of fire, swords, and blood reflects her womanly immersion in Christian scripture and her experiences as both medical patient and science enthusiast, evoking both the retribution of a chastening God and the lurid hues of an operating room, with its surgical instruments, plague-ridden flesh, and cauterizing tools.

Mary, too, appropriates the Exodus tale in relation to her personal despair (despair about everything from her illnesses to publishers' rejection letters) and frequently refers to the trials God has given her, "pour[ing] all of His phials of wrath on my defenceless head" (245). But at the novel's end, having overcome these trials and reached complete self-realization, she expresses only gratitude: "And now, unto One who hath led me through the 'Red Sea' and 'Wilderness' of poverty, of illness, of discouragement, ... and repeated failures, to the 'Promised Land' of plenty and almost unparalleled happiness, I give all the glory and honor for what I am and for what I possess; besides thanking Him sincerely for every early trial and disappointment" (339). As Maria Frawley explains, a common trope in the nineteenth-century "invalid narrative" is to express gratitude to God for "being privileged" with a "condition that ... nurtures self-transformation" (186). Buckingham's subtitle to this novel--Mary Idyl's Trials and Triumphs--like the title of her second novel, Parson Thorne's Trial (about a parson's actual legal trial as well as a more figurative test of his patience and faith), and her short story "A Young Wife's Trial," illustrates the persistent appeal of this concept for this author.

The novel's second extended metaphor involves Mary's interest and expertise in geology, a subject she teaches herself and prizes as her "favorite study" for its clues into the "mighty transformations" that Earth has experienced and its reminders of the "pristine world" once inhabited by Adam and Eve (24). Although studies of the material composition of Earth date to the ancient Greeks, geology was a fairly new science in the nineteenth-century Western world, and people who studied it then basically fell into one of two camps. Those who believed Earth had been essentially unchanged since the Creation were called catastrophists, a name that pointed to their central tenet that major catastrophic events occurring before recorded geologic time were responsible for the current contours of Earth. In contrast, those who believed Earth was undergoing massive-scale gradual change all the time were called gradualists or uniformitarians. Buckingham uses Mary's (and Lloyd's) interest in this subject to explore these competing and hotly debated scientific ideas. Moreover, these opposing views are mirrored in Mary's conflicted self-perception. At some times, Mary accepts her deformity--the result of a catastrophic illness occurring, significantly, before the recorded time of the novel--as a gift from God, spurring her on to greater and greater achievements as an impaired female; at other times, though, she rejects that very deformity by electing to make gradual changes to her body through aesthetic surgery.

That geology holds special meaning for Mary's self-making is evident in its repeated mention throughout the novel, especially at pivotal moments in her education, courtship, and entrepreneurial endeavors. (7) For example, while they are still courting, Mary and Lloyd flirt by trading questions about various geological features ("And from how great a depth did this crystallized limestone come? Or these amygdaloids, how old are they all?" [171]). They also catalog the writers that give them "untold pleasure." For Mary it's Hugh Miller, John James Audubon, Alexander von Humboldt, and Louis Agassiz (148), all influential nineteenth-century naturalists devoted to determining the age of Earth. The first three writers named as Mary's favorites are all catastrophists, who tended to deny theories of evolution and to support the idea that the scriptural account of Creation is accurate, if compressed.

Mary's skepticism about evolution science emerges again as Mary and Lloyd continue their courtship, poring over a cabinet of geological and biological specimens he has collected during his many travels and that he has organized along a system like that established by the creationist Carolus Linnaeus, representing a presumably God-ordained, ranked hierarchy of biological forms, from least to most complex creatures. (8) Like catastrophism, creationism opposed Darwinian and Lamarckian evolutionary theories that were gaining prominence in scientific and lay communities in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Evolutionary theory posited that all life on Earth is the result of random, natural processes and that mutations--also random and natural--serve as a mechanism for species advancement via natural selection. At times Mary explicitly refutes these evolutionary ideas, hypothesizing, for example, that Lloyd's fossils of "some immense bird's tracks" do not necessarily indicate there once lived such immense creatures (who by evolutionary descent became extinct). Instead, she suggests, the tracks were themselves originally small impressions of small birds' feet--birds no different millions of years before than during the present day--that had merely expanded in size due to "the action of water, or heat," on clay, "like the impressions upon wax" (167, 168). At other moments, though--as we have seen--Mary is attracted to the metaphoric potential inherent in the Darwinian idea that mutation brings opportunities for species' advancement. Adapting this idea to her own life, Mary views her "deformity" as a crucial impetus for personal transformation and growth. The novel's many internally conflicted ideas--about mutation and change, theories of evolution and creation, science and religion, God's will and man's--thus highlight how Buckingham's cultural moment withstood tremendous tensions between these often opposing worldviews.

Mary's passion for geology drives her to pursue formal education in the subject and cements her egalitarian relationship with the man who will become her husband; it also eventually confirms her long-held suspicion that her father's land in Pennsylvania, which he inherited from his own father but was never able to cultivate, has been unfarmable because its rocky soil covers over a rich vein of coal, the discovery of which ultimately brings Mary and her family "inexhaustible" wealth (260). In the symbolic register, her pursuit of geologic knowledge coincides with her pursuit of a prelapsarian state of purity--the healthy body she enjoyed before her illness. Her self-improvement efforts aim to return her to that state even as they also advance her toward wife- and motherhood and financial success. Thus, when her cousin Horace sees Mary near the end of the novel and exclaims, "Why, cousin Mary ... the change in your complexion, teeth, gait, form and voice is perfectly miraculous! What have you done with those round shoulders which used to worry me so?," she explains, "I said to myself: God made Eve beautiful in face and form; therefore it is every girl's duty to make herself as perfect as possible by attending to and obeying the simple rules of hygiene. Air and exercise and healthy food, with plenty of sleep, have improved my health as well as complexion" (255, 256).


Mary doesn't tell Horace that she's also had several major surgeries, but the reader is privy to these details, and the graphic specificity with which Buckingham details Mary's surgeries suggests that, at least in these sections of the novel, the disfigurement of Mary's face and limb are no mere clever symbols. In these passages, Buckingham offers us a view into the lived experience of an actual girl who claims her "[e]xistence had been a burden ever since she could remember"; who confesses "[m]y homely gait had been a source of mortification for years, for my schoolmates had been kind enough to mimic me in my presence almost daily"; and who, early in the novel, listens while strangers refer to her as "purty, but a rale little dwarf. I say she ought to be taken to the World's Fair, as a match fur Tom Thumb; only she haint so nimble on foot, for she's kinder lame" (17, 80, 36). These representations of Mary's body temporarily but profoundly put on hold her otherwise unrelenting upward climb, lingering over the limitations imposed by her body and illustrating the means by which she remains part of a marginalized group despite her various proven abilities to participate in and contribute meaningfully to her society. To this extent, they "defamiliarize" the female Bildungsroman terrain of Buckingham's novel, exposing and "making strange" her culture's assumptions about the sorts of women who are expected or permitted to attract suitors, marry, and otherwise advance in the world (Davidson 5).

Here is an early description of Mary (in one of the novel's few passages narrated in the third person), followed by her account of the two major surgeries she undergoes to improve her appearance and remediate her pain:
  The scarlet-fever had left her almost a cripple. It had
  settled in one of her limbs, causing the chords to contract,
  thus giving her an awkward limp, while every movement was
  accompanied with severe pain. ...

  ... She was very small for her age, and her round shoulders
  and thin, sallow face, her tangled mass of reddish-brown
  hair; her large, violet eyes, which seemed hungry for affection,
  with their red, swollen, fringeless lids; her blue lips,
  and crooked teeth, made the picture at which she looked
  [in the mirror] anything but pleasing. (17-19)

This passage illustrates how Mary is viewed by an outsider, whose perception of Mary serves to confirm the young girl's self-image as awkward and unattractive while simultaneously expressing sympathy for her "severe pain" and "hunger" for affection. In contrast to the characters who mock and deride Mary for her non-standard body, this narrator models a more clinically distant yet admiring stance, acknowledging the difficulties inherent in Mary's condition as well as those imposed by a social environment mandating a more robust, healthy, regular appearance.

After one year of working as an itinerant teacher and earning enough money to send herself to school, Mary reports in her journal:
  My health continued to improve, and the pain entirely
  left me, although I still walked lame. During the first
  session [of school] I had my teeth, which have always
  annoyed and disfigured me, straightened. The operation
  was a painful one, but the dentist was exceedingly kind
  and patient. I was obliged to wear a band of iron or steel
  across both my upper and lower front teeth in order to hold
  them tightly and compel them to remain even, or in their
  proper places, after the bandages were removed. For months,
  I was scarcely able to eat sufficient to sustain nature, and
  had it not been for the "hash," which I had formerly disliked,
  I should have suffered for food. The operation proved a success,
  and made me look a hundred per cent, more endurable than formerly.

Following two more summers of work and school, Mary meets a wealthy spinster cousin she never knew, with whom she shares her name. After graduation, young Mary tells her cousin of her "long-cherished desire to have my limb straightened. I knew that it could be done by having the cords slightly cut, and then held straight by instruments of steel for a season" (80). The cousin replies:
  "See here, little namesake, we have an excellent
  surgeon in this city. He is widely known as one of
  the most scientific men of the age. He has performed
  several successful operations of late in our hospitals.
  I'll have him call to-morrow and see if your wish can
  be carried out with perfect safety. ..."

  I ... could not sleep at all that night for my great joy.
  On the following day I was quite prepared to see Dr.
  King enter with his instruments of torture--an iron-shoe
  and bandages--and, suffice it to say, the painful operation
  was successfully performed.

  I had not dreamed of the tedious weeks of suffering
  and inactivity which must intervene before I should be
  able to walk without the aid of crutches; but my kind
  hostess would not allow me to fret about it. (80-81)

Mary's detailed account of her pains, the description of how each surgery would be performed, and her attention to the prolonged periods of convalescence are as shocking for their explicitness ("torture" and "painful" "weeks of suffering") as they are for their complete lack of sentimentality or drama. Although Buckingham lingers over the details of surgical procedure, discomfort and inconvenience, she also communicates the idea that these periods of suffering are ultimately tolerable, safe, and completely worthwhile--perhaps even recommended for other females similarly afflicted.

In addition to the likely destabilizing effect of these scenes upon novel readers unaccustomed to explicit descriptions of medical procedures, these accounts of Mary's surgeries trouble the relationship between illness and self-making as it was more typically portrayed in nineteenth-century women's fiction. As Nina Baym's study of this tradition makes clear, a typical narrative of a "heroine's trials and triumph" includes her beginnings "as a poor and friendless child" who, over time, "develops the capacity to survive and surmount her troubles" and is "deprive[d] ... of all external aids [in order] to make her success in life entirely a function of her own efforts and character" (35). Flawed heroines, Baym continues, "are those whose characters are defective, so that triumph in adversity becomes a matter of self-conquest as well as conquest of the other" (36, emphasis added). Although Baym acknowledges that "the idea of what is, and what is not, a flaw varies according to the perspective of the individual author," she nevertheless suggests that the heroine's defects do not inhere in physical disfigurement (36). Baym's omission thus implies that narratives of female self-making did not often include protagonists with nonstandard bodies, both sidestepping the need for such characters to navigate illness and denying the reading public an opportunity to imagine in fiction how disfigured women might rise in the world. On the other hand, Rosemarie Garland Thomson, in her work on mid-nineteenth-century sentimental fiction, finds that "narrative[s] of feminine embodiment ... offer two possible scripts for women, one disabled and one enabled, to instruct readers about the perils and potential of being a woman in mid-nineteenth century America" (94). In the texts she examines--Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, and Phelps's The Silent Partner--enabled women's bodies "implement the development of [their own] selfhood," especially as demonstrated in the ways their physical health and vigor allow such women to rescue other, disabled women from harm. In contrast, Garland Thomson finds, disabled women's bodies insurmountably "impede" their self-making (95). With these two scripts, enabled women remain separate and divided from disabled women; in fact, enabled women exploit disabled women, shoring up their own liberal, domestic individualism through their acts of rescue. (9)

In Buckingham's novel, however, Mary toggles back and forth between these two scripts, at times disabled and at other times enabled. Her story accounts for the way many individuals move in and out of able-bodied-ness and proffers a new model for female self-making that argues even women who are only temporarily or sporadically able-bodied can rescue themselves. It is important to note that Mary's self-rescue aims not only toward her pursuit of individual happiness and independence but also toward her gaining access to the kind of Enlightenment-inspired citizenship that insists she can contribute to society equally with her able-bodied compatriots, especially by helping others. This is crucial because Mary herself also has help during her trials, although such help never negates or denies her ability to endure trial after trial and achieve success on her own strength.

Mary's chief helper, as I intimate above, is her older cousin, the other Mary Idyl, who also serves as an alternate and a mirror to Buckingham's young heroine. In addition to offering the younger Mary shelter and money for her second surgery, the older cousin is a role model to the younger, helping her imagine a possible, unmarried future without fear:
  "[L]ike all young girls, I once had my day-dreams.
  Well, the prince never came." Then, with another
  quizzical look out of her happy grey eyes, she added:

  "No, little namesake, he did not appear; consequently,
  I have neither 'been in love' nor 'engaged.' I simply
  accepted my fate, enjoyed my freedom, did my duty as
  well as I knew how, and have, thus far, had more
  leisure and real peace of mind than all the married
  ladies whom I know intimately." (81-82)

The older cousin assists our Mary by bequeathing to her in her last will and testament enough money to return to "O. College," from which Mary eventually graduates, as well as their ancestors' old homestead in Connecticut, where Mary's father was raised and where Mary will install her aging parents at the novel's end (255). When cousin Mary additionally wills her own home to become a shelter for indigent women, she illustrates how her sense of duty includes caring for friends and strangers alike. The assistance she gives young Mary Idyl is, then, both practical and philosophical: Rather than rescuing Mary and increasing her experience of invalidism and dependency, she offers her the means to imagine and enact her own independent life, to help herself and others less fortunate than herself.

These lessons become increasingly important in the novel as Buckingham introduces to readers and to Mary a host of others afflicted by illness or disability. Buckingham represents other widespread health problems stemming from both illness and war and affecting hundreds of thousands of formerly healthy American bodies in the nineteenth century. After contracting yellow fever in the South, for example, Lloyd is declared "a cripple for life" (223); but whereas he survives and eventually recovers the use of his limbs, Mary notes that many in their town's slave quarters succumb to the disease. Mary also records in her diary horrific scenes of the war-torn nation: "widows and orphans--cripples, maimed, wounded;--bleeding, moaning wretches, crawling away from bloody battle-fields, dying with hunger or thirst, or fainting from their wounds beneath a burning Southern sun; and long narrow ditches, where, beneath the yellow clay, lay thousands of mangled, unshrouded, uncoffined men in reeking uniforms" (284). By having Mary become disfigured via an epidemic that devastated multiple American communities in the nineteenth century and by portraying that epidemic as one of several widespread health crises during which Mary, her countrymen, and her country are rebuilt, Buckingham defamiliarizes the narrative arc of more typical female Bildungsroman. She situates her main character within a larger community of Americans seeking to be reintegrated into American life after widespread affliction has altered their physical abilities to participate equally. One effect of this defamiliarization is to give readers ways to reconceive the value of self-making: The point is not to achieve individual success alone but to craft a compassionate self that can help lift others through active work (teaching, nursing) and by example (in publishing one's diary as a kind of self-help manual).

The prevalence of these characters in Buckingham's novel and the relative frequency with which some fall ill and then get well, while others die and still more forge ahead despite their non-standard-ness, suggests her desire to render here a society composed of all kinds of bodies, to draw attention to many readers' shared experience of being only temporarily able-bodied. But her emphasis on Mary's search for total perfection--the term comes up forty-two times in the novel, or about once every eight pages--and her decision to "eradicate" Mary's flaws through surgery again points to her rejection of the idea that biology is destiny (9).


How did Buckingham's different representations of disability--such as her use of metaphor on the one hand and her insistence on displaying real disfigurement, pain, and non-standard anatomies on the other--come together to produce a compelling self-construction manual for her nineteenth-century readers? The conclusion of the novel and, in particular, its messy double ending offer one important way to understand the larger vision of self-making that Buckingham presents.

The second-to-last chapter of A Self-Made Woman delivers Mary's final words to her readers in a passage we examined above, wherein Mary gives thanks "unto One who hath led me through the 'Red Sea' and 'Wilderness' of poverty, of illness, of discouragement, ... and repeated failures, to the 'Promised Land' of plenty and almost unparalleled happiness" (339). Given the many surprising and unexpected portions of Mary's narrative, her last words are disappointingly self-centered and conventional. Buckingham's vision of female self-making here appears not to have encompassed a larger project than Mary's own domestic success after all. In the penultimate chapter, Mary has everything a so-called proper postbellum female could want, including a symmetrical and healthy body, a loving husband, two children, inherited wealth, and popular success as a novel writer. Mary's summation of the perfect selfhood she now enjoys is hardly longer than the few sentences I have written here, as she neatly wraps up hundreds of pages of trial with a brief declaration of her absolute and irrevocable triumph.

However, Buckingham does not conclude the text with Mary's words. Instead, in the novel's final chapter she distances us from Mary by reintroducing her unnamed narrator, who pleads with Mary to publish her diary and thus inspire other young women in need of a role model. By focusing on this second narrator's plea, Buckingham shifts our focus away from Mary's individual and personal successes and points us to her potential role as a model for countless women readers with whom she once shared the experience of physical pain, ill health, and myriad other trials. Looping back to its preface, the novel thus restates its purpose as a guide for other women rather than resting with Mary's triumphs alone.

The productive tensions inherent in the novel's dual ending echo the messy and unstable representations of Mary's disfigurement appearing throughout A Self-Made Woman. Just as that ending underscores the simultaneous aims of Mary's self-making--a looking inward toward her personal fulfillment and a looking outward toward her ability to help others improve their own lives and selves--the metaphoric and literal representations of Mary's impaired body work in tandem to present the social and medical models of disability that were circulating in Buckingham's postbellum moment. For Buckingham's first readers, these models lay side by side without necessarily transforming one another; as a result, the novel managed to highlight both the enormous challenges of being a nineteenth-century American female with a non-standard body and the potential for the novel to "be usefully read by all who desire, honestly, to better their condition and honestly labor to accomplish it," as a reviewer for the Historical Magazine noted ("A Self-Made Woman"). Thus, although her competing representations of disability do not ever resolve into a completely coherent whole, Buckingham's novel nevertheless offers opportunities for readers, then and now, to transform our understanding of how disfigured women could witness and access models of self-making in the late nineteenth century.


I am grateful to Mike Duvall, Derek Furr, Emily J. Orlando, Jie Park, and Wendy Urban-Mead, all early readers of this essay, for their enthusiastic reception of and energetic conversations about my work with Buckingham's novel. Thanks also to the readers at Legacy for their helpful suggestions and comments.


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Buckingham, Emma May. "Aesthetic Culture.--No. II." Pennsylvania School Journal 22.4 (Oct. 1873): 123-24. Google Books.

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--. The Silver Chalice and Other Poems. New York: Wells, 1878.

Cassuto, Leonard. "Disability Studies 2.0." American Literary History 22.1 (2010): 218-31.

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Chapman, F[rederick] W. The Buckingham Family; or the Descendants of Thomas Buckingham, One of the First Settlers of Milford, Conn. Hartford: Case, Lockwood, and Brainard, 1872.

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(1.) Although modern readers have come to distinguish between these terms, associating self-improvement with self-motivated efforts to develop one's internal faculties (for example, by increasing one's education or enhancing one's morality) and self-making with doing in the world (for example, by running a successful business), Buckingham and other nineteenth-century Americans frequently used these terms interchangeably, as I do here. For more on the deployment and development of these terms in the nineteenth century, see Howe 1.

(2.) Scarlet fever killed thousands of children in the nineteenth century before penicillin treatment was discovered. Swedlund and Donta point out that "[b]etween approximately 1820 and 1880 there was a world pandemic of scarlet fever and several severe epidemics occurred in Europe and North America" (159). While typical presentation included fever and a characteristic red rash on the face, untreated infections could result in any number of complications, including severe tissue infections responsible for the kinds of impairments described in Buckingham's novel.

(3.) Yuan offers the following statistics on disfigurement during the Civil War: "Because weapons technology outstripped medical technology between 1861 and 1865, the Civil War was one of the most injurious wars in history. ... produc[ing] more amputees than any other war Americans have fought in; three out of every four operations performed on Union soldiers were amputations, and altogether 130,000 men were scarred or disfigured for life' during the war" (71).

(4.) For more on eugenics in the early twentieth century, see Pernick 89-110.

(5.) Most of Buckingham's very active life was nevertheless conducted within a narrow corridor of Pennsylvania, where she lived, taught, and wrote. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss Buckingham's non-writing-related activities; however, readers may be interested to know that Buckingham served the Women's Christian Temperance Union for two decades (1893-1913) as a trainer, judge, and then county superintendent of oratorical contests. Outside of the facts laid down here, the details of her life are still sketchy. She died in 1919.

(6.) I want to thank Emily J. Orlando for pointing out the persistence of this surgical metaphor for the Civil War in Zora Neale Hurston's 1928 essay, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me." Discussing emancipation, Hurston writes, "The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you" (827).

(7.) The metaphoric importance of geology is also evident in the name "Idyl" which may refer to the pastoral literary mode celebrating natural rural landscapes and the human and animal creatures who live there. Lloyd comments on the appropriateness of Mary's name, citing her love of nature and studies of the Earth, as well as her love of poetry. But it is instructive to note that "idyl" is also a diminutive form of the Greek word eidos, meaning "form," and so Mary's name points always to her own diminutive stature. When Mary is an adult, her friends and strangers variously call her "dwarf," "petite," "little girl" "ambitious elf," and the extra-diminutive "Idylette" (36, 91, 147, 72, 163). Nevertheless, when a doctor refers to her as "Florence" late in the novel, comparing her to Florence Nightingale because she is nursing other invalids back to health, she snaps, "My name is Mary, sir; Mary Idyl" insisting that others recognize her for who she is and apparently embracing the full meaning of her name (220).

(8.) For readers interested in imagining what Lloyd's cabinet might look like, I submit Susan Stewarts's description of the cabinet belonging to Charles Willson Peale, an artist and collector whose exhibition gallery "promulgated Linneaus' system" and "eventually became the first American museum" in the late 1780s (45, 32): Peale "began by building a landscape out of turf, trees, a thicket, and a pond situated on the gallery floor. On the mound he placed those birds that commonly walk on the ground, as well as a stuffed bear, deer, leopard, tiger, wildcat, fox, raccoon, rabbit, and squirrel. The boughs of the trees were loaded with birds, and the thicket was full of snakes. On the banks of the pond he placed shells, turtles, frogs, lizards, and watersnakes, while in the water stuffed fishes swam between the legs of stuffed waterfowl. A hole in the mound displayed minerals and rare earths" (45).

(9.) For more about midcentury American sentimental narratives of feminine embodiment and scripts for how disabled female characters typically participate in those narratives, see Garland Thomson 94. For other compelling discussions of disfigurement and gender in nineteenth-century American and British women's texts, respectively, see Price Herndl 20-42 and Holmes 34-73.


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Author:Alves, Jaime Osterman
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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