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The Morgesons and other writings: published and unpublished.

In an 1865 issue of The Nation, William Dean Howells called Elizabeth Stoddard's Two Men "one of the most original books written by an American woman." Other critics compared the New England author to Hawthorne, Melville and Tolstoy. Nevertheless, Two Men, like her finest novel, The Morgesons, failed to meet with the approval of the general public. Objects of short-lived critical acclaim, both books were quickly forgotten and remained so for a century.

The rediscovery of unjustly neglected women writers is always a fortunate occurrence, and especially so in Stoddard's case. In its portrayal of Victorian women as feisty, independent and sensual, her fiction was prematurely feminist: the female characters were too "strong," the prose too direct and sparse, the rumblings of social indictment too close to the surface. Because American readers didn't know how to respond to the books, Stoddard was advised to "pretty" her narrative and refine her characters. Unfortunately she eventually succumbed to this suggestion and thereafter produced more "palatable," less original work.

The editors of The Morgesons and Other Writings argue convincingly that the rediscovery of The Morgesons in particular will prompt are-evaluation of nineteenth century women and their literature. For while the majority of Stoddard's fellow women writers, such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Kate Chopin, worked with the luxury of time and "a room of one's own" and were isolated, wealthy or single, Stoddard was middle class and married with children.

The Morgesons is the story of two young women in rebellion against the rigid moralism of their conservative Massachusetts environment. Cassandra Morgeson, disobedient and mischievous as a child, grows into a "lawless" young woman who becomes involved in a disastrous infatuation with a married cousin. Veronica, her younger sister, reacts in the opposite manner, secluding herself in her parents' home and refusing even to go to school. Veronica's explosive fits of temper (interspersed with queer, haunted moods and embarrassingly candid statements) provoke bouts of illness which cause her family to grant her a large measure of independence.

Though both girls' personalities are somewhat tempered by events--the death of their mother, the financial collapse of their father's business--they remain astonishingly blunt, ironic and even hostile throughout. Indeed, the absence of feminine restraint is one of the most gratifying characteristics of Stoddard's work--one is pleased to read at last of nineteenth-century women who could be as angry and disagreeable as they liked.

Stoddard herself was reported to be as sardonic and quick-tempered as her characters, and the portrait of Cassandra Morgeson is said to be largely autobiographical. It is Cassandra who most abhors the stifling social climate of her seaside village; restless, defiant and "boyishly" inquisitive, she longs for the openness of the water rather than the "dull uniformity" of the town, full of "decayed families as exclusive as they were shabby." A relentless social observer and critic, she does not spare her own family, whose house is characterized by "a perpetual changing of beds and the small talk of vacant minds." But despite the boredom, loneliness and frustration, a lightness of spirit pervades the work, and Stoddard infuses her smooth, pared-down prose with rewarding moments of humor.

Much of the collection displays a strenous rejection of male supremacy and domination, which is expressed with particular vehemence in the short stories and manuscripts. In "Lemorne Versus Huell" a woman hears her beloved's proposal of marriage only to realize that a declaration on her part is unnecessary. "I was not allowed to give myself," she marvels, "I was taken." Similarly, in "Collected by a Valetudinarian," a woman who has chosen solitude over marriage exclaims, when her suitor abandons hope, "he has gone. I feel free." And in a wonderfully caustic moment in an 1857 newspaper column, Stoddard elaborates:

Every man of you knows that . . . we women pull the wires of your physical and moral natures. What you are in character, for good or bad, depends on the little inferior creatures you chuck under the chin, or tuck under the arm, or beat black and blue, or slobber with kisses.

Though Stoddard's fierce independence will strike us as feminist, she probably would have balked at the label. An individualist, she complained after visiting the 1857 Women's Rights Convention of feeling "ashamed to hear from a woman such wholesale laudation of women." Rather than associate herself with a group or platform, she preferred to fight her battles alone, striving for equal footing in a maledominated world.

In fact, because she regarded many women with disdain (and though herself far more intelligent than most people of either sex), Stoddard was careful to adopt a rather randrogynous stance in both her fiction and journalism, and to write on topics of equal importance to men and women. Although she did admire George Sand, Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Browning, she was highly critical of most women writers, believing them to the priggish, overly moral and devoid of sensual intuition. As she asked in a column for the Daily Alta California,

Why will writers, especially female writers, make their heroines so indifferent to good eating, so careless about taking cold, and so impervious to all the creature comfort? . . . Is goodness . . . incompatible with the enjoyment of the senses?

That The Morgesons and Other Writings has emerged intact from a represive, relatively antifeminist era is a literary triumph. Lawrence Bruell and Sandra Zagarell have given Elizabeth Stodard the long-awaited recognition she deserves; the book is attractive, well organized and comprehensive; it contains introductions, a biographical and critical eassy a chronology and extensive explanatory notes. It is gratifying to find that, even a century after the Fact, candor will win out and courage be rewarded. As one of Stoddard's characters muses, "Shall I dare tell the truth about men and women? Who may speak if I can not? I fear not my unborn publisher."
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Author:Schumacher, Julie
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 6, 1984
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