Imágenes de páginas

learning, however, the rudiments of Latin, Greek, geography, and logic, “with indescribable pleasure and avidity,” from some gentlemen boarding at her father's house. Becoming interested in religious controversy, she formed the plan of compiling a “View of Religions”'; not at first hoping to derive what she calls emolument’ from the work. To win bread she relied at this time upon spinning, sewing, or knitting, and, during the Revolutionary War, on the weaving of bobbin lace; afterward falling back on her scant classical resources to teach young gentlemen Latin and Greek. Meanwhile the compilation went on. “Reading much religious controversy,” observes Miss Adams, “must be extremely trying to a female, whose mind, instead of being strengthened by those studies which exercise the judgment, and give stability to the character, is debilitated by reading romances and novels.” This sense of disadvantage, of the meekly accepted burden of sex, pervades the autobiography; it seems the story of a patient cripple. When the long task was done, her inexperience made her the dupe of a dishonest printer, and although the book sold well, her only compensation was fifty copies, for which she was obliged herself to find purchasers, having previously procured four hundred subscribers. Fortunately she had the copyright; and before the publication of a second edition, she chanced to make the acquaintance of a clerical good Samaritan, who transacted the business for her. The “emolument” derived from this second edition at last enabled her to pay her debts, and to put out a small sum upon interest. Her “History of New England,” in the preparation of which her eyesight was nearly sacrificed, met with a good sale; but an abridgment of it brought her nothing, on account of the failure of the printer. She sold the copyright of her “Evidences of Christianity” for one hundred dollars in books.

This, then, is our starting-point: evident character and ability, at a disadvantage both in production and in the disposal of the product; imperfect educational equipment; and a hopeless consciousness of inferiority, almost amounting to an inability to stand upright mentally.

Susanna Rowson, who wrote the popular “Charlotte Temple,” may be classed as an American novelist, although not born in this country. She appears also as a writer of patriotic songs, an actress, a teacher, and the compiler of a dictionary and other school-books. “The Coquette, or the History of Eliza Wharton," by Hannah Webster Foster, was another prime favorite among the formal novels of the day.

Kind Miss Hannah Adams, in her old age, chanced to praise a certain metrical effort, -unpromisingly labeled “Jephthah's Rash Vow,”-put forth by a girl of sixteen, Miss Caroline Howard. Here occurs, an indicative touch. “When I learned," says this commended Miss Caroline, “that my verses had been surreptitiously printed in a newspaper, I wept bitterly, and was as alarmed as if I had been detected in man's apparel.” Such was the feeling with which the singing-robes were donned by a maiden in 1810-a state of affairs soon to be replaced by a general fashion of feminine singing-robes, of rather cheap material. For during the second quarter of the present century conditions somewhat improved, and production greatly increased. “There was a wide manifestation of that which bears to pure ideality an inferior relationship,” writes Mr. Stedman of the general body of our literature at this period. In 1848 Dr. Griswold reports that “women among us are taking a leading part''; that “the proportion of female writers at this moment in America, far exceeds that which the present or any other age in England exhibits.Awful moment in America! one is led to exclaim by a survey of the poetic field. Alas, the verse of those “Tokens,” and “Keepsakes,” and “Forgetme-nots,” and “Magnolias," and all the rest of the annuals, all glorious without in their red or white Turkey morocco and gilding! Alas, the flocks of quasi swan-singers! They have sailed away down the river of Time,chanting with a monotonous mournfulness. We need not speak of them at length. One of them early wrote about the Genius of Oblivion; most of them wrote for it. It was not their fault that their toil increased the sum of the “Literature suited to Desolate Islands." The time was out of joint. Sentimentalism infected both continents. It was natural enough that the infection should seize most strongly upon those who were weakened by an intellectual best-parlor atmosphere, with small chance of free out-of-door currents. They had their reward. Their crude constituencies were proud of them; and not all wrought without “emolument,” though it need hardly be said that verse-making was not and is not, as a rule, a remunerative occupation. Some names survive; held in the memory of the public by a few small, sweet songs on simple themes, probably undervalued by their authors, but floating now like flowers above the tide that has swallowed so many pretentious, sand-based structures.

Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney, the most prolific poetess of the period, was hailed as “the American Mrs. Hemans.” A gentle and pious womanhood shone through her verse; but her books are undisturbed and dusty in the libraries now, and likely to remain so. Maria Gowen Brooks,—“Maria del Occidente,"was, on the other hand, not popular at home, but put forth a far stronger claim than Mrs. Sigourney, and won.indeed somewhat disproportionate praises abroad. “Southey says “Zophiel, or the Bride of Seven,' is by some Yankee woman," writes Charles Lamb; "as if there had ever been a woman capable of anything so great!” One is glad that we need not now consider as the acme of woman's poetic achievement this metrical narrative of the loves of the angels; nevertheless, it is on the whole a remarkably sustained work, with a gorgeousness of coloring which might perhaps be traced to its author's Celtic strain.

As Mrs. Samuel Gilman, Caroline Howard, of whom we have already spoken, carried the New England spirit into a Southern home, and there wrote not only verses, but sketches and tales, much in the manner of her sisters, who never left the Puritan nest; though dealing at times with material strange to them, as in her “Recollections of a Southern Matron.” With the women of New England lies our chief concern, until a date comparatively recent. A strong, thinking, working race, –all know the type; granite rock, out of its crevices the unexpected harebells trembling here and there. As writers they have a general resemblance; in one case a little more mica and glitter, in another more harebells than usual. Mrs. Sigourney, for instance, presents an azure predominance of the flowery, on a basis of the practical. Think of her fifty-seven volumes copious verse, religious and sentimental; sketches of travel; didactic “Letters” to mothers, to young ladies; the charmingly garrulous "Letters of Life," published after her death. Quantity, dilution, diffusiveness, the dispersion of energy in a variety of aims,—these were the order of the day. Lydia Maria Child wrote more than thirty-five books and pamphlets, beginning with the apotheosis of the aboriginal American in romance, ending in the good fight with slavery, and taking in by the way domestic economy, the progress of religious ideas, and the Athens of Pericles, somewhat romanticized. Firm granite here, not without ferns of tenderest grace. It is very curious and impressive, the self-reliant dignity with which these noble matrons circumambulate the whole field of literature, with errant feet, but with a character central and composed. They are "something better than their verse," and also than their prose. Why was it that the dispersive tendency of the time showed itself especially in the literary effort of women? Perhaps the scattering, haphazard kind of education then commonly bestowed upon girls helped to bring about such a condition of things. Efficient work, in literature as in other professions, is dependent, in a degree, upon preparation; not indeed upon the actual amount of knowledge possessed, but upon the training of the mind to sure action, and the vitality of the spark of intellectual life communicated in early days. To the desultory and aimless education of girls at this period, and their continual servitude to the sampler, all will testify. “My education,” says Mrs. Gilman, “was exceedingly irregular, a perpetual passing from school to school. ... I drew a very little and worked “The Babes in the Wood' on white satin, with floss silk." By and by, however, she “was initiated into Latin,” studied Watts's Logic by herself, and joined a private class in French. Lydia Huntley (Mrs. Sigourney), fared somewhat better; pursuing mathematics, though she admits that too little time was accorded to the subject; and being instructed in the belles-lettres studies” by competent teachers. Her day-school education ceased at thirteen; she afterward worked alone over history and mental philosophy, had tutors in Latin and French, and even dipped into Hebrew, under clerical guidance. This has a deceptively advanced sound; we are to learn presently that she was sent away to boarding-school, where she applied herself to"embroidery of historical scenes, filigree, and other fingerworks.” (May we not find a connection between this kind of training, and the production of dramatic characters as lifelike as those figures in floss silk? Was it not a natural result, that corresponding “embroidery of historical scenes” performed by the feminine pen?) Lydia Maria Francis (Mrs. Child) “apart from her brother's companionship, had, as usual, a very unequal share of educational opportunities; attending only the public schools''—the public schools of the century in its teens“with one year at a private seminary.” She writes to the Rev. Convers Francis in 1838, “If I possessed your knowledge, it seems to me as if I could move the whole world. I am often amused and surprised to think how many things I have attempted to do with my scanty stock of learning." Catherine Sedgwick, “reared in an atmosphere of high intelligence,” still confesses, “I have all my life felt the want of more systematic training.”.

Another cause of the scattering, unmethodical supply may have been the vagueness of the demand. America was not quite sure what it was proper to expect of “the female writer”; and perhaps that lady berself had a lingering feudal idea that she could hold literary territory only on condition of stout penservice in the cause of the domestic virtues and pudding. “In those days,” says Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “it seemed to be held necessary for American women to work their passage into literature by first compiling a cookery-book.” Thus we have Mrs. Child's “Frugal Housewife"; and we find clever Eliza Leslie of Philadelphia, putting forth “Seventyfive Receipts,” before she ventures upon her humorous and satirical “Pencil Sketches.” The culinary tradition was carried on, somewhat later, by Catherine Beecher, with her “Domestic Receipt Book”; and we have indeed most modern instances, in the excellent Common Sense Series” of the novelist “Marion Harland,” and in Mrs. Whitney's “Just How." Perhaps, however, it is not fancy that these wear the kitchen apron with a difference.

In addition to lack of training, and to the vague nature of the public demand, a third cause operated against symmetrical artistic development among the women of those electric days preceding the Civil War. That struggle between the artinstinct and the desire for reform, which is not likely to cease entirely until the coming of the Golden Year, was then at its height. Both men and women were drawn into the maelstrom of the antislavery conflict; yet to a few men the artist's single aim seemed still possible: to Longfellow, to Hawthorne. Similar examples are lacking among contemporary women. Essential womanhood, “das Ewigweibliche," seems at this point unusually clear in the work of women; the passion for conduct, the enthusiasm for abstract justice, not less than the potential motherhood that yearns over all suffering.

The strong Hebraic element in the spiritual life of New England women, in particular, tended to withdraw them from the service of pure art at this period. “My natural inclinations,” wrote Lydia Maria Child, “drew me much more strongly toward literature and the arts than toward reform, and the weight of conscience was needed to turn the scale."

Mrs. Child and Miss Sedgwick, chosen favorites of the public, stand forth as typical figures. Both have the art-instinct, both the desire for reform ; in Mrs. Child the latter decidedly triumphs, in spite of her romances; in Miss Sedgwick, the former, though less decidedly, in spite of her incidental preachments. She wrote ''without any purpose or hope to slay giants," aiming merely "to supply mediocre readers with small moral hints on various subjects that come up in daily life.” It is interest

« AnteriorContinuar »