| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Elizabeth Stoddard’s writings present women strongly moved by
passion, struggling for self-realization, and rejecting conventional piety with
its emphasis on female self-sacrifice. Writing in an era which endorsed “the
cult of true womanhood,” Stoddard failed to find an audience, not only because
of her unconventional characterization of women, but also because of her
cryptic narrative strategies. Nevertheless, during her lifetime, Stoddard
managed to publish three novels, approximately 75 newspaper columns, 40 or so
poems, and more than 80 prose works.
Stoddard was born and
raised in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, a fishing village on the northwest shore
of Buzzard’s Bay. The bleak, seacoast landscape of Stoddard’s youth, a
landscape which seemingly gave rise to intense, fixated, and often bizarre
passions, provided the setting and the characters found in her best work,
including all three of her novels. Almost pathologically close to her family,
particularly to her brother Wilson Barstow, Stoddard left Mattapoisett only
briefly until her marriage; she attended Wheaton Female Seminary for one term
in 1837 and again in 1840–1841; she traveled in New England and to New York
City where, in 1851, she met Richard Stoddard, an aspiring poet.
During an era that
emphasized feminine domesticity, Stoddard struggled to find her own identity
both as a woman and as a writer. In letters written to a friend in the early
1850s, she expresses her sense of being different from other women,
sexually passionate, intellectual, indomitably self-possessed, seeing marriage
as a battle for mastery rather than a peaceful state, and estimating future
motherhood as a distraction from her true purposes. Not surprisingly, the
heroines of Stoddard’s fiction display these attributes rather than those
glorified in the ideology of true womanhood.
Married in 1852,
Elizabeth and Richard lived in New York City, always on the edge of poverty.
Elizabeth bore three children, only one of whom lived to adulthood. The couple
sporadically held a salon for aspiring artists, actors, and writers, members of
what literary historians have called “the genteel circle.” Richard encouraged
Elizabeth’s writings and recognized her originality and her genius, but most of
the other writers in their circle called her “The Pythoness” and wrote that she
was mentally and morally diseased.
During the 1850s
Stoddard began publishing poetry, sketches, and short fiction. Most important
among these apprentice efforts was a bi-monthly column that she wrote between
1854 and 1858 for the Daily Alta California, San Francisco’s oldest
daily newspaper. With great wit, Stoddard’s “letters” regularly reported on the
New York cultural scene, the newest books, fashions, scandals, opera stars,
painters. These columns reveal Stoddard’s iconoclasm about the received pieties
of the day—manifest destiny, established religion, the confinement of women to
the domestic sphere. In particular, Stoddard’s columns mocked the values of the
sentimental novel with its “eternal preachment about self-denial”; she asks,
“Is goodness, then, incompatible with the enjoyment of the senses?” Stoddard
looked to the Brontës rather than to American women writers as models for her
own literary efforts.
Stoddard wrote all
three of her novels during the 1860s. Although her work questions many of the
cherished assumptions of the sentimental tradition, she uses the structure of
the sentimental novel to mock its domestic feminism and to demonstrate that the
romantic quest for total empowerment is inevitably defeated by the institutions
of society. In her first novel, The Morgesons (1862), the heroine,
Cassandra Morgeson, evolves into a mature, passionate woman who has accepted
her essential isolation in a world in which social institutions are decaying,
nature is indifferent, and the existence of God problematical. Lawrence Buell
and Sandra Zagarell, in their excellent critical introduction to The
Morgesons and Other Writings, aptly compare Stoddard’s conception of
Cassandra with Margaret Fuller’s feminist insistence on self-realization.
Stoddard’s other two
novels, Two Men (1865) and Temple House (1867), present the New
England family as the locus of power struggles, incestuous impulses,
hatred, and guilt rather than as a domestic sanctuary. When Thomas Wentworth
Higginson first visited Emily Dickinson’s household in Amherst, he wrote his
wife that he was reminded of the families in Stoddard’s novels. Indeed,
Stoddard’s New England, as the critic Mary Moss noted, is “A country of
hereditary taints, of families divided against themselves, of violence, of
During the 1860s
Stoddard also published the best of her short prose, often set in the New
England of her childhood, utilizing popular stereotypes and plot conventions to
question the values associated with those stereotypes. Her last major
achievement was her collection of children’s tales called Lolly Dinks’
Doings (1874), a perplexing mixture of the whimsical and the bizarre.
Increasingly, however, the poverty of her life with Richard forced her to
become a hack writer; she became a bitter, often tiresome woman, who doubted
her own gifts and alienated many of the couple’s friends.
Despite the failure of
Stoddard’s three novels to sell, they impressed critics, including Nathaniel
Hawthorne, William Dean Howells, and E. C. Stedman. The novels were reprinted
twice in her lifetime, in 1888–1889 and in 1901 but again failed to capture the
interest of the public although the critical reception was favorable. Stoddard
was long forgotten after her death in 1902. But the maverick qualities that put
off so many of her contemporaries have contributed to the upsurge of interest
in her in our time.
San Jose State
In the Heath Anthology
Lemorne Versus Huell
Lolly Dink's Doings
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Brief biography and Stoddard's reflection on her work.
The text of "Lemorne vs. Huell."
Stacy Alaimo, "Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons: A Feminist Dialogics of Bildung and Descent," Legacy 8 (1991)
Lawrence Buell and Sandra A. Zagarell, "Biographical and Critical Introduction," The Morgesons and Other Writings, Published and Unpublished by Elizabeth Stoddard, 1984
Susan Harris, 19th-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretive Strategies, 1990
Sandra A. Zagarell, "The Repossession of a Heritage; Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons," Studies in American Fiction 13 (1985)