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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Elizabeth Stoddard

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 excess.”

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.
Sybil Weir
San Jose State University

Sandra A. Zagarell
Oberlin College

In the Heath Anthology
Lemorne Versus Huell (1863)

Other Works
The Morgesons (1862)
Two Men (1865)
Temple House (1867)
Lolly Dink's Doings (1874)
Poems (1895)

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Elizabeth Stoddard
Brief biography and Stoddard's reflection on her work.

Project Guttenberg
The text of "Lemorne vs. Huell."

Secondary Sources

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)