February 26, 2017

The Bluestocking Bulletin--Feb.-Mar. 2017

The Bluestocking Bulletin

Feb.-Mar. 2017

The new year has brought many changes for me, including a transition away from writing full-time and a return to my job as a professor, which includes teaching and administering our graduate program. It has been a bittersweet time as I leave my writing desk (to which I return as often as I can to work on revisions) and rediscover how much I love the classroom too. There really is nothing like sharing ideas with students who make me think in new ways and deepen my appreciation for what literature has to offer us. 

My course called "The Lives of Girls and Women," which I mentioned in my last newsletter, has been an amazing experience so far, beginning with our discussion of Little Women at the beginning of the semester. Once again, my students pushed me to see Alcott's novel in new ways, and I am grateful for that. I even went back and tweaked a few passages in my manuscript to reflect the results of our discussions.

For the class as a whole, I have altered the reading list a bit since my last newsletter, but mostly I added stories by immigrant writers in response to our new administration's assault on immigrants. This week we discussed two stories by Hisaye Yamamoto--"Seventen Syllables" and "Miss Sasagawara"--the latter about he Japanese internment camps. Two days before our class met just happened to be the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt singing the order that led to the rounding up of Japanese Americans into cramped camps out in the dessert. 

We also began our discussion of the book that gives the course its title, Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and WomenWe had an amazing discussion on Thursday about the various lives of women that the narrator, Del, is exposed to in her youth--from a cousin who turns down a college scholarship, to aunts who choose not to marry, to her mother who has felt cheated in life. I find that I'm loving the book on a second read, and that the opportunity to discuss it with my students is helping me to see it in new ways. One student wrote on our pre-class discussion board about how Del's interests as a budding writer differ substantially from her Uncle Craig's dry approach to recording history, which dovetailed nicely with some comments Munro has made about her literary influences and the way she felt shut out from the male-dominated territory of the literary novel. Her Paris Review interview is a must-read. 

This month's profile comes from Kari Miller, who teaches literature at Perimeter College at Georgia State University and is currently at work on a book exploring Pilgrims and Puritans in American literature. She blogs at www.inventingthepilgrims.com.


Jane Goodwin Austin (1813-1894) 

by Kari Miller

Jane Goodwin Austin is the writer responsible for our modern understanding of the Thanksgiving story, yet while her version of events has lived on, her name has not. She was born Mary Jane Goodwin in 1831 in Worcester, Massachusetts, to parents who were descended from the Mayflower Pilgrims and quite proud of that heritage. Despite her father’s death before she was two and her family’s failing fortunes, she was educated at her sisters’ expense at the Bakersfield Academy and Literary Association, which suggests that Jane had an early interest in writing.
However, by nineteen she was married to Loring Henry Austin, a man twelve years her senior, whose family was also well-known to New England history. Four children were born to the couple within the next ten years. The early years of their marriage were comfortable; Loring was a man of means and the family resided in Concord, Massachusetts, where Jane would publish Fairy Dreams; or, Wanderings in Elf-Land, a collection of stories for children in 1859.  Most of her early works were published anonymously, but she soon began publishing as Jane Goodwin Austin, perhaps to distinguish herself from the English Jane Austen.
Austin was fairly well-established in Concord society. One letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests a casual friendship; she compliments him on his lectures and thanks him for the loan of a volume of poetry, then asks him for a reference to The Atlantic Monthly. Whether Emerson complied is unknown, but Austin’s first Atlantic publication appeared about nine months later.
She was also a friend of Louisa May Alcott. Born less than a year apart and fairly close neighbors, both women were also actively pursuing writing careers. Various histories of Concord recount the two on a boat trip, performing in a theatrical group, and vacationing together with other friends. Austin’s first sensational novel, Cipher, was published in 1869 with a dedication to “My Dear L,” thanking her for her help and wondering what the “boys” would say about the ventures of their “little craft.” Other intertextual references in each woman’s work suggest that they were discussing their writing and sharing ideas. Yet to date, no correspondence between the two has surfaced.
The Austin family fortunes seemed to have dwindled by the late 1860s, and Austin began to publish more often, most likely as a way to supplement the family income. As a result, her work during this period was less polished and more sensational. She experimented in a variety of genres. In addition to her popular works for children, most notably the very unique Civil War novel Dora Darling (1865), and her sensational, Gothic-style fiction, she also published a novel of manners critical of Boston society, Mrs. Beauchamp Brown (1880), which earned her some censure from her church and the community. Undeterred, Austin switched genres once again, and in 1883 she published Nantucket Scraps, a work of regionalist fiction.
By then Austin had already begun to dabble in the genre that would bring her the most fame, but ultimately also contribute to her loss of reputation. As early as 1869, she wrote imaginative short fiction about the Pilgrims, drawing on facts but also on family lore, and filling in with sensational tropes. In 1881, she published her first novel of historical fiction, A Nameless Nobleman, very loosely based on a family ancestor. She became increasingly interested in Pilgrim history, a trend which reflected the nation’s interest, and in 1889, her most popular work, a historical romance titled Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, was published.

The book went into multiple printings and was later offered as a two-volume illustrated set for children. Yet in a letter to her publisher, Austin lamented the fact that her “learned history” had been adapted for children. Standish of Standish provides a fairly detailed look at the early days of Plymouth Colony, and Austin draws heavily on historical records and follows the factual accounts closely. In her research, she visited Plymouth landmarks, read the primary sources at the Boston Athenæum, and corresponded with other Pilgrim ancestors.

Yet she also made use of fictional elements to dramatize the story, including a love triangle and witchcraft. She also greatly expanded upon the story of the first Thanksgiving. Firsthand accounts of that event suggest that the local native men, hearing gunfire from the Plymouth settlement, came to investigate, and stayed for the festivities once they discovered the Plymouth men were “exercising their armes” [sic] as part of a harvest festival celebration. In Austin’s version, however, the Pilgrims purposefully invite the Wampanoag to the celebration to thank them for their hospitality and assistance. Her version of the story soon caught on and was even repeated later in some scholarly histories.  
Thanksgiving was already becoming a national celebration, thanks to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale. But it wasn’t until Austin’s novel that the events of the “first” Thanksgiving became an integral part of the holiday. Standish of Standish was on recommended school reading lists well into the twentieth century, around the time that kindergarteners everywhere began the tradition of the “Pilgrims and Indians” play.
The success of Standish of Standish encouraged Austin to continue writing about the Pilgrims. She published Betty Alden: The First-Born Daughter of the Pilgrims in 1891 and then another collection of short fiction on the Pilgrims soon after. But when her husband died in 1892, she suffered emotional and financial difficulties, forcing her to return to her earlier sensationalist style and publish three mysteries in rapid succession. Her own health was failing as well.

After a bought of cholera, she was never able to finish the next installment of her Pilgrim series. Jane Goodwin Austin died on March 30, 1894. The list of pallbearers includes several prominent New England names, including Edward Everett Hale and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, and, most notably, honorary female pallbearers, including Julia Ward Howe and Louise Chandler Moulton.

 Although Austin’s work continued to be popular with the general public after her death, historians discounted and criticized her historical fiction. As a result, despite her impressive publication record and her impact on American culture, Austin’s name has been lost to history. Aside from a few mentions in various overviews of American women writers and my own dissertation, Austin’s work has received no scholarly attention.


Recommended Reading

A round-up of articles and books I've been reading (or listening to) that I think you'll like

In my class, we've read Nella Larsen's Quicksand, a devastating but powerful novel of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as short stories by Alice Dunbar Nelson, whom I featured in an earlier Bluestocking Bulletin, and Sui Sin Far, about whom I plan to write in the future. So stay tuned for that.

Malcom Gladwell has a podcast series called "Revisionist History" that one of my students introduced to me. The first episode, "The Lady Vanishes," is about a forgotten woman artist who took the British art world by storm in the late-ninetenth century, only to disappear from history. Her story leads Gladwell to think more broadly about why and how outsiders are let into exclusive institutions or communities as tokens, effectively slamming the door on future outsiders rather than allowing more in. It's a fascinating discussion that gets at the heart of how human beings are continually excluded based on sex, race, class, or other factors.

I also want to recommend a wonderful essay about May Alcott, Louisa's sister, who was an artist, but has been remembered more as the prototype of Amy in Little Women. "Empowering American Women Artists: The Travel Writings of May Alcott Nieriker," by Julia K. Dabbs, begins
Readers familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women may well remember the character of Amy, the youngest of the March sisters who longed to be a professional artist, only to give up on that dream after marrying Laurie. What is less well known is that Amy’s character was based largely on Louisa’s youngest sister May, who similarly was an artist and longed to travel to Europe to pursue her professional goals. It is also true that both May and Amy were pampered by family members, worried about the shape of their noses, and liked fine things. . . . However, that may be where the resemblances end. May was able to independently forge a successful career as an artist, and was more interested in empowering other women to do the same rather than fashioning herself into a graceful, domesticated butterfly.
You can read the rest of the piece here. And you can see more of May's artwork at the Orchard House site, where they feature her art on note cards, available for purchase.

I hope you have found here some useful, thought-provoking information and links about women writers. I'd love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and questions. (Just reply to this message.) You can find me on my Facebook author page (where I don't post anything political, just stuff about women writers). And if you enjoyed the newsletter, I hope you will share it with your friends. (You can use this link: https://tinyletter.com/abrioux.)

Until next time, Happy Reading!

Anne Boyd Rioux