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Making the “America of Art”

Cultural Nationalism and Nineteenth-Century Women Writers

Naomi Z. Sofer

“This is an elegant book—one of the most important literary syntheses to emerge in the last fifteen years.” —Joan Hedrick, Trinity College

“Excellent . . . essential” —Choice

“This book makes a major contribution to the field of American literature—it examines a key group of women writers at a key time in our nation’s history.” —Judith Fetterley, University at Albany, SUNY

By the end of the 19th century it had become possible for American women to identify themselves as serious Artists. This was a relatively new phenomenon, one that became possible only after American women writers had dismantled the conceptual frameworks that had authorized their artistic production since the early days of the Republic.

Making the “America of Art” demonstrates that beginning in the 1850s, women writers challenged the terms of the Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which had made artistic endeavors acceptable in the new Republic by subordinating aesthetic motivation to moral and educational goals. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Augusta Jane Evans drew on Ruskin to argue for the creation of a religiously based national aesthetic. In the postbellum years Louisa May Alcott, Rebecca Harding Davis, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Constance Fenimore Woolson continued the process in a series of writings that revolved around three central areas of concern: the place of the popular in the realm of high art; the role of the genius; and the legacy of the Civil War.

Sofer significantly revises the history of 19th-century American women’s authorship by detailing the gradual process that produced women writers wholly identified with literary high culture at the century’s end. Sofer argues that, counter to conventional wisdom, American women writers produced a large body of theoretical writing on the central aesthetic questions of the day. Although the writers Sofer studies were finally unable to construct viable new models for women’s artistic production, their attempts to do so are an essential piece of American literary history.

Naomi Z. Sofer is an independent scholar.

Jan 2005
Social Science/Women's History, Literary Criticism/American
320 pp. 6x9

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