Harriet Beecher Stowe is among the best known of the female novelists in nineteenth century America. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) was her most famous work, she published more than twenty-five novels, essays, and stories, some of them best-sellers, during the nineteenth century. The controversy and protest that surrounded Uncle Tom’s Cabin was related to the book’s subject, not to the fact that Stowe was a woman. A protest against the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it illegal to assist a slave’s escape or to provide sanctuary, the novel quickly became popular in England, where more than a million copies were sold. Stowe believed and practiced the doctrine that, if women lived exemplary Christian lives and practiced benevolence, they could transform American culture as they lived out their traditional roles. When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, women from across the world responded to this antislavery novel. Reportedly, a half million women in Europe and the British Isles sent twenty-six folio volumes called “Affectionate and Christian Address” to Stowe.
Several years before the French novelist Émile Zola introduced the “naturalistic” novel, Virginia-born Rebecca Harding Davis wrote a novel of social reform, Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman (1861). Because the book was published anonymously, whether Davis’ gender would have been an issue in gaining acceptance for her brilliant insights into the socioeconomic woes of factory workers in America cannot be known. Several of the leading writers and critics of the day considered the short novel to be a literary landmark.
Louisa May Alcott, the first woman to register when women were given limited suffrage in 1879, endeared herself to thousands of young women for her character Jo March in the classic book Little Women (1869). The novel was immediately successful, establishing Alcott as one of America’s most popular writers. She was active in the feminist movement of the nineteenth century, although one does not have to be concerned with Alcott’s feminism to appreciate the contribution of her work to the field of adolescent and young adult fiction.
It has been commented that by the beginning of the twentieth century, everything was permeated by “the woman question.” The fight to gain certain rights associated with the women’s movement was reaching a peak. In keeping with this current, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s now-classic novella The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) established Gilman as the leading feminist theorist in the United States during her lifetime. The Yellow Wallpaper, which chronicles the mental deterioration and confinement of a young married woman as the result of her oppressive environment, has been called the bible of the women’s movement and has been translated into seven languages. This story established her reputation in the United States as the leading feminist theorist of her day. Her novel Herland (1915) offers another influential statement about the cause of women. In this utopian work, three men discover a race of women who have lived without men for two millennia.
Novelist Willa Cather declared that The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), by her friend Sarah Orne Jewett, belonged among the “enduring novels” in American literature. Two leading poets of the day, John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell, also recognized Jewett’s talent, and Bowdoin College granted her an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 1901.
At the start of the twentieth century, the rapid development of technology saw the beginning of an erosion of traditional ways of life. Typical of that era were female writers such as Ellen Glasgow, whose novels explored Southern society. Once her first work was published, others followed in quick succession, and, in 1942, she was awarded the Pulitzer...
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