Looking forward and backward: The utopian impulse in American women's fiction from Stowe to Gilman

Angelic Tina Rodgers-Webb

Abstract

This dissertation explores some of the different genres and movements of the period between the Civil War and the first World War and demonstrates the malleable nature of the categories used to classify literature. What is significant about this project is that I apply what Ernst Bloch termed the "utopian impulse" to works by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Louisa May Alcott, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and examine overlaps among genres and writers that traditional criticism have not considered together to show the tradition that extends from regional writers like Stowe to more overtly political writers, specifically Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Chapter One discusses of the nineteenth-century concept of genre and the role of W. D. Howells in the formation of American literary criticism. I also incorporate key concepts such as nation, home, commerce, politics, region, and utopia as suggested by Bloch to help us read beyond the culturally constructed boundaries which traditionally separate and limit genres not only in the literary canon but in the experience of the reader. The study then turns to texts such as Sarah Ome Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs which have been traditionally classified as regionalist texts. By using the concepts of location, home, and history to present alternatives for women, writers like Jewett and Freeman actually present their readers with characters who manipulate the system and rebel against social restrictions placed on women. By examining the ways in which these texts present alternatives to the status quo, we can argue against the traditional critical views of these texts as only participating in the past. Next, I demonstrate the similarities between regionalist texts and Louisa May Alcott's Work and Mary Wilkins Freeman's A Portion of Labor which are more overtly political texts. I also illustrate how these texts participate in the cultural conversation of labor reform and utopia. The project concludes by turning to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's overtly utopian novels and show how she looks to her literary fore-mothers to find a new narrative mode for her separatist feminist utopia. As a result, a literary strand is woven which exposes the fluidity of categories such as genre and periodization which have traditionally served as boundaries between texts.