The Century Magazine
Helen Gray Cone
New York: October 1890

Woman in American Literature

  . . . Miss Sedgwick, past threescore, was still in the literary harness when the woman who was destined to bring the novel of New England to a fuller development reached fame at a bound with "Uncle Tom's Cabin." At last the artist's instinct and the purpose of the reformer were fused, as far as they are capable of fusion, in a story that still holds its reader, whether passive or protesting, with the grip of the master-hand. The inborn powers of Mrs. Stowe were fortunately developed in a home atmosphere that supplied deficiencies in training. Fate was kind in providing occasional stimulants for the feminine mind, though an adequate and regular supply was customarily withheld. Miss Sedgwick attributes an especial quickening force to the valuable selections read aloud by her father to his family; Miss Francis, as we have seen, owed much to the conversation of her brother. To Harriet Beecher was granted, outside her inspiring home circle, an extra stimulus in the early influence of the enthusiastic teacher whose portrait she has given us in the Jonathan Rossiter of "Oldtown Folks." A close knowledge of Scott's novels from her girlhood had its effect in shaping her methods of narration. She knew her Bible—perpetual fountain feeding the noblest streams of English literature—as Ruskin knew his. Residence for years near the Ohio border had familiarized her with some of the darkest aspects of slavery; so that when the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law roused her to the task of exhibiting the system in operation, she was as fully prepared to execute that task as a woman of New England birth and traditions well could be. Since the war Southern writers, producing with the ease of intimacy works steeped in the spirit of the South, have taught us much concerning negro character and manners, and have accustomed us to an accurate reproduction of dialect. The sublimity of Uncle Tom has been tried by the reality of the not less lovable Uncle Remus. But whatever blemishes or extravagances may appear to a critical eye in the great antislavery. novel, it still beats with that intense life which nearly forty years ago awoke a deep responsive thrill in the repressed heart of the North. We are at present chiefly concerned with its immense practical success. It was a "shot heard round the world." Ten thousand copies were sold in a few days; over three hundred thousand in a year; eight power presses were kept running day and night to supply the continual demand. The British Museum now contains thirty-five complete editions in English, and translations exist in at least twenty different languages. "Never did any American work have such success," exclaims Mrs. Child, in one of her enthusiastic letters. "It has done much to command respect for the faculties of woman." The influences are, indeed, broad and general which have since that day removed all restrictions tending to impress inferiority on the woman writer, so that the distinction of sex is lost in the distinction


of schools. Yet a special influence may be attributed to this single marked manifestation of force, to this imposing popular triumph. In the face of the fact that the one American book which had stormed Europe was the work of a woman, the old tone of patronage became ridiculous, the old sense of ordained and inevitable weakness on the part of the "female writer" became obsolete. Women henceforth, whatever their personal feelings in regard to the much-discussed book, were enabled, consciously or unconsciously, to hold the pen more firmly, to move it more freely. In New England fiction what a leap from the work of Miss Sedgwick, worthy as it is, to that of Mrs. Stowe! The field whence a few hardy growths were peeping seems to have been overflowed by a fertilizing river, so rich is its new yield. It is "the soul of Down East" that we find in "The Minister's Wooing" and "Oldtown Folks." Things spiritual are grasped with the insight of kinship, externals are drawn with the certainty of lifelong acquaintance. If we glance at the humorous side of the picture, surely no hand that ever wrought could have bettered one smile-provoking line in the familiar figure of Sam Lawson, the village do-nothing. There is a free-handedness in the treatment of this character not often found in more recent conscientious studies of local types; it is as a painting beside photographs. A certain inequality, it may be admitted, appears in the range of Mrs. Stowe's productions. They form links, more or less shining, between a time of confused and groping effort on the part of women and a time of definitely directed aims, of a concentration that has, inevitably, its own drawbacks.