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American Literature Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by melanie mae, United States Oct 14, 2003
Human Rights   Interviews


According to the critique by Carolyn Karcher, “Preconceiving Nineteenth Century American Literature: The Challenge of Women Writers,” author’s such as Catherine Sedgwick challenged the assertion that women are more prone to concentrate on “private, domestic, and trivial matters” and deserve more than marginal recognition in literary history. Since the old ‘paradigms’ (or world-view) by which to understand literary history ultimately have failed, we need to replace this paradigm with a new view. This is exactly the thesis of Carolyn Karcher, on page 782; “women writers produced some of the nineteenth century’s most intellectually serious, politically radical, and artistically innovative prose. “ Karcher challenged old accepted truths by addressing the works of serious female writers such as Sedgwick. Some of Karcher's accomplishments in a 21-year career devoted to enlightening young minds are: earning international acclaim as an expert in 19th-century American culture, recovering a forgotten voice in feminist and abolitionist writing and providing multi-cultural instruction in all her classes, and she is honored this year with both the Great Teacher Award and the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Throughout many detailed points, Karcher tests the assumption of the “(white) male canon” (781). Regardless of the theories of Richard Chase, Karcher goes on to define the writings of Cooper’s and Hawthorne’s female contemporaries, on page 782, as “realistic and revolutionary” rather than “indirect” or “abstract.” Another point she reinforces; “women writers (such as Catherine Maria Sedgwick) gravitated not toward the romance but toward the social novel; thus, integrating their contributions into literary history entails . . . modifying the critical paradigm of the romance as “most original and characteristic form” of the American novel. Hope Leslie does not “ignore the spectacle of man in society,” or gloss over character’s class origins, as Chase alleges of romance (783).

Amongst the most detailed and social aspects of Hope Leslie, Karcher is in favor of the realistically depicted Puritan community. As she says on page 783, “it functions not only as a ominous symbolic backdrop, but as an essential part of the heroines daily lives.” By contrast, The Scarlet Letter is missing the detailed social canvas that is present in Hope Leslie. “The fictional mode central to American literature . . . the social novel includes both the novel of manners and the novel of social criticism. Because of this social aspect “we can eavesdrop by the theological debates in Puritan households and social centers, attend the setting and serving of meals, share in the items of the menu and . . . participate in the rites of the Puritan Sabbath” (783). By means of the narrative of the Puritans, “Hope Leslie rejects the Puritan chroniclers’ portrayal of Native Americans as savages and explore the possibility of interracial marriage as an alternative to genocide” (784).

The social novel as Karcher explains in the same paragraph, allowed female writers such as Sedgwick to sketch or trace an outline of “the problems faced in real life and to identify resources which their readers, as well as their heroines, might draw in the struggle for self fulfillment” (783). By means of the female world of love, Sedgwick also “enmesh their heroines in a female network that includes mothers, surrogate mothers, friends, and . . . servants,” unlike Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Karcher supports this statement by describing of the role Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie. “Hope Leslie expresses her sense of sisterhood toward Native American women by freeing the healer Nelema and the noble warrior’s daughter Magawisca from prison” . . . at the end of the novel, yet another gesture of sisterhood comes from her Puritan friend Esther Downing, who ceded the man they both love to Hope (782).

Carolyn Karcher uses many examples of literary work, which should transform the old paradigms of the literary past. I liked her critique because she went deep into the complexities of articles from white to black women, as well as contrasting the works of Cooper and Melville, which broadened my appreciation of the novel Hope Leslie. She expresses the strength women writers such as Catherine Marie Sedgwick has on our generation. She supports her thesis by stating, “These sustaining relationships, crossings lines of class, race, and religion, serve both to reflect a historical feature of women’s lives and to affirm a political principle“(784). Some of these political principles, she included, are on major public issues, rather than the mere domestic trivial matters as the old paradigm concludes. Karcher gives a fine argument why we should rethink literary history, using Sedgwick as a great example.



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melanie mae

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Insightful Essay
Robert Margolis | Oct 16th, 2003
A very thoughtful discussion. It is tragic that women often do not get the same recognition as men in the same field (especially in history and the arts).

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