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Bawdy talk: The politics of women's public speech in nineteenth-century American literature and culture

By Caroline Field Levander

Abstract

Throughout the pages of nineteenth-century American fiction men remain fascinated by the sound of women's speech. Literary depictions of men's intense interest in women's pleasing and distinct utterance occur with a frequency that suggest not so much that there "are" unalterable differences between American men's and women's speech, but that the imagining of that difference is central to the nation's understanding of itself as a distinct entity or to the creation of what Lauren Berlant calls a "national symbolic." These lengthy depictions of women's speech thus participate in cultural work of a profound, enduring, and to date unspecified nature. It is the project of this dissertation to describe the cultural burden placed on women's language in mainstream nineteenth-century American literature and, then, to carve out new ways of thinking about the public significance of women's speech and its impact on the nineteenth-century political arena. In chapter one, I analyze the writings of, among others, Henry James, Sarah Hale, and Noah Webster in order to show that the separation of women's speech from the public arena was a process that depended for its success on the attention that men paid to the sound of women's talk and to the desire that sound produced. In short, I establish a clear relation between the creation and reinforcement of the public sphere and the depictions of women's speech that occur repeatedly in American fiction. In my second chapter, however, I show that by mid-century a minority of American writers, including Herman Melville and E. D. E. N. Southworth had begun arguing that the sexually explicit subject matter, rather than eroticized sound, of women's language recenters their speech in the public sphere. Using their figuration as a departure point, I show, in chapters three through six, how Maria Monk, Caroline Lee Hentz, Harriet Jacobs, Lillie Devereux Blake, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps employed and foregrounded this alternative paradigm of women's speech in their political fictions in order to influence, respectively, the nativist, pro-slavery, abolitionist, women's suffrage, and labor reform movements. My analysis thus revises the critical consensus that nineteenth-century women's speech failed to impact America's political life

Topics: American literature, Women's studies, Speech communication, American history, Political science
Year: 1995
OAI identifier: oai:scholarship.rice.edu:1911/16845
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