Alice Cary (1820-1871)
Contributing Editor: Judith Fetterley
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students are turned off by what they perceive as her didacticism, the morals attached to the ends of the stories. They also have trouble with what they perceive as her Christian dogma or perspective. And occasionally they perceive her stories as sentimental.
These problems are endemic to the reading of texts by nineteenth-century American women writers. They are useful and interesting problems to encounter in the classroom because they raise quite clearly the issue of aesthetic value and how the context for determining what is good art changes over time. The instructor needs to be aware of how contemporary critics have addressed this issue. The single best book for the teacher to have and use is Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs. The instructor might wish to assign the last chapter of this book, "But Is It Any Good?" to the class, since this chapter raises directly the questions most of them have about nineteenth-century women's texts.
Compared to other nineteenth-century American women writers, Cary is minimally didactic, Christian, or "sentimental." So, in teaching her, my approach consists of comparing her work with that of writers who are much more didactic, Christian, and "sentimental" and asking how it is that she avoids these patterns. What fictional techniques has she developed to tell the story she has to tell without in fact resorting to didacticism, etc.? This usually leads into a discussion of the form of the short fictional piece, and more specifically into a discussion of regionalism. (See the forthcoming Norton Anthology of American Women Regional Writers, edited by Fetterley and Pryse.)
Students respond to the issue of story-telling--how women tell stories and the relation between their telling of stories and their context of domestic work. They are also interested in the issue of landscape--how Cary manages to create a mood through her description of the landscape and how she manages to convey the open-ended nature of her stories. Their lack of plot in the conventional sense is worthy of discussion as is the fact that Cary tells stories about women's lives and experience from the point of view of a female narrator.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
It is important to emphasize that Cary was essentially a self-made writer. She had little formal education, little support from family or extended personal contacts; yet she made herself into a poet whose name was known throughout the country. Her decision to move to New York in 1850 represented an extraordinary act of self-assertion for a woman at the time. She determined that she needed to get out of the "provinces" in order to have the literary career she wished and she did it. She set up a household in New York that included two of her sisters and she supported this household by her own work. She is an example of the way in which nineteenth-century American women writers were able to set up supportive networks that were based on connections with other women. She is an example of a nineteenth-century American woman writer who was genuinely financially independent of men. She ran her house, earned the money for it, and handled her money herself.
In terms of literary themes, it is important to emphasize the fact that Cary began to write seriously about her Ohio neighborhood after she left it for New York. She saw herself as trying to present a realistic picture of this neighborhood and to create a place in literature for the region, but she was able to do this only after she had left it for New York.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
It is important to point out that Cary thought of herself primarily as a poet. Her reputation during her lifetime and thereafter was based on her poetry. The conventions that governed poetry by women in the nineteenth century by and large produced a body of poetry that is not of interest to the late twentieth-century reader. The novel was also a highly determined form. Women were expected to write certain kinds of novels, to produce "women's fiction" with the appropriately feminine perspective and set of values. The short fictional sketch, however, was a relatively undetermined territory. It was not taken as seriously as were the novel and poetry and no theory existed as to what kind of fictional sketch a woman should or should not write in order to demonstrate that she was in fact a woman. As a result, in writing her Clovernook sketches Cary was on her own, so to speak. She was able to write organically, to let the shape of the fiction emerge from the nature of the story she wished to tell. As a result, her short fiction holds interest for the contemporary reader; it seems fresh, new, not written to fulfill convention or previously determined script, but deriving from some deep personal place that produces a uniquely marked and signed prose. Thus any discussion of Alice Cary needs to address the role that the form of the fictional sketch plays in creating fiction that interests us. In other words, the issue of form is central to the discussion of Alice Cary. Specific features of this form include: the freedom this form gives to focus on character and setting as opposed to plot; the lack of closure in many of Cary's sketches; the intermingling of realism and surrealism. For a fuller discussion of these and other issues relative to the form of the sketch in relation to Alice Cary, I refer the instructor to my "Introduction" to the Rutgers Press edition of the short fiction of Alice Cary, Clovernook Sketches and Other Stories.
It is also important to discuss the issue of realism in relation to Cary. Since American literary history, until very recently, has been based on a study of male writers, the predominant view is that realism began in America after the Civil War. However, women writers were experimenting with realism in the decades before the Civil War. Cary's "Preface" to the first volume of Clovernook sketches, published in 1852, lays out her theory of realism and the instructor should be familiar with it. She sees herself as participating in the effort to write about American subjects and she sees herself as doing something "new" in choosing to write about these subjects as "they really are." In making this choice she is in effect following the lead of writers like Kirkland and participating in the development of realism as a mode suited to the needs and interests of women writers in the nineteenth century. Alice Cary thus provides the instructor with the opportunity to at once raise the issue of the bias in literary history and the issue of the development of realism as an American mode.
As I have indicated above, Cary's primary audience during her lifetime was for her poetry. Her short fiction was not a big popular success and was not reprinted. But the nineteenth century, as I said before, did not take the genre of short fiction as seriously as it did that of poetry and the novel. So in a way this does not tell us much about how well her short fiction was received by her readers. Her short fiction, much of which was initially published in periodicals, may well have been as popular as that of any other contemporary writer, male or female. The point is that the genre itself was not as popular. Interestingly enough, however, Cary's greatest critical successes came from her short fiction. Once again, though, this may simply indicate that the genre itself was not taken very seriously.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Cary can be fruitfully compared with a number of different writers in a number of different contexts. She can be compared with writers like Poe and Hawthorne in her use of fiction as dream work and projection. She creates the same kind of uncanny, eerie, dreamlike atmosphere that they do. She can also be compared with them in terms of her use of the first-person narrator and the complexities of that narrator's relation to the story she tells and the characters she creates. She can also be compared with them in terms of her use of setting.
She can be compared with nineteenth-century women writers like Kirkland for her use of realism and for her commitment to telling the woman's side of the story. She can also be compared with other nineteenth-century women writers for her ability to avoid some of their didacticism, Christian moralizing, and "sentimentality."
She can be most interestingly compared to Emily Dickinson in her ability to place herself and her imagination at the center of her work. Very few nineteenth-century American women writers were able to overcome the dicta that required of women self-effacement in literature as in life. Dickinson overcame it by virtue of not publishing. Cary overcame it through her use of the nonconventional form of short fiction. Her work is remarkable for the sustained development of first-person narration. Her collections of Clovernook sketches are as much about the narrator as they are about anything else. She creates a remarkable I/eye for her work.
I refer the instructor to the discussion of Alice Cary in Provisions and to the "Introduction" to the Rutgers Press volume of Cary's short fiction, Clovernook Sketches and Other Stories. Also to Annette Kolodny, The Land Before Her.