December 16, 2012

Stoddard: even by those who condemn

"I am surprised at the profound impression the book makes," wrote Elizabeth Stoddard to Louise Chandler Moulton on December 16, 1865. "It cannot be resisted even by those who condemn." The book in question was Stoddard's Two Men, compelled one Boston critic to claim the book was "difficult of comprehension from its title to its two hundred and ninety-first page." Henry James privately called the book "nonsense."

In the same letter, Stoddard complains of financial woes and her difficulty in procuring appropriate clothes for a visit to her friend Moulton. She blames it on her high rent in New York, but also notes the lavish taste of her husband for "sherry, champagne, & claret." That husband, Richard Henry Stoddard, however, had published three books that week: King's Bell, Melodies & Madrigals, and Late Poets (all but the first were anthologies of other poets). "His hair is all grey with work," wrote his wife.

In this literary couple (pictured above in their later years), Mr. Stoddard was the more prolific and most lauded in his lifetime; he published several books of poetry and prose, biographies, as well as many collections of other writers (including an update of Rufus W. Griswold's Poets and Poetry of America). As for Mrs. Stoddard, her published work consists of three novels in the 1860s, a children's book, and a few short pieces published in periodicals.

In preparing Two Men, she admitted her writing was "coarse by nature." Friends and critics alike called the book inconsistent and unrealistic, but Stoddard did not agree: "I have an overwhelming perception of the back side of truth," she wrote. She believed her writing was devoid of the sentimentalism and forced virtue often so prevalent in contemporary women's writings. Two Men includes, for example, complex female characters and unhappy marriages. She lamented that she had to cater to the consumer market while also infusing serious originality into her work, likely resulting in the inconsistencies her book. Thomas Wentworth Higginson once compared the work of Emily Dickinson to Mrs. Stoddard, making one consider Dickinson's line "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant."

*My source for much of the information in this post is the newly published edition of The Selected Letters of Elizabeth Stoddard edited by Jennifer Putzi and Elizabeth Stockton.

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