May 6, 2011

Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard: I like devils

She was born Elizabeth Drew Barstow in Massachusetts on May 6, 1823, but she later became Mrs. Richard Henry Stoddard in 1852 and thereafter lived in New York. Her husband was a well-known and respected critic, but Mrs. Stoddard held her own as a poet and novelist (coincidentally, her father's shipyard built the Acushnet). Mrs. Stoddard published her first story in the Atlantic in 1861; her novel, The Morgesons, was published a year later.

The novel follows Cassandra, a young woman from New England, as she searches for her place in the world. Oppressed by family and society, she attempts to break free from the expectations of domesticity and her role as a woman. "Cassandra, that man is a devil," a friend warns in one scene. "I like devils," she responds.

Recent scholars have tried to reclaim The Morgesons as an important step in women's literature. At the time of publication, it was unnoticed or dismissed. It did, however, elicit from Henry James what Alfred Habegger called "the most ferocious, in fact vicious, review Henry James is known to have written":

[The Morgesons] possessed not even the slightest mechanical coherency. It was a long tedious record of incoherent dialogue between persons irresponsible in their sayings and doings even to the verge of insanity. Of narrative, of exposition, of statement, there was not a page in the book... [The reader] arose with his head full of impressions as lively as they were disagreeable.

*Information from this post was gleaned in part from Henry James and the 'Woman Business' (2004) by Alfred Habegger.


  1. A scathing review from Henry James! I love it.

  2. I appreciate being able to click on "a poet" and be directed to Stoddard's work. It gives context to the rest of the post, and allows me to make up my mind about the quality of work.


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