Preface, Fall 1999, Vol. 18, No. 2

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Holly LairdUniversity of Tulsa
Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall 1999), 167-171

As I was teaching Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces earlier this fall in a graduate seminar on tum-of-the-century writing, I was struck by a passage in which Hopkins plays upon the word “safe.” Published in 1900, this novel places itself deliberately, first, in relation to a previous tum of the century, “in the early part of the year 1800 [when] the agitations of Great Britain over the increasing horrors of the slave trade carried on in the West Indian possessions of the Empire was about reaching a climax.”1 In this moment, embroiled in the debates over slavery, a wealthy Anglo-Bermudan family transplants itself to the more “liberal” soil of the southern United States (p. 28), in order to maintain its accumulated wealth and, only after consolidating this wealth, to free its slaves—neither of which aims succeeds. Later, the novel turns to its own moment, beginning in 1896, when a distant descendant of this West Indian family (and a protagonist of the novel), Dora, finds herself “taking full charge” of her mother’s household; from this point, the novel traces the progress of a Boston African American family and community and their political leaders in the late 1890s. The political excitement, anxiety, and debate over the “race question” cannot be separated from the “domestic” in this novel any more than they can be separated from the burden of the past. So too in our own moment of 1999-2000, it is important to recognize our embeddedness in these previous turn-of-the-century situations.

The irony of such millennial moments—in which, contradictorily, people find themselves simultaneously presaging a brave new future and self-protectively warding off change—is anticipated in the punning passage on the Montfort family’s “safe” (pp. 52-53). After relocation to “Newbern,” North Carolina, Mr. Montfort receives threats ensuant upon rumors spread that his wife is mulatto and that he means to free his slaves. In an effort once again to “save” both his household and his prosperity, Montfort begs his (duplicitous) friend, Pollock, a neighboring white plantation owner, “‘if anything happens to me, I want you to promise to help my wife and babies to get back to Bermuda.’ . . . ‘In that safe,’ continued Montfort, not heeding [Pollock’s] interruption, ‘you will find money and deeds; promise me that you will save them for my family.”‘ Pollock promises, whereupon Pollock convenes the secret “committee on public safety”—a vigilante group dedicated to upholding the “laws” of segregation, whereby no white man may jeopardize southern stability by marrying a woman of color or by freeing his slaves. As Pollock proceeds to tell his conspirators in this meeting, “if niggers are tolerated in any way, it will end in weakening the law, and then good-by to our institutions” (pp. 54-55).

In situations in which it is not possible to separate one’s “safety” from one’s “safe,” where sharp divisions are marked between a family’s safety and its neighbor’s, one people’s salvation and that of another people, the words “safe,” “save,” and “safety” alike become nearly meaningless. Or perhaps rather, these words become all too meaningful, as they collapse together in a complex evocation of yearning for one’s own desserts, envy of others’, terror at the challenge of those others. This is, of course, as much a problematic of 2000 as of 1800. When has wealth ever been more eagerly pursued or the survival of families and peoples ever seemed more dependent upon securing such wealth, investing in such securities? Amusing though Y2K worries may be to many of us in academia—purveyed with stunning speed through innumerable sites on the worldwide web—safety, salvation, and savings are as much keynotes now as in any time past.

In the lead article in this issue, Karen Hollinger and Teresa Winterhalter return us to Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 classic, Little Women, in order to confront the 1994 film adaptation with the long embattled history of women and feminism that the film covers over. As in our Spring 1999 issue, several articles in the current issue—including this article by Hollinger and Winterhalter—are focused on the domestic scene as a site of the political.2 Their article recovers not only Alcott’s ambivalent portrayal of domesticity—where a woman’s self-expression must be subdued to self-abnegation focused on helping others—but also the rich, difficult history of feminist efforts to describe and redescribe this ambivalence. These ambivalences are lost, as Hollinger and Winterhalter demonstrate, in the 1994 feminist triumphalism of Robin Swicord and Gillian Armstrong’s film. Against the desire of contemporary women to see themselves no longer “torn between little womanhood and nonconformity,” to “see ourselves [instead] . . . as women with the ability to transform even the legacy of a restrictive past into a history of female triumph,” these scholars resurrect the novel itself: “thick with patriarchally complicit aspects of [nineteenth-century gender] ideology.” Hollinger and Winterhalter’s article is notably also the first coauthored article recommended through our anonymous review process for publication in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature (thus the first article by coauthors since our two-part solicited forum on collaboration five years ago).

Tulsa Studies is fortunate to be able to include also in this Fall 1999 issue an article on Hopkins’s Contending Forces by Gloria T. Randle. In addition to uncovering what is political in the African American domestic, this article considers female-female psychological dynamics as a locus of political repro duction and potential reform. Randle focuses, first, on the way Montfort’s wife’s horrible end (she is whipped at a post by Pollock’s henchmen and then, abandoning her children to him, commits suicide in order to escape becoming his mistress) offers a critique of the creed of “true womanhood.” Randle then tums to the ways the discrepant relations of Dora to her son and daughter replicate gender inequities, both psychologically and socially, though they also foster unconscious resistance in Dora. Finally, Randle uncovers Dora and Sappho’s immanently Sapphic relationship with each other-a relationship that provides a subversive alternative to the marriages with which the novel more predictably concludes.

Continuing the interrogation of motherhood, in “Mother’s Pain, Mother’s Voice,” Margaret Bruzelius broadly addresses the religious specter of the Virgin Mary as “a uniquely powerful idea of motherhood [pervading] Western consciousness.” Taking as her central examples, on the one hand, the early twentieth-century Chilean poet (and Nobel Prize winner) Gabriela Mistral’s fierce poems and, on the other hand, French theorist Julia Kristeva’s discussions of maternity, Bruzelius probes the ways in which the inhibiting “cult” of Mary is recreated even in Mistral and Kristeva’s complex efforts to revise this tradition. Bruzelius launches a provocative critique in particular of the profoundly entrenched association of motherhood and suffering, which she sees as a legacy of Mariolatry.

Since the launching of the Woolf Studies Annual in 1995-a late-century development that we particularly applaud-the number of submissions of articles on Woolf to Tulsa Studies has decreased. So we are especially happy to feature two articles in this issue on this hugely important writer from the opening decades of the century. Karen Kaivola’s article on Woolf’s representations of androgyny undertakes the challenge posed by Kari Weil’s Androgyny and the Denial of Difference to “theorize” (in Kaivola’s words) “androgyny as one intermixed figure among others, [linking] the cultural work androgyny performs through gender to that performed by other intermediate figures, such as racial hybridity, hermaphroditism, and sexual inversion.” Further, she historicizes this analysis by contextualizing it in the political development of liberal constitutionalism (and “the reconceptualization of the individual that was one of its effects”) and in turn-of-the-century anxiety over “intermediate or impure forms of identity, fears that were fed by the convergence of nationalism and scientific rationalism.” This major reassessment of androgyny in Woolf’s texts concludes with a sophisticated reapplication of Wendy Brown’s concept of a “(fictional) egalitarian imaginary” to Woolf’s “intermix.”

Robin Hackett’s article offers itself as a “perverse” reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet VII by Woolf: “as I am imagining an early twentieth-century British feminist and pacifist like Virginia Woolf might read, and as The Waves encourages its readers to reread the sonnet . . . as a story of imperialism.” Hackett proceeds to demonstrate exhaustively why, in fact, such a reading is warranted by the evidence surrounding and within Woolf’s The Waves. Hackett’s ingenious and intricate argument thus returns us to the problem of nationhood partly raised by Kaivola and wittily shows us how Woolf’s novel does the work “of pressing readers to evaluate the imperialist and patriarchal force of Shakespeare’s use of a son-sun metaphor.” Against Shakespeare’s “promise of perpetual eminence for [his] heroically beautiful addressee,” Woolf pursues an antithetical theme of “cyclic individuation and reincorporation.”

One year ago, in spring 1998, Tulsa Studies published Jean Wyatt’s article on Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. In this issue, we revisit that novel with Donna L. Potts’s analysis of intertextuality and identity. In this profound consideration of the intersections between intertextuality and identity issues, Potts carefully examines the ways in which “Atwood’s intertextuality may therefore be read [both] as a postcolonial attempt to devise a discourse that displaces the effects of the colonizing gaze while still under its influence” and as a narrative that shows the “effect of colonization on Canada [to be] inseparable” from “the effect of patriarchy on Canadian women.” Dovetailing also with Kaivola’s discussion of the ambiguous political functions of hybridity, Potts works toward a different conclusion, arguing for “hybridization” as a “means of acknowledging and accepting multiplicity,” which permits, indeed facilitates, political movement.

Some of you with affiliations to or prior acquaintance with Tulsa may be interested to know that this fall, Atwood visits the city to be honored with the city’s highest honor for writers, the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award—a $20,000 award that, in the fifteen years of its existence, has been offered to only two other women writers, to Toni Morrison in 1988 and to Eudora Welty in 1991. At Tulsa Studies, of course, we are jumping up and down with joy at Margaret Atwood’s acceptance of this award.

This issue is capped by a contribution to our Archives section: a comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Caroline Kirkland, a prominent western American woman writer from the middle of the last century. In her introduction to this bibliography, Erika M. Kreger explains and reassesses the history of Kirkland’s career and reception: “In his time, Poe was not alone in praising the first American author to present a realistic vision of frontier life,” Kreger explains, but Kirkland also “went on to become . . . a prolific writer and editor in the New York publishing world,” and yet “few critical discussions of Kirkland have moved beyond her early western sketches.” Kreger’s bibliography thus takes an important step forward in broadening public knowledge of this influential American woman writer.

I would draw our readers’ attention also to the MLA Women’s Studies Division’s proposed sessions for the year 2000, organized by Robyn Wiegman (abstracts or papers should be sent to her by 10 March). The first panel, “Feminism against Time,” addresses issues and problems of temporality in feminist scholarship and theory. The second, “Feminism in Time,” concerns “Feminism’s emergence in historical time.” The third, “Feminism on Time,” focuses on feminist politics of historical, philosophical, and utopian time. For further details, see recent and forthcoming issues of the MLA Newsletter.

I wish to conclude this note with some words of thanks. We wish to thank our Book Review Editor Rosary Fazende, who has undertaken her duties to the journal for the last three years with zest and humor. Not only through the book review section, but in nearly all dimensions of the journal’s business, Rosary has left a lasting mark, contributing to the journal’s success in countless details. She is succeeded by Olivia Martin, who took over this position at the end of the summer and whom many of you have already met through email, snail mail, or the telephone. I want personally to thank both Rosary and Olivia for making this transition so smooth as to be nearly invisible.

We take particular pleasure in thanking our first “Saxifrage” donor—Ellen Adelson—an enduring friend to the University of Tulsa and now also to Tulsa Studies. We are deeply grateful to her for her financial support of the journal and its various activities, including especially its educational internships for students and its travel grants for scholars of women’s literature. She joins us in hoping that her first contribution will encourage others to offer support for all our efforts at Tulsa Studies.

Holly Laird
University of Tulsa

1 Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 17. This is the opening sentence of the novel. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.
2 See my “From the Editor” column in our spring 1999 issue for brief discussion of women writers’ insistence on domestic and social specificity at the tum of the century: Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 18, No. 1 (1999), 7.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]