Portrayal of Woman's Sentimental Power in American Domestic Fiction

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This work seeks to rediscover the fiction of Mary Jane Holmes (1825-1907) and examine contrasting factors which made her work popular in the nineteenth century but virtually unknown in the twentieth century. The emphasis of the study is on cultural poetics and feminism, establishing a critique of how late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics decontextualized Holme’s work which resulted in their inability to recognize the cultural work that her fiction performed for both the middle-class and mass readership of her day. In contrast to such readings, this study constitutes an argument for the relational value of Holmes’s narratives. By focusing on the work of such critics as Jane Tompkins, Nancy Chodorow, Stephan Greenblatt, Mary Louise Kete, Joanne Dobson and Carol Gilligan, a new and much needed theory is established for examining the texts that appeal to Holmes’s audience, while uncovering the cultural value of popular sentimental works such as those that Holmes creates. The theory developed is then utilized to examine various aspects of relational capacity that women writers present and that their works are based on, enabling them to relate to their culture and readers. The theory provides a means of analyzing popular women writers who have been undervalued by the academy, which has been founded on masculine doctrine.


“I welcome the opportunity to introduce readers to Professor Yarington’s work on both Mary Jane Holmes and relational capacity theory. Importantly, his text directs further attention toward Holmes’s mostly neglected novels. Even more significantly, this study analyzing Holmes’s novels as representations of nineteenth-century American women’s lives described in a sentimental language and through sentimental identification – a strategy that would have been familiar and meaningful to Holmes’s readers. Further, he places Holmes’s works into the literary landscape that included Hawthorne, Copper, Melville, and Twain, and argues that the canon of American literature cannot be complete without including the extremely popular domestic fiction of the time. To that end, Dr. Yarington develops a literary theory – relational capacity theory – that challenges the myth of the male hero in American fiction who thrives outside of the domestic sphere and away from women, children, and familial bonds. . . .Dr. Yarington’s scholarly attention reflects not only an increased awareness and interest in the condition of women in the nineteenth century, but the possibility of seeing an author such as Mary Jane Holmes as more than a popular writer of domestic fiction, but actually as an important contributor to and representative of the American literary tradition. Scholars and critics who are looking seriously at the genre of domestic fiction are dignifying authors such as Mary Jane Holmes who took herself seriously, wrote her life into works, and had a message that resonated with her readership.” – (from the Foreword) Professor Lee Ann Elliott-Westman, Ferris State University

“Against current popular opinion that women writers like Holmes were exploiting women’s subservience and subordination to social institutions (like marriage) largely directed and determined by men, Dr. Yarington convincingly argues that modern critics have largely taken ‘Holmes out of context’ and failed to see how Holmes was able to ‘negotiate with the male patriarchy’ of her era to achieve certain – subtle and even times subversive – forms of equality and independence. His most salient point may well be that Homes, and female novelists of the nineteenth century like her, who sought to preserve the sanctity of ‘home, religion and family’ did indeed strive simultaneously to forge ahead for ‘equality, human rights, and social acceptance’ in the professional domain as well as the personal domain.” – Professor Kimberly Vanderlaan, Cheyney University

“Dr. Yarington’s primary contribution to American literary criticism in this study is that he rediscovers Mary Jane Holmes, who has been long forgotten and undervalued in the American literary tradition in spite of her prolific publication and extreme popularity during her own time ... His research not only redeems one writer, but it also sheds light on understanding other underappreciated writers. His approach emphasizes a contextual reading and questions the values and expectations prescribed in the literary field that is often driven by elitist masculine doctrine that may exclude and dismiss others.” – Professor Youngsook Jeong, West Chester University

Table of Contents

Foreword by Lee Ann Elliot-Westman
1. Introduction: Holmes, the Rediscovered Author
2. Canonicity and the Exclusion of Holmes
3. Sentimentality: Its Stigma, Its Function
4. Holmes and the Nineteenth-Century Market
5. Relational Capacity Theory
6. “Her Works Shall Live”
Works Cited

Other Literature - American Books