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Elizabeth Drew Stoddard

Elizabeth Drew Stoddard, née Barstow (May 6, 1823 – August 1, 1902), United States poet and novelist, was born in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts.


Elizabeth Stoddard was born Elizabeth Drew Barstow in the small coastal town of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. After her marriage in 1852 to poet Richard Henry Stoddard, the couple settled permanently in New York City, where they belonged to New York's vibrant, close-knit literary and artistic circles.

She studied at Wheaton Seminary, Norton, Massachusetts. After her marriage to Richard Henry Stoddard in 1852 she assisted her husband in his literary work, and contributed stories, poems and essays to the periodicals.

She is most widely known today as the author of The Morgesons (1862), her first of three novels. Her other two novels are Two Men (1865) and Temple House (1867). Stoddard was also a prolific writer of short stories, children's tales, poems, essays, travel writing, and journalism pieces.

Elizabeth Stoddard combines the narrative style of the popular nineteenth-century male-centered bildungsroman with the conventions of women's romantic fiction in this revolutionary exploration of the conflict between a woman's instinct, passion, and will, and the social taboos, family allegiances, and traditional New England restraint that inhibit her.

Her most studied work, The Morgesons is set in a small seaport town, and is the dramatic story of Cassandra Morgeson's fight against social and religious norms in a quest for sexual, spiritual, and economic autonomy. An indomitable heroine, Cassandra not only achieves an equal and complete love with her husband and ownership of her family's property, but also masters the skills and accomplishments expected of women. Counterpointed with the stultified lives of her aunt, mother, and sister, Cassandra's success is a striking and radical affirmation of women's power to shape their own destinies. Embodying the convergence of the melodrama and sexual undercurrents of gothic romance and Victorian social realism, The Morgesons marks an important transition in the development of the novel and evoked comparisons during Stoddard's lifetime with such masters as Honoré de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

One major source of Stoddard's importance to American literature is the historicism of her work, the manner in which her writing embodied and subverted the tension of her present-day culture with the archetypal or received values of the American past. Interestingly, as Stoddard was being incorporated into the New England literary tradition, a competitive model emerged in the American South.

At a time when sectional conflicts were dividing the nation, five best-selling southern domestic novelists vigorously came to the defense of their native region. In response to northern criticism, Caroline Gilman, Caroline Hentz, Maria McIntosh, Mary Virginia Terhune, and Sugusta Jane Evans presented through their fiction what they believed to be the "true" South. From the mid-1830s through 1866, these five novelists wrote about an ordered South governed by the aristocratic ethic of noblesse oblige, and argued that slavery was part of a larger system of reciprocal relationships that made southern society the moral superior of the individualistic North.

Scholars have typically approached the domestic novel as a national rather than a regional phenomenon, assuming that because practically all domestic fiction was written by and for women, the elements of all domestic novels are essentially identical. Elizabeth Moss corrected that simplification, locating Gilman Hentz, McIntosh, Terhune, and Evans within the broader context of antebellum social and political culture and establishing their lives and works as important sources of information concerning the attitudes of southerners, particularly southern women, toward power and authority within their society. Moss’s study of the novels of these women challenges the "transhistorical view" of women’s history and integrates women into the larger context of antebellum southern history.

Whereas northern readers and writers of domestic fiction may have been interested in changing their society, their southern counterparts were concerned with strengthening and sustaining the South’s existing social structure. According to Moss, the southern domestic novelists did more than reiterate the ideology of the ruling class; they also developed a compelling defense of slavery in terms of southern culture that reflected their perceptions of southern society and women’s place within it.

Originally published between 1859 and 1890 in such magazines as Harper's Monthly, Harper's Bazaar, and The Atlantic Monthly, Stoddard's stories prove her to have had one of the most original and unique voices in nineteenth-century American literature.

A pioneering predecessor of regionalist authors Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin, as well as a precursor of American modernism, Stoddard's writing is remarkable for its almost total lack of sentimentality, pervasive use of irony, psychological depth of richly drawn characters, intense atmospheric descriptions of New England, concise language, and innovative use of narrative voice and structure. Her investigation of relations between the sexes, a dominant focus of her fiction, analyzes emotions ranging from love and desire to disdain, aggression, and depression.

Further reading

  • Stoddard, Elizabeth (1997). The Morgesons. Toronto: Penguin Classics. ISBN 0140436510.  
  • Stoddard, Elizabeth (2008). Two Men. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 080329347X.  
  • Felker, Christopher D. (1993). Reinventing Cotton Mather in the American Renaissance: Magnalia Christi Americana in Hawthorne, Stowe, and Stoddard. Boston: Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1-55553-187-3.  
  • Opfermann, Susanne (2003). Stories. Boston: Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1-55553-562-3.   [1]
  • Putzi, Jennifer ""Tattooed still": The Inscription of Female Agency in Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons" Legacy - Volume 17, Number 2, 2000, pp. 165-173 University of Nebraska Press
  • Moss, Elizabeth (1992). Domestic Novelists in the Old South. baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-2796-5.   [2]
  • Smith, Robert McClure and Ellen Weinauer, eds. American Culture, Canons, and the Case of Elizabeth Stoddard. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2003
  • Stockton, Elizabeth. “ ‘A Crusade against Duty’: Property, Self-Possession, and the Law in the Novels of Elizabeth Stoddard.” The New England Quarterly 79.3 (2006): 413-438.

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