Why, for example, did Britain produce several women novelists of genius during the 19th century — Jane Austen, George Eliot and the BrontÃ«s, as well as accomplished lesser artists like Elizabeth Gaskell — while America did not? That question could (and sometimes does) lead to a lot of speculation on the national characters of the English-speaking peoples, but Showalter mentions an equally plausible, practical cause: “While English women novelists, even those as poor as the BrontÃ«s, had servants, American women were expected to clean, cook and sew; even in the South, white women in slaveholding families were trained in domestic arts.” Quite a few of the short biographical sketches she offers feature women complaining about being compelled by parents to learn to make pies or mend when they would rather write. In 1877, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps made the heroine of her novel, “The Story of Avis,” fume, “I hate to make my bed, and I hate, hate to sew chemises, and I hate, hate, hate to go cooking round the kitchen.”
Housework in America has never been an uncomplicated matter. The class system in Britain consigned a certain set of people to this humble labor, while America promised the enterprising among them an opportunity to make something more of their lives. Nevertheless, the cooking and cleaning still had to be done — especially on the small family farms that were the economic engines of early America — and so the responsibility for it was transferred from a servant class to the female relatives of the new republic’s self-made men.
America is the first nation united by ideas rather than a shared cultural and racial history, and foremost among those ideas is the paradigm of self-invention, via hard work, in the free territory of the frontier. Our literary culture has always hankered after fiction that, in one way or another, embodies this hope. “The answer to the American quest for originality,” Showalter writes, “seemed to lie in the coming of the poet-hero, a genius who, through divine inspiration, would create immortal works, and an art commensurate with the vastness of the nation and the scope of its dreams.”
Like most things liberalized, the writers at Salon sometimes seem to be arguing for the other side, as if they’ve tired of the neurotic underpinnings of their own belief and, although they must go on pleasing their audience, they’re going to slip in a joke of their own.
If a woman has high intelligence, like Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson, it makes sense that she has someone else to do the menial tasks of life — whether this means living in a monastery/cloister or having servants; doesn’t matter which. A caste system provides either or both as options.
The Great American Novel is a fiction of the Ego; the idea that each of us creates him or herself, and so at some point, we make brilliance out of who we are through sheer gumption. It’s interesting that the great American novels in existence are mostly negative critiques of that idea.