Joanne Dobson

Author ~ Speaker ~ Teacher

Scholarly Work

When I was an undergraduate English major, there were no nineteenth-century American women writers. Oh, yes, there was Emily Dickinson, but my professor said we didn't have to pay much attention to her; she was "just a neurotic old maid flittering around her father's garden." When I read Emily Dickinson's poems, I LOVED them, but I was very young and kept it to myself. Then there was Louisa May Alcott, but she wrote for children, and Edith Wharton, but she was treated more as an early twentieth-century writer. I loved them, too, but not as much as Dickinson.

Years passed before I went to graduate school. Suddenly Emily Dickinson was an Important Poet, but there were few, if any, other nineteenth-century American women writers. It seemed very strange, as if Dickinson had been born directly from the head of Zeus, without a mother. Along with a couple of graduate school friends, I began to read musty volumes from the university library, books that hadn't been taken out since 1923. We read writers such as Susan Warner, Alice Cary, Maria Cummins, and we asked ourselves why these fascinating women writers had been so thoroughly "disappeared."

With the help of a few farseeing English professors at the University of Massachusetts, Martha Ackmann, Karen Dandurand and I founded what we initially thought would be a newsletter to inform other scholars of our findings. In so doing we came across other women scholars engaged in the same work of literary recovery, Nina Baym, Margo Culley, Judith Fetterley, Susan Harris, Elaine Showalter, Jane Tompkins, Sandra Zagarell. Our modest newsletter soon became LEGACY, a scholarly journal of American women writers that this year celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary.

One problem, however: there were not enough musty old volumes to go around. Leslie Mitchner, a visionary editor from Rutgers University Press, approached Elaine Showalter, Judith Fetterly and me about editing a reprint series. This eventually became the Rutgers American Women Writers series, eighteen volumes of novels, short stories, essays, and poems that have transformed the college American literature curriculum, allowing the voices of a vibrant and accomplished group of women to be heard once again. I am delighted to have been a part of their resurrection. Now Emily Dickinson has sisters.

Ed. The Hidden Hand: or, Capitola the Madcap, by E.D.E.N. Southworth, 1859
(Rutgers University Press, 1988)

"A startling yarn about cross-gender adventuring." American Literature

"A runaway best-seller when it was published in 1859; for years afterward, daring parents named their daughters Capitola, after its heroine, Capitola Black. . . . Fun to read . . ." Choice

"This comic melodrama draws for its humor . . . upon the heroine's cross-dressing and cross-gender identification." Nineteenth-Century Literature

Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth-Century America
(Indiana University Press, 1989)

Rejecting the view that interprets Emily Dickinson exclusively as a protomodernist poet, Joanne Dobson finds Dickinson rooted in the expressive assumptions of her contemporary women writers. By looking at Dickinson in the context of these writers, Dobson uncovers the effects of common grounding in a cultural ethos of femininity that mandated personal reticence. . . . [T]his study posits a complex interaction of personal preference and editorial policies that resulted in a community of expression with impact on women's writing and literary careers.