Date of Award

1-30-2012

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Thomas J. Slater, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

David Downing, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Timothy Sweet, Ph.D.

Abstract

The genesis of the self-fashioning of the nineteenth-century American woman lies in the convergence of contemporary theoretical concerns and thoughts about women derived from the classical philosophical works of Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, early American philosophers, and religious leaders. Closer examination of these philosophies in characterizations of women in American woman's literature in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveals the ways in which women view the possibility, or impossibility, of free choice and collective agency. Woman's literature contributes to the shaping of women's culture by providing opportunities for women to interact. They interact with the text, privately, when reading it for the first time. They interact with other women to exchange copies of various texts, and they interact with other women when they discuss what they are reading in parlor and salon gatherings. Through this process of exchange, a woman reader may discover selfhood and be comforted in the recognition of a self-made community of women--a safe community in which she can discuss varying themes and explore the depths of their meaning with other women. Women authors of the period not only try to define what it means to be an American but also what it means to be an American woman. Their works carry into the nineteenth century questions of nationalism and reform; in addition, questions on spirituality, civic engagement, marriage, and motherhood become frequent themes. These themes vary according to the regional identity, class, and the socio-economic status of the author. Like most established literature, woman's literature employs many literary conventions to express a wide spectrum of cultural and humanistic themes not necessarily unique to women, but part of their experience, nevertheless. Central to this discussion is an examination of the ways in which women readers internalized the actions and characterizations of women in fashioning their identities through resistance or acceptance of new ideals.

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