A Celebration of Women Writers

"Woman's Place in Letters." by Mrs. Annie Nathan Meyer
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893.. Chicago, ILL: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 135-137.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 135] 



I am going to begin by telling you something very pleasant. An officer of the A. A. W. told me the other day that when the association first began to hold congresses, twenty-one years ago, they had great difficulty in keeping the annual reports down to anything like the necessary economical limit. All the speakers were so very anxious to see themselves in print, and so unaccustomed to it, that any attempt at condensation was fiercely resented, while to omit a paper was to offend deeply. "We have difficulty with our reports now," she continued, "but it is a difficulty of another kind. A difficulty in securing a sufficient number of the addresses to make a respectable showing; for the women who address the annual congresses today are loath to give their papers for the report, because they can command their own price in the leading magazines." We know that women are writing a great deal today, and are doing some very good work. They are doing so much that it would be absurd to attempt to treat this subject fully. I shall merely, therefore, look at certain phases of the subject. I am interested particularly in the question: Has woman something specific, something sui generis to contribute to literature? One of our women writers tells us: "Once let woman wield the pen and thoughts will be put into books that have never been put there before, or at least some of the old things will be told from a side never before dreamed of." Unfortunately I am so constituted that when I encounter an interesting theory I always ask myself, Is it true? It is so easy to be philosophical and learned if one does not happen to be hampered by knowing very much about one's subject. We are told by Browning, Sludge the medium: "Don't let truth's lump rot stagnant for the lack of a timely helpful lie to leaven it." But I think on the contrary, with Ameil, that "An error is dangerous just according to the amount of truth it may contain."

Much as I would be interested in believing that woman, with the pen in her hand, has turned a new page of life before us, candor compels me to admit that if there is such a thing as sex in literature, I have not succeeded in discovering it. I look about me and observe that the very subjects upon which one would naturally expect women to throw a new light have really inspired the masterpieces of men. No woman, burning with the sense of wrong, could have painted the injustice of the social code of morals more forcibly, more tragically than Thomas Hardy did in his "Tess of the d'Urbervilles." No woman, eager to reconstruct and ennoble our ideal of marital obligation, could have held up its pitiable sham and conventionality with more inspired pen than was wielded by Henrik Ibsen in his "Ghosts and Doll-house." [Page 136]  Could any woman have depicted more sympathetically the hard, dull life of the faithful woman of the fields and prairies than Hamlin Garland and Major Kirkland and Bret Harte have done it? There was a little anonymous story that appeared in the "Century" a couple of years ago–I think it was called "A Common Story"–and I remember every one, myself included, was certain that only a woman could have written it, because only a woman could possibly have had the necessary insight. It revealed the love story of an old maid, and it struck a note that must have vibrated in every woman's heart. Yet this story was by that gifted young man, Walcott Balestier. I have heard various receipts for discovering the sex of an author, but have seen them all go down ingloriously before the simple strategy of the nom de plume. It was generally conceded that no one but a man could have painted the rugged solemnity of the Tennessee Mountains and the primitive poetry of the lives of the mountaineers as Charles Egbert Craddock did. At least it was conceded, before Mary Murfree modestly appeared before the startled eyes of the editor of the "Atlantic Monthly;" and I am sure that the claims of a certain man to the novels of George Eliot were immensely strengthened by the current view that it would be absurd to abscribe the simple, vigorous strength of "Adam Bede" to the hand of a woman. When we turn to those that would theorize about woman's place in the republic of letters, what ideas do we find current: First, and I think this reasoning is not entirely unfamiliar to you; we hear them say: "Woman is the heart, and man the mind. Woman stands for the emotions and man for the intellect." Therefore we should find that women may write charming love stories, but that it will be impossible for them to reveal any intellectual grasp; impossible for them to probe down into the deeper problems of life.

What do we find as an actual fact? We find the men critics showering anathemas at the authors of "Robert Elsmere" and "John Ward, Preacher," for bringing into the domain of a novel serious problems and non-emotional material that properly belong rather to the domain of philosophy or theology. Then, of course, we are told that women lack the broad sympathy that is so necessary to the novelist of today. As Mrs. Browning's Romney tells Aurora, "Women are sympathetic to the personal pangs, but hard to general suffering." And yet, think of the exquisitely tender delineation of the forbidding New England old maid by Mary Wilkins, and those two great stories that immortalized the wrongs of two races, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Romola." Then we are told that it is easy for women to write on fashionable society or of the village sewing circles, but in the very nature of things women are limited in their scope. It is impossible for them to depict the rough primitive life of the fields and mines, and yet right here in America we have Mary Hallock Foote, Octave Thanet, and Miss Elliot, the author of "Jerry," and so many others who seem to have gone straight down to the soil for inspiration. Then, of course, women have not had what are called "experiences." How can a woman in her sheltered innocence know anything of certain phases of life, or if she does possess sufficient imagination, how will she treat it? Surely she can only give us what some one has called: "The moral harshness of copy-book maxims," and yet with what passion and fire Mrs. Humphery Ward has given us the Parisian episode in the life of David Grieve; and think of Elizabeth Stewart Phelps' powerful and pitiful story, "Hedged In," and the breadth and insight of Olive Schreiner. I am sure no one has dealt with the character of a guilty woman more exquisitely, more tactfully, more sympathetically, and yet with more powerful irony and pathos than Mrs. K. Clifford did with her Mrs. North in her story, "Aunt Anne." While her Mrs. Walter Hibbert is a capital hit at the timid attitude of the average "good woman."

I heard the other day that Mr. Brander Mathews so keenly misses the sense of humor in woman that he has resolved the next time he marries to marry a man. No, I am not going to get angry about it, it hits Mrs. Mathews so much harder than it hits me; nor am I going to assist Mr. Mathews to prove his cause by taking his skit too seriously. But I cannot resist just a reference to the delightful quality of the humor of [Page 137]  Agnes Repplier, Mary Wilkins, Sarah Orme Jewett, Mrs. W. K. Clifford, and Mrs. Craigie, who is generally known by her pen name of John Oliver Hobbs. The humor of the last is so subtle, so whimsical, and so utterly pervasive that I have a suspicion in my mind that Mr. Mathews, in his ignorance of the nom de plume, was thinking of taking a certain Mr. John Oliver Hobbs as that second wife.

Let me here say something in connection with that terrible tirade that was launched forth by a certain Molly Elliott Seawall, a writer herself of novels of no common order. She said: "If all that women have ever done in literature was swept out of existence, the world would not lose a single masterpiece." I was amused the other day by a lady saying that it was our own dear president, Mrs. May Wright Sewall, who was the author of this attack. "Do you think," I said, when I had recovered from laughter sufficiently to speak, "that the president of the Woman's International Council could say such things without suffering impeachment?"

I am not discouraged by such remarks, although I think it absurd to say that women had produced no masterpieces, yet I am perfectly willing to admit that they have produced no genius of the very highest rank, the rank of Dante and Shakespeare and Milton and Goethe. But do you know the same thing precisely has been said of American literature? It is not interesting that they say both of American literature and woman's literature, if I may coin the phrase, that it has produced some clever and delightful writers, but no genius of the very highest rank. Mr. James Bryce has a good deal to say of this on his work on America, and he puts a good deal of the onus on the shoulders of our hurried, interrupted, unrestful life. But he thinks that America in time will settle down to create the highest kind of literature. That the time will come when America (and the same thing is true of woman) will no longer feel the necessity of proving her right to be. I am cheered by the words of Emerson: "The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; and uttered it again. * * * It came into him life; it went out from him truth and poetry."

Well, woman is still in her first age. She is slowly awakening from a long sleep, and is just beginning to look about her and see the world around. She is still brooding thereon. I am sure the time is not far distant when she shall translate life into forms of perfect truth and poetry.

[Page 135] 

Annie Nathan Meyer was born in New York City, 1867. Her parents were Robert Weeks Nathan and Annie Florence Nathan. Mrs. Meyer is a remarkably bright and attractive young woman, having much worth and great influence. She married Dr. Alfred Meyer of New York. Her special work has been in the interest of woman's education, having been largely instrumental in founding Barnard College. Her principal literary works are, "Helen Brent, M. D.," "Woman's Work in America," and various essays and stories appearing in periodicals. In religious faith she is a Jewess. Mrs. Meyer is a member of A. A. W. Her postoffice address is 749 Madison Avenue, New York, N. Y.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom