American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

The Ungallant Cynic

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A few weeks back, Jessica Smith wrote on her blog, “most of the great poets writing today are women.”

At the time, I didn’t have an opinion on the matter — or rather, I had a lot of opinions, but no urge to sort them — so I put it all out of my head. But then, yesterday, reading James L. Onderdonk’s History of American Verse (1901), I came upon a characterization that brought it back to mind.

According to Onderdonk, there were no women poets worthy of mention after Anne Bradstreet … until the Revolution, at which time a great many came to sudden prominence. Onderdonk names five — Phillis Wheatley, Mercy Otis Warren, Ann Eliza Bleeker, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, Susannah Rowson — then gives brief summaries of their lives — not their work — before offering the following:

Taking them all in all, these songstresses constituted a singular group. An ungallant cynic might well ask what degree of literary excellence would be expected of a band made up chiefly of a negro slave, a female revolutionist, a hypochondriac, a society belle, and a gushing sentimentalist. Yet it was from such a heterogeneous source that our infant literature was receiving its nourishment.

Which means, of course, that ours is not the first period about which it might be said, most of the best are women. Though in Onderdonk’s case, the claim is not exactly a rousing endorsement. He offers it with a trace of disgust. In fact, the disgust is what I find most noteworthy, the deference he shows to the “ungallant cynic,” whose point of view is put forward in the very act of being disclaimed.

The cynic, of course, is Onderdonk himself, who imagines that we all must be cynics too. Predisposed to dismissing these women for their status, their occupations, their personal qualities, he reminds himself — I mean, he reminds us — that they are nonetheless mothers, or anyhow nursemaids, deserving of respect, if only for the sake of the infant they nourish.

Is there a lesson in this? Probably not. But it does make me realize how dissimulating a business claim-making is. Offered as a description of poetry, a claim is more often a way of constituting the world — the world we think we inhabit. Does that world embarrass us? Excite us? Annoy us? Bring contentment? And why? The why of the feeling is at least as important as the truth of the claim that generates it.

As for me, what I mostly feel now is curiosity. About Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson. I seem to have missed her in David Shields’s anthology.

As far as worlds go: I want one big enough to get lost in.

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