Tuesday, July 5, 2011

“Damned mob of scribbling women . . .”

A Youngish Nathaniel Hawthorne

Let’s investigate Nathaniel Hawthorne and his famous quote, shall we? 

In 1855, Hawthorne was serving as a diplomat in Liverpool and was frustrated with what he saw as a lull in his writing career.  So far from home and feeling he was becoming forgotten in literary circles, Hawthorne wrote a bitter letter of complaint to his publisher.  In it, he wrote, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed,” a private comment, written in a dark moment, that became the mantra used especially to dismiss nineteenth-century American women writers and women writers in general. 

What most people don’t know is that Hawthorne regretted his rash words and wrote another, calmer letter to his publisher a week later.  He also had, ahem, just finished reading Fanny Fern’s first novel, Ruth Hall. 

On Feb. 8, 1855, Hawthorne wrote, “In my last, I recollect, I bestowed some vituperation on female authors.  I have since been reading “Ruth Hall”; and I must say I enjoyed it a good deal.  The woman writes as if the devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading.  Generally women write like emasculated men, and are only distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly; but when they throw off the restraints of decency, and come before the public stark naked, as it were – then books are sure to possess character and value.  Can you tell me anything about this Fanny Fern?  If you meet her, I wish you would let her know how much I admire her.

Fanny certainly threw off her era’s “restraints of decency,” meaning – she was a woman who wrote exactly what she wanted to write for a public audience.  Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, became supporters and fans of Fanny Fern’s and Fanny, in turn, admired and supported the Hawthornes. 

Still, what do you think about Hawthorne’s “generally . . .” statement? 


  1. Well, I suppose you could tell Hawthorne a thing or two about this Fanny Fern! Seems most male writers of Hawthorne's generation had a difficult time respecting or even acknowledging women writers - I am thinking as well of Ralph Waldo Emerson's struggle to see women as anything other than "wives" or "muses."

  2. True! And how interesting that, in the end, Hawthorne liked Fanny Fern, even though he dismissed so many other "scribblers."

  3. I've been reading a very good article that addresses the meaning and influence of Hawthorne's "scribbling women" comment. Here is the citation info:

    Hawthorne and the Scribbling Women Reconsidered
    James D. Wallace
    American Literature , Vol. 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1990), pp. 201-222
    Published by: Duke University Press
    Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2926913

  4. Thank you . . . I'll have to take a peek at it!