The Artistry of Anger: Black and White Women's Literature in America, 1820-1860

The Artistry of Anger: Black and White Women's Literature in America, 1820-1860

by Linda M. Grasso

Paperback(1)

$39.95
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, October 24

Overview

In this compelling interdisciplinary study, Linda Grasso demonstrates that using anger as a mode of analysis and the basis of an aesthetic transforms our understanding of American women's literary history. Exploring how black and white nineteenth-century women writers defined, expressed, and dramatized anger, Grasso reconceptualizes antebellum women's writing and illuminates an unrecognized tradition of discontent in American literature. She maintains that two equally powerful forces shaped this tradition: women's anger at their exclusion from the democratic promise of America, and the cultural prohibition against its public articulation.

Grasso challenges the common notion that nineteenth-century women's writing is confined to domestic themes and shows instead how women channeled their anger into art that addresses complex political issues such as slavery, nation-building, gender arrangements, and race relations. Cutting across racial and genre boundaries, she considers works by Lydia Maria Child, Maria W. Stewart, Fanny Fern, and Harriet Wilson as superb examples of the artistry of angry expression. Transforming their anger through literary imagination, these writers bequeathed their vision of an alternative America both to their contemporaries and to subsequent generations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807853481
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 03/04/2002
Series: Gender and American Culture
Edition description: 1
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Linda M. Grasso is professor of English at York College, the City University of New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Artistry of Anger
Black and White Women's Literature in America, 1820-1860

By Linda M. Grasso

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826820



Part I. The Anger Paradigm: Theories and Contexts


Chapter One


Anger as Analysis and Aesthetic in American Women's Literature


[T]he emotion which accompanies the first steps toward liberation is, for most women, anger. . . . Through the exercise of your anger . . . you gain strength. . . . [A]nger finds its ultimate meaning as an experience shared with other women. All striving to understand their collective situation, women in a group can help each other through the first, painful phase of outward-directed anger. . . . Controlled, directed, but nonetheless passionate, anger moves from the personal to the political and becomes a force for shaping our new destiny. —Susi Kaplow, "Getting Angry" (1971)


Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation. . . . Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. —Audre Lorde, "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism" (1981)


To women envisioning a new America in the 1970s, anger was a vital political tool. It enabled new perspectives, new understandings of oppressive conditions that had previously remained unquestioned. In essays, speeches, manifestos, and direct actions, feminist revolutionaries liberated anger from pejorative connotations by disassociating it from fear, destruction, and masculinity, and reassociating it with courage, growth, and sisterhood. They recognized anger's relationship to individual and collective political consciousness; they theorized its potential to become "a powerful source of energy serving progress and change"; they relished its transformative capacities. Anger demanded attention; it propelled insight, artistry, action; it exposed knowledge that had been buried, speech that had been silenced. Anger was a link to previous selves, suppressed histories, revolutionary coalitions. "I couldn't believe—still can't—how angry I could become, from deep down and way back, something like a five-thousand-year-buried anger," Robin Morgan declared in the introduction to Sisterhood Is Powerful, one of the earliest textual "actions" of the women's liberation movement. "Every Black woman in America lives her life somewhere along a wide curve of ancient and unexpressed angers," Audre Lorde observed. Only when women were able to feel anger, and then recognize, accept, and direct it at the real enemy—a patriarchal system that "launches rockets, spends over sixty thousand dollars a second on missiles and other agents of war and death, slaughters children in cities, stockpiles nerve gas and chemical bombs, [and] sodomizes our daughters and our earth"—could cross-racial female coalition occur.[1]

Thirty years later, it is incumbent upon the beneficiaries of the feminist movement to once again make women's anger at gender and racial injustice central. The fundamental premise of this book is that anger can be an organizing principle of American women's literary history when it is employed as a mode of inquiry. By identifying the sources of women's anger and analyzing how their anger assumes literary expression, anger can be used as a paradigm for understanding the ways in which women, at different historical moments, have responded to myriad forms of oppression through the literary imagination. With anger as an analytical fulcrum, it becomes possible to chart a history of women's literature that acknowledges inventive complexity and traverses racial boundaries. The Artistry of Anger tests this proposition by examining women's literary anger in the antebellum period.

In the chapters that follow, I suggest a method of reading that illuminates an unrecognized tradition in American literature, a specifically gendered tradition of literary discontent that is shaped by two equally powerful forces: women's anger at exclusion from the failed promises of democratic America, and their inability to express that anger overtly. I explore the evolution of this tradition in the years before the Civil War by analyzing texts written by four major nineteenth-century women writers: Lydia Maria Child, Maria W. Stewart, Fanny Fern, and Harriet Wilson. Because their texts are declarations of personal and national discontent, I read them as political documents embedded in particular historical moments. As such, they are superb examples of the artistry of angry expression. Transforming their anger through the literary imagination, these writers bequeath their vision of an alternative America to both their contemporaries and subsequent generations.

By focusing on Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok, Maria W. Stewart's speeches and meditations, Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall, and Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, it is not my intention to establish a canon of representative writers and texts, nor to imply that the narrative I present precludes other formulations. On the contrary, my aim is to contribute to a more textured, empathetic understanding of American women's literary history by proposing a new organizing framework. By reconstructing what it meant for these nineteenth-century women writers to express anger in their literature, I hope to demonstrate the usefulness of the anger paradigm not only for this historical period, but for others as well.

Two concepts guide my interpretation of women's literary lives and texts and are the foundation of my reading practice: anger as a mode of analysis, and anger as the basis of an aesthetic. These concepts enable an interpretative strategy that analyzes how women's achievements, failures, frustrations, and desires are literally translated into artistic creation. They are also flexible enough to allow a mapping of similarities as well as differences between writers of different generations, ideological persuasions, religious affiliations, and racial groups.

Using anger as a mode of analysis and the basis of an aesthetic requires utilizing the following perspectives. First, definitions of anger, expressions of anger, and interpretations of anger must be situated in specific historical, ideological, and social contexts. Delineating these contexts enables an understanding of both the possibilities and limitations that affect women's literary imaginings. Second, recognizing that women invent and practice an artistry of anger to express anger in their literature is imperative. Because gendered ideologies have historically precluded anger from women's emotional repertoire, women create an art form to express publicly the angered discontent that is culturally prohibited. Third, the issue of power relations is central, not only within the internal worlds of texts, but also within the larger historical arena. Analyzing who has power over whom, how the power functions, and whose purposes it serves, as well as the ways in which women writers resist or embrace existing economic, cultural, class, and racial power relations, is essential. Finally, the supposition that women's literary anger is "a multifaceted response to the lived realities of the historical moment" is a given.[2] Because there is a relationship between feelings and the material world in which feelings are experienced, women's literary expressions of anger can not be regarded as singular, individual, and psychological. Rather, they must be analyzed as part of a larger, ongoing historical phenomenon. Women's literary anger is collective, political.

Subjecting texts and contexts to the following questions is equally crucial. What ideologies govern the definition, interpretation, and expression of anger in the culture? How are these ideologies created, disseminated, accepted, or rejected? In what ways are the social, economic, and material conditions of women's lives anger-producing? In what ways is that anger dramatized and expressed in their literature? What metaphors do women writers employ? What genres do they choose to write in? Do the authors create characters who see themselves as victims of injustice? How is the injustice characterized? How do the characters respond to it? What role does angered discontent play in the text? In the author's life? In the author's community?

The wealth of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship produced within the last thirty years makes it possible to locate women's anger and its expression in their literary texts. Psychological theories, historians' analyses of women's culture and politics, and literary critics' approaches to imaginative literature have taught us how to find women's anger, recognize its common manifestations, and ascertain its emotional, social, and economic causes. Moreover, the "folk theory of anger" elucidated by linguists Zoltan Kovecses and George Lakoff helps us to see that the lexicon of anger women writers employ is easily recognizable because it is a western cultural phenomenon that can be traced back to antiquity.

Kovecses and Lakoff formulated the "folk theory of anger" after they considered what conventional idioms such as "He was foaming at the mouth"; "You're beginning to get to me"; "You make my blood boil"; "He is just letting off steam"; "When I told him, he blew up," all had in common. They conclude that there is "a coherent conceptual organization underlying all these expressions, and that much of it is metaphorical and metonymical in nature." Their central insight is that what people perceive to be the physiological effects of anger, such as "increased body heat, increased internal pressure (blood pressure, muscular pressure), agitation, and interference with accurate perception," are also what people use to name, describe, and express the emotion itself. As I will show throughout this book, women writers often use two of the most common anger metaphors—anger as heat, and anger as a dangerous animal that needs to be held in check—in their literary texts.[3]

The anger paradigm asserts that in the same way there are telltale physical signs of anger—facial expressions, clenched fists, eruptions of violence—so, too, are there textual signs of anger—gestures and expressions that are specifically gendered. Feminist literary critics have identified white women writers' creation of doubled characters, crying protagonists, diminished men, and heroines' retreats into madness as coded signals of anger.[4] In this book, I suggest that illness, acts of sacrifice, supplicating tones, captivity motifs, death, hunger, and emaciated bodies are also often telltale signs—the textual gestures if you will—of women's forbidden angry expression. Recognizing how these gestures function in ideological contexts in which women are relegated to separate, unequal spheres in the public imagination provides insight into how women respond to oppression and exclusion, their own and that of the others with whom they identify—the enslaved, the powerless, and the economically disenfranchised.

The Artistry of Anger builds upon thirty years of feminist literary scholarship. The issue of anger is central to an understanding of women's literature, feminist critics have argued, because the writers' relationship to it and its expression determines the artistic devices they employ as well as the kinds of stories they tell.[5] Women's repressed anger, they have consistently noted, has had significant effects on their literary imaginings. The insight, for example, that English novelists needed to repress their rage led Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar to theorize that white nineteenth-century women writers split their protagonists into two, creating a "madwoman in the attic."[6] Carolyn Heilbrun sees the "record of anger" in May Sarton's 1973 Journal of a Solitude as a watershed in women's autobiography, because it is a public telling of what has always been forbidden to women. In Heilbrun's analysis, the prohibition against anger is integrally related to the articulation of voice in women's narratives. Because they are "[f]orbidden anger, women could find no voice in which publicly to complain; they took refuge in depression or madness."[7] At the same time, however, as Patricia Meyer Spacks notes in one of the field's earliest studies, women have historically used their anger to create art. In her words, "anger must have been a source of creative energy for . . . women writers; anger provided the impetus, the subject, and the inventiveness of their work. . . . The fact remains that many women have written marvelously out of anger."[8]

Feminist literary critics and scholars also wrote "marvelously out of anger." Like the political movement that engendered it, feminist literary criticism was born of anger and infused with the insights it made possible. Pioneering studies such as Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, Mary Ellman's Thinking about Women, and Judith Fetterley's The Resisting Reader were propelled by the writers' anger at exclusion from the masculinist world of artistic endeavor, the insidious male bias of literary criticism, and the devaluation of white women's lives, experiences, and creativity. Spurred by the clarity that anger made possible, these critics relentlessly exposed the ways in which perceptions about sexual difference affected how white women writers, as well as their texts, were regarded. They deplored the gendered separation of literature, the "working rule" that "there must always be two literatures like two public toilets, one for Men and one for Women," and excoriated the "phallic criticism" this separation engendered. "Books by women are treated as though they themselves were women, and criticism embarks, at its happiest, upon an intellectual measuring of busts and hips."[9] They analyzed the "sexual politics" of male dominance that pervaded male texts, demonstrated how "literary descriptions of sexual activity itself" revealed misogynistic notions of smug male superiority, and documented patriarchy's historical trajectory.[10] They discerned what happened when women were taught to read male-authored books that devalued their gender and experiences: "[T]he female reader is co-opted into participation in an experience from which she is explicitly excluded; she is asked to identify with a selfhood that defines itself in opposition to her; she is required to identify against herself." Heeding Adrienne Rich's call for "[r]e-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction," feminist literary critics devised new ways of reading texts and writing literary history. "[T]he first act of the feminist critic," Judith Fetterley proclaimed, "must be to become a resisting rather than an assenting reader and, by this refusal to assent, to begin the process of exorcising the male mind that has been implanted in us."[11]

Refusing "to assent" to the "double jeopardy" of being both black and female, black feminist scholars were also conducting exorcisms. Asserting their presence in a world in which "all the women are white [and] all the blacks are men," they angrily dispelled the notion that both they and their literary forebears were nonexistent. "Merely to use the term 'Black women's studies' is an act charged with political significance," Gloria T. Hull and Barbara Smith asserted in the introduction to a path-breaking anthology devoted to that field. "At the very least, the combining of these words to name a discipline means taking the stance that Black women exist—and exist positively—a stance that is in direct opposition to most of what passes for culture and thought on the North American continent."[12] Black feminist critics published studies which "refus[ed] to pay homage to the 'system's' distortions of black women," and demanded respect for the "black women who are real-life models for images in literature."13 They expressed outrage at the "white female chauvinism" practiced by white feminist colleagues in the movement and in the academy. The black women's equivalent of Sisterhood Is Powerful, The Black Woman: An Anthology, also published in 1970, "grew out of impatience," its editor Toni Cade Bambara reported, "an impatience with the fact that in the whole bibliography of feminist literature, literature immediately and directly relevant to us wouldn't fill a page."[14] Outraged impatience also motivated the excoriation of white feminist scholars and artists who produced work that routinely excluded black women and failed to acknowledge their humanity and womanhood. "[W]hite women who called themselves feminists," Alice Walker concluded in a 1979 essay published in Ms, were "as incapable as white and black men of comprehending blackness and feminism in the same body, not to mention within the same imagination."[15]

As Walker's remark suggests, black feminist critics, like their white colleagues, also directed their ire at male colleagues who produced exclusionary versions of literary history. Black women writers were "frequently excised" from African American literary history written by male scholars, they argued, and if their work was addressed, it was treated with condescension and contempt.[16] In example after example, scholars such as Barbara Smith, Deborah McDowell, and Mary Helen Washington documented the ways in which male scholars characterized black women's literature as shallow, domestic, and apolitical.[17] "Women's writing is considered singular and anomalous, not universal and representative, and for some mysterious reason, writing about black women is not considered as racially significant as writing about black men." The African American literary tradition, they theorized, was based on the exclusion of black women writers and their texts. "Tradition . . . [is a] word that has so often been used to exclude or misrepresent women," Mary Helen Washington astutely observed in the introduction to an anthology of black women's literature that included nineteenth-century as well as twentieth-century women's texts that male scholars typically devalued or ignored. The power that male scholars had to make aesthetic judgments and write literary history based on sexist assumptions, Washington argued, "account[ed] for women's absence from our written records."


It is always something of a shock to see black women, sharing equally (and sometimes more than equally) in the labor and strife of black people, expunged from the text when that history becomes shaped into what we call tradition. Why is the fugitive slave, the fiery orator, the political activist, the abolitionist always represented as a black man? How does the heroic voice and the heroic image of the black woman get suppressed in a culture that depended on her heroism for its survival? What we have to recognize is that the creation of the fiction of tradition is a matter of power, not justice, and that that power has always been in the hands of men—mostly white but some black. Women are the disinherited. Our "ritual journeys," our "articulate voices," our "symbolic spaces" are rarely the same as men's. Those differences and the assumption that those differences make women inherently inferior plus the appropriation by men of the power to define tradition account for women's absence from our written records.[18]


Exclusion, absence, misrepresentation, disinheritance. For both black and white feminist literary scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, these words were revolutionary concepts. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, twentieth-century feminist intellectual activists used their outraged anger to expose, explain, condemn, and reimagine a more just American literary landscape. Although the twentieth-century intellectual movement was riven by racism like its nineteenth-century predecessor, both white and black women scholars were driven by the same angry impulses. Yes, black women, unlike white women, directed their anger at multiple targets, including white feminists who ironically oppressed black women in the same ways men oppressed them. Nevertheless, what black and white feminist critics shared was anger at their own and their subjects' exclusion, misrepresentation, and disinheritance. Their quest for academic and literary justice, by no means a collective, racially harmonious endeavor, united black and white women in the monumental task of rewriting literary history from a feminist perspective.

The Artistry of Anger continues the project these scholars initiated by recovering women's anger as a subject, and proposing that its use as a mode of inquiry has the potential to transform the writing of American women's literary history. Several fundamental principles, culled from the work of feminist activists, psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers, undergird my formulation of the anger paradigm and guide my investigation of women's literary and life anger in this book. Most central is the idea that anger can be a life affirming, self-protecting emotional response to unjust violation of self and community.[19] Thus, in the context of this study, expressions of anger are integrally related to issues of power and justice. Because anger can be regarded as "an emotion specifically engineered to protect us against physical threats to our survival," it safeguards by defending against attack; because anger can be regarded as "an emotion of defiance," it challenges the attacker's power by asserting an equal claim to desire; and because anger can be regarded as an emotion that forces confrontation, it has the potential to disrupt existing power relations.[20]

There is no better example of this latter phenomenon than the havoc that feminist discourse and spectacle wreaks. Women who publicly express anger about gender injustice are threatening, psychotherapist Harriet Lerner notes, because they challenge gender arrangements and emotional responses that naturalize unequal power relations. If women feel guilt, depression, and self-doubt, existing power relations remain unchanged because these responses, the result of anger turned inward, keep women in a state of paralysis, unmoving in their subordinate place. In these instances, if women do take action, it is usually self-destructive. But when women recognize and direct their anger at its real sources, "they may change and challenge the lives of us all."[21] As Lerner and others suggest, the conflict anger inevitably causes can lead to rebellion, change, and even, perhaps, a revolutionary restructuring of social arrangements. Revolution occurs when "the anger that is affliction" is "transmut[ed]" "into the anger that is determination to bring about change," Barbara Deming asserts. While anger "that is affliction" is fearful and murderous, anger that is "determination to bring about change" is courageous and life-affirming.[22]

Deming's distinction between a corrosive anger that seeks destruction and a generative, resourceful anger that "concentrates all one's energies" on the struggle to achieve social justice is a pivotal formulation that is essential to the anger paradigm. I recognize that anger without knowledge of cause and disciplined focus can result in debilitating fear, conflict, and disunion that can be lethal to the individual and community. At the same time, however, Audre Lorde and other feminist theorists convince me that anger named, understood, and directed at the root cause of grievances fosters growth, alliance, and a radical reconception of self, world, and political agency. "[A]nger between peers births change, not destruction," Lorde declares in an essay that explores the perilous subject of anger between women of color and white women in the women's movement. "[T]he discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth."[23]

Other students of anger share Lorde's conviction that anger can be a positive, creative source of personal and political insight. The "power of anger and rage" can be "potentially constructive—even creative" although it also contains the "notorious capacity for destructiveness, violence, and evil," argues clinical psychologist Stephen A. Diamond in a study that posits that consciously integrating anger into our lives and psyches will alleviate our culture's raging violence. When "[t]he volatile emotions of anger and rage" are "demonized," when they are "vilified, maligned, and rejected as purely pathological, negative impulses with no real redeeming qualities," then "most 'respectable' Americans habitually suppress, repress, or deny their anger" which "[sow[s] the evil seeds of psychopathology, hatred and violence." But when we recognize anger's capacity for both destruction and creativity and utilize it constructively, Diamond contends, "[a]nger—and rage, the most extreme form of anger—can be an enlivening, animating, transformative, creative, even spiritual force."[24] Philosopher J. Giles Milhaven concurs. He, too, believes a certain form of anger is "constructive" when it is directed toward achieving "betterment" and "liberation." "Purely constructive anger wants destruction only as a means. It wants to destroy obstacles or oppression purely as means to its constructive goal: a change for the better or greater freedom."[25]

The fact that anger is a form of communication that reveals important information about the obstacles oppressed people encounter is another critical component of the anger paradigm. "Signal[ing] the necessity for change," anger telegraphs a message that there is a problem, that the sanctity of self or community is in danger.[26] When individuals or groups are capable of decoding the message by locating, naming, and analyzing the source of the problem, they can use the "information and energy" that anger is "loaded with" to alter human relationships and oppressive power arrangements.[27] Thus anger not only communicates information to the individual about his or her feelings and what might be causing them; when it is expressed publicly, it also communicates information to the individual's or group's culture. Public expressions of anger inform the larger culture that the individual or group are human beings of consequence who are seeking attention, respect, and equal rights and privileges. They legitimate grievances that are supposed to remain unarticulated, suppressed. Equally significant, expressions of public anger provide insight into what individuals or groups value, want to protect, and hope to attain.[28]

Justice is certainly one of those values, and the expression of anger in its pursuit is analogous to courtroom drama. The angry person or group assumes the role of judge in a trial that subjects the behavior and actions of wrongdoers to public scrutiny. Because anger involves making judgments about what constitutes injustice, what vehicles of expression are appropriate, and what remedies are most effective, it is a moral emotion that plays an essential role in personal, social, and civic governance. "[A]nger is the emotional foundation of civil order in its moral form, the capacity for moral outrage by which society defends its mores and sacred values," sociologist Peter Lyman contends. If that civil order strives to be democratic, than the anger of oppressed people directed at the sources of injustice is a defiant assertion of their equal claim to define moral law and guarantee its enforcement. The expression of such anger, Elizabeth V. Spelman argues, is "an act of insubordination" because the angry person or group is "acting as if [they] have as much right to judge [the more powerful person or group] as [the more powerful person or group] has to judge [them]." Another way anger equalizes unequal relationships, J. Giles Milhaven observes, is when oppressed people's quest for justice includes a desire for vengeance. "Vindictive anger is good," Milhaven reasons, "because it is an elemental lunge of our self to be with others as their equal in power and will. Our wanting to make others suffer for making us suffer is our wanting to make ourselves equal to them in personal power and freedom. However blind be our rage and however brutal and inhuman be the act we in our rage strain to do, we are straining to be by that act, with the other person as equal persons."[29]

The connection between righteous anger and justice is embedded in western classical tradition. Aristotle, for example, defines anger as the "desire, accompanied by pain, for revenge of an obvious belittlement of oneself or one's dependents, the belittlement being uncalled for." The "prospect of revenge" is gratifying, he asserts, because "it is pleasant to think that one will achieve what one seeks" which is the opportunity to, at the very least, imagine avenging one's injury. St. Thomas Aquinas reiterates Aristotle's definition: "[A]n angry reaction arises only when one has endured some pain, and desires and hopes for revenge." As long as the desire for revenge is guided by reason and its object is "the correction of vice and the maintenance of justice," rather than the infliction of harm on the perpetuator for harm's sake only, it is "laudable," Aquinas contends.[30]

Two unstated assumptions underlie these premises: one, that the rational, righteously angry person is entitled to desire self-satisfaction, pleasure, and just treatment; and two, that the rational, righteously angry person possesses the power to make judgments about one's own and others' behavior. Both of these assumptions have, historically, not applied to women. Gendered ideologies that classify sacrifice and selflessness as female virtues disallow women's sense of entitlement. This phenomenon has led feminist psychologists to the realization that, for women, the expression of anger and the creation of an autonomous self are integrally linked. Before a woman can recognize her anger, they have argued, she has to recognize that she is entitled to a self. When women acknowledge that they are angry and use their anger effectively, which entails clarifying their own position, and then using that understanding to disrupt unequal power relationships, they achieve personal power and independence. Because anger demands change, it forces a confrontation not only with the person or situation with whom one is embattled, but also with the self. In Harriet Lerner's words, the "pain of anger" "preserves the very integrity of . . . self."[31]

The same ideologies that deem selflessness and sacrifice exclusively female virtues also contend that women are inferior to men in intellect, imagination, and physical ability. These notions of gender difference eradicate women's belief that they are powerful social actors capable of making important decisions. As a result, women have not had the same access to anger and its political uses as have men. Indeed, one of the central points feminist activists, psychologists, philosophers and sociologists emphasize is that the ability to feel and express anger in response to injustice requires respect and love for one's self and one's community. Anger is "a kind of love" for self, community, and even offender, J. Giles Milhaven argues, because it resists human maiming and insists upon establishing social justice. In order for an individual or group of people to acknowledge that they feel anger and trust that those feelings are justified, they must believe that the self and community are valuable, that they are worth defending. They must also believe that they have the right, ability, and power to judge.[32]

The historical suppression of white and black women's anger has been enacted through a proliferation of ideas that have at their center the notion that anger is the sole prerogative of white men in power. Carol Tavris notes that "a major role of anger is its policing function. . . . [W]ith its power of forcefulness and its threat of retaliation, [anger] helps to regulate our everyday social relations: in family disputes, neighborly quarrels, business disagreements, wherever the official law is too cumbersome, inappropriate, or unavailable (which is most of the time)."[33] Tavris's observation raises a central question: in a culture stratified by hierarchical power arrangements, whose anger is policing whom? Whose anger is regulating family disputes, neighborly quarrels, and business disagreements? The people who have the power to define anger and establish the rules for its social functioning and expression are the ones who police those who have lesser power and status. It is also they who use anger to intimidate, threaten, and silence the anger of those they perceive as challenging their hegemony.

Feminist scholarship elucidates this phenomenon. In one of the first analyses of the importance of anger in women's liberation struggles, Susi Kaplow argues that the repression of women's anger is oppressive, because denying a woman "the forthright expression of her healthy anger," denies her equality with men. While men can express anger verbally and physically without imperiling their gender roles or their integrity, taboos against the female expression of anger cause women to deny it, express it indirectly, or nurse it silently until it "burn[s] down to a bitter resentment or become[s] such a pressurized force that it [can] only come out in a rage so uncontrollable that the man (and the audience) can dismiss it as irrational." Amplifying Kaplow's analysis, Naomi Scheman and Teresa Bernardez also stress the significance of who has control over the definitions and interpretations of anger and its expression. When the powerful label the anger of those they wish to maintain their power over as irrational, infantile, and unjustified, they protect their privileged status. Trivializing and dismissing the anger of those in the less powerful class, race, or gender position undermines the latter's critique by insisting that their perceptions are invalid and unwarranted. "[O]ne of the major ways in which domination is kept in force," Teresa Bernardez argues, "[is] by convincing women that if they feel anger, bitterness, and resentment this is a sign of their inferiority, sickness, lack of virtue or lack of femininity, not the result of their unequal status." Elizabeth Spelman lists other "major ways" the powerful dissuade "subordinate groups" "from thinking about their situation": "denial of basic education; the erasure of facts about how they've been treated; the availability of drugs, alcohol, and other inducements to placidity or madness." In these instances, the suppression of anger is the suppression of public protest.[34]

When these tactics are successful, when ideologies of subordination, inferiority, and worthlessness are internalized, the anger that is denied expression manifests itself in other forms. Turned against the self and community, unnamed and unrecognized anger can result in depression, self-hate, and illness. Turned against others, anger without benefit of knowledge and appropriate target can exacerbate conflict and lead to violence. Attacking, blaming, whining, nagging, crying, and self-imposed silence may all be signs of an unidentified discontent that is being ineffectively addressed and expressed. Indirect and displaced expressions of anger are especially prevalent in unequal power relationships because in this context they are a form of protection against the threat of retaliation.[35]

Understanding the ways in which women have historically created a public discourse of anger when anger and womanhood are antithetical, enables an appreciation of how they have historically created the necessary conditions to effect social change. By developing a public vocabulary to express angered discontent in their literature, women have invented a language through which the history of their quest for justice can be known and shared.[36] When we identify what makes women angry, how they express that anger, and whether the constraints they encounter are still operative, we gain information about the cultures in which women live, their artistic practices, and the history of their gendered and racial oppression. The writing woman and the written text provide insight into how women at different historical moments have written themselves into agency and fantasized liberation and revenge. The writing woman and the written text also provide evidence—a public record—of the struggle to achieve equality and freedom, as well as inspiration for continued efforts in the twenty-first century.

In the following chapters I put these theories into practice by applying them to the antebellum period. Chapter 2 considers the implications of using the anger paradigm for the pre-Civil War era, including the ways in which it enables a new conceptualization of women's lives and literature, as well as how it provides a way out of semantic quagmires. Because the anger paradigm foregrounds women writers' responses to anger-producing situations in their lives and culture, it compels a reassessment of prevailing interpretative modes that stress the domestic nature of antebellum women's literature. Equally important, because the anger paradigm proposes examining the ways in which nineteenth-century women writers define, express, and dramatize anger, it liberates scholars' dependence on variable classifications such as sentimental, domestic, exploratory, or local color. The anger paradigm also makes possible a fluid and widely encompassing methodology for literary analysis, one that is applicable to a variety of genres. Attention to aesthetics is a central component of this methodology. Through a sophisticated invention of masking techniques, antebellum women writers practice an artistry of anger that enables them to express what their culture forbids.

Chapter 3 delineates the ideological meanings of anger and how those meanings affect black and white women's literary culture in pre-Civil War America. Integrally related to the white, middle-class nation-building project, gendered ideologies of anger make it possible for antebellum Americans to maintain two views of anger simultaneously. On the one hand, the righteous anger that preserves God's moral laws and enforces justice is gendered male. On the other hand, the ungoverned anger that threatens the fate of the republic is gendered female. At the same time that this ideology upholds race, gender, and class hierarchy, it also allows black and white women engaged in antiracist, antislavery, and gender liberation struggles to claim righteous anger as a moral woman's right, which they then use to create a public discourse of gendered outrage. In the antebellum period, abolitionism provides the single most important opportunity for such discourse. Yet, even for women involved in the movement, the expression of moral outrage is always in tension with gendered codes of middle-class respectability.

Chapters 4 through 7, which comprise the second half of the book, examine the ways in which Lydia Maria Child, Maria W. Stewart, Fanny Fern, and Harriet Wilson invent and practice an artistry of anger that is integrally related to the culture they are hoping their words will transform. "In the human soul, the steps between discontent and action are few and short indeed," the white pioneers of the woman's rights movement pronounced in evangelical tones. "You, who suppose the mass of women contented, know but little of the silenced indignation, the deep and settled disgust with which they contemplate our present social arrangements."[37] By articulating in print "the silenced indignation" of the mass of women in their communities, Child, Stewart, Fern, and Wilson contemplate social relations and move their audience to action. For these writers, expressing anger at exclusion in a culture that denies women the right to do so entails reinventing national community. Lydia Maria Child imagines a historical community in which white women's rightful privileges are restored; Maria W. Stewart imagines a spiritual community in which direct communion with God transcends men's laws; Fanny Fern imagines a secular community in which white women share equally in capitalist enterprise; Harriet Wilson imagines a gothic community in which the diseased inhabitants of the patriarchal house of slavery rob black women and children of their rights and life blood.

For Child, Stewart, Fern, and Wilson, moving their audience to action also necessitates appropriating imaginative spaces into which they can project their anger for public consideration in the marketplace. Historical mythmaking, evangelical discourse, domesticity, and abolitionist rhetoric are the spaces into which Lydia Maria Child, Maria W. Stewart, Fanny Fern, and Harriet Wilson express their versions of enraged truths. Through the imagination, these writers build a republic in which the expression of women's anger transforms the meaning of emotional, cultural, and political freedom.


Excerpted from The Artistry of Anger by Linda M. Grasso. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Grasso writes beautifully, with clarity and grace. Her argument that anger operates as a driving force in the work of both white and black women writers provides an astonishingly simple, accurate, and useful paradigm for readers and scholars trying to understand the pre-Civil War period in American women's writing. Her deeply thoughtful, historically grounded, central idea—along with her penetrating applications of that idea to the work of Child, Stewart, Fern, and Wilson—make this a study that will be widely read and relied upon.—Elizabeth Ammons, Tufts University

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews