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Professor Hellman's Book Offers Insights into American Women Authors' Domesticity
The ways in which four major American women writers – Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton – dealt with their domestic roles and how they portrayed this domesticity in their work is the focus of a new book by City Tech Professor Caroline Hellman.
The book, Domesticity and Design in American Women’s Lives and Literature: Stowe, Alcott, Cather, and Wharton Writing Home, has been published by Routledge. Hellman, assistant professor of English, just returned from the University of Antwerp, Belgium, where she taught American literature on a Fulbright grant. She specializes in 19th and 20th century American literature and American studies.
”My book is the story of independent female authors who had unusual relationships with home; they moved frequently either to repeatedly begin anew the processes of designing and decorating or to avoid domestic obligation altogether,” she says.
Hellman adds that it is also “the story of these women authors creating female characters who had strikingly different relationships with domesticity as they contended with significant burdens of housekeeping in an oppressive domestic environment.”
As an example, Hellman says that although Stowe was an author of domestic advice manuals and numerous works of fiction portraying traditional domesticity (House and Home Papers, 1865; Pink and White Tyranny, 1891), she herself labored as much as possible to avoid housework. Even as Stowe wrote about the importance of domesticity in her texts and epitomized the model of the female author writing from home about the home, she was employing household help in order to concentrate on her writing. “A real contradiction exists between Stowe’s domestic life and the domestic life she advocated in her texts,” Hellman notes.
Along the same lines, Hellman writes of Alcott, author of Little Women, who was known as a writer of sentimental, domestic works celebrating the importance of home. And yet, she herself never owned a house and opted to rent residences without kitchens.
Hellman comes to the conclusion that the authors she writes about have used their domestic circumstances as a springboard from which to address a wide range of issues from health and social welfare to world war – economy, health, and social welfare in the case of Stowe, material feminism for Alcott, the landscape for Cather and World War I for Wharton.
As for her relationship to her own domesticity, Hellman explains that it has evolved. “I used to find my scholarly interests somewhat ironic because while I took pleasure in interior design, I had little enthusiasm for housework of any sort. More recently I've become intrigued by other domestic arts like cooking and baking.”
"Obviously," she added, "the contemporary social and cultural connotations of homemaking are often quite distinct from those of the nineteenth century."