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Publishing, property, and problematic heiresses : representations of inheritance in nineteenth-century American women's popular fiction


Publishing, property, and problematic heiresses explores a motif that is prominent in literature across genres, time periods, and national traditions: inheritance. I argue that despite the ubiquity of inheritance in a wide variety of literary production, the unique cultural, legal, economic, and technological changes that swept the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century unsettled traditional implications of inheritance. Positioning my texts within their historical and cultural context, I trace their representations of inheritance to draw out the anxieties that arose in this period as a result of the rise of professional authorship and the rapid growth of the publishing industry; developing theories of evolution and eugenics; the changing relationship of African Americans to property from slavery through the post-Reconstruction period; and shifting legal definitions of the family and women's relationship to property. Intimately bound up within each of these major cultural shifts were discourses of the family as a mode of social organization and determinant of individual identity. Consequently, I argue that representations of inheritance in these texts reveal and then struggle with the conflicts that emerged in this period around the intersection of race, class, gender, power, and modes of authorship, especially as these conflicts were manifested in the heteronormative, patriarchal family structure. I analyze a collection of popular serial fiction written by E.D.E.N. Southworth, Louisa May Alcott, Metta Victor, Anna Katharine Green, and Pauline Hopkins, focusing on their strategic applications of the devices of the gothic, domestic detective fiction, and racial uplift as they intersect with discourses of inheritance. The social dynamism of serial fiction and the familiar formulas of popular genres articulate the characteristics of a broadly shared culture and the concerns of an imagined community of readers. Women writers in this period were defined by a unique and gendered relationship to work, property, and the dictates of authorship and publication. Thus, I argue that representations of inheritance in popular serial fiction written by women in the second half of the nineteenth century cohere as a unique subset of a long literary tradition of inheritance, and were used by them as a complex tool of social critique.

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