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Nina Baym, Who Brought Novels by Women to Light, Dies at 82

By June 25, 2018No Comments

Source : The New York Times  –  Neil Genzlinger

Nina Baym, a scholar who asked why so few women were represented in the American literary canon, then spent her career working to correct that imbalance, died on June 15 in Urbana, Ill. She was 82.

Her daughter, Nancy Baym, said the cause was complications of dementia.

Professor Baym, who taught English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for more than 40 years, was writing a book about Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1975 when she began to wonder why 19th-century American literature was so male-dominated. Hawthorne himself helped pique her curiosity. In 1855 he had famously complained that “a damned mob of scribbling women” was cutting into his sales.

“I wanted to know where these women were,” she recalled in an interviewwith The New York Times in 1987.

She went searching through library bookshelves and 19th-century newspapers and magazines, looking for information about the absent women writers. She found plenty of novels written by women in the 1800s, and though they varied in quality, she concluded that many deserved more than obscurity.

“It’s too easy to say they weren’t any good,” Professor Baym said. “Because it turns out that what’s considered good and what isn’t is historically flexible.”

Her work in the mid-1970s coincided with a time of second-wave feminism, when women were challenging the inherent sexism in political, social, legal and intellectual spheres that had been dominated by white men.

Her 1978 book, “Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820-1870,” was a foundational work in the field of feminist literary history and criticism. It had chapters on writers like E.D.E.N. Southworth, who wrote more than 60 novels, and Maria Jane McIntosh, whose “Two Lives” in 1846 went through seven printings. Professor Baym, in her introduction, explained why these types of novels were worthy of study.

“Today we hear of this literature, if at all, chiefly through detractors who deplore the feminizing — and hence degradation — of the noble art of letters,” she wrote. “A segment of literary history is thus lost to us, a segment that may be of special interest today as we seek to recover and understand the experiences of women.”

She continued: “I have not unearthed a forgotten Jane Austen or George Eliot, or hit upon even one novel that I would propose to set alongside ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ Yet I cannot avoid the belief that ‘purely’ literary criteria, as they have been employed to identify the best American works, have inevitably had a bias in favor of things male — in favor, say, of whaling ships rather than the sewing circle as a symbol of the human community; in favor of satires on domineering mothers, shrewish wives, or betraying mistresses rather than tyrannical fathers, abusive husbands, or philandering suitors.”

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