Identify and Identity

In continuing name-authority research for Stainforth writers who do not have VIAF records, I ponder how Reverend Stainforth identified American women writers to include in his private library.  No doubt the book dealers with whom he worked recommended new authors and titles on a regular basis, yet he had his favorite reference tools which evince his collector-librarian nature.  The works that Stainforth referenced are a window into his Trans-Atlantic literary awareness and his manuscript provides clues of three American reference tools significant to his collecting habits.  This not only speaks to how he identified writers but how the American book trade and literary critics identified an emerging field of American women writers.

Stainforth used Rufus Griswold’s The Female Poets of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of Their Writings (Dec 1848) to identify writers and their works.  Some writers did not have published volumes and instead, as the title denotes, specimens of their work appeared in Griswold’s work.  For example,  Southern writer Jane Taylor Worthington appears in his 1852 second edition and Griswold explains that “no collection of her works has been published.” Thus, Stainforth was familiar with Worthington’s work and traced her in his catalogue.

Griswold’s title competed with Caroline May’s American Female Poets: With Biographical and Critical Notices (1848) and Thomas Buchanan Read’s The Female Poets of AmericaWith Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of Their Writings, also held by Stainforth.  In Read’s 1851 third edition, the publisher’s advertisement states that Read’s was the first of the three reference works published in August of 1848 (page v-vi) with May and Griswold’s titles following shortly after Read’s but before year’s end.  Read’s work is the most often cited source for Stainforth’s American writers and may be how he discovered Caroline May’s work.

There is overlap in the coverage of women writers among all three works but I compared entries for Phillis Wheatley Peters.  Read did not include Wheatley but she appeared in both Griswold and May’s works. Caroline May described Wheatley thusly:

“May be regarded as a literary curiosity. She made so great a sensation in her time, that we must not omit a notice of her in our history of American female poetry; although the specimens we give of her talents may not be considered so wonderful as the sensation they caused.  Phillis was stolen from Africa at seven or eight years of age, carried to America, and sold in 1761, to John Wheatley, a rich merchant in Boston.” (page 39, 1848 edition).

Of Phillis’ origin story Griswold offers,

“This “daughter of the murky Senegal,” as she is styled by an admiring contemporary critic, we suppose may be considered as an American, since she was but six years of age when brought to Boston and sold in the slave market of that city, in 1761.” (page 30, 1849) 

Being “stolen” versus “brought to Boston” shows the rhetorical approach to discussions of slavery.  Can I assume that May and Griswold held similar or opposing views of slavery? Further reading of their text is necessary. Also, read with a modern eye, one notes a begrudging acknowledgment of Wheatley’s literary talent, in the context of a period prior to the US Civil War and slavery’s end.  Yet, in the 1852 second edition Griswold references Wheatley:

“Several persons are mentioned in this volume whose lives have been no holydays of leisure: those, indeed, who have not in some way been active in practical duties are exceptions to the common rule.  One was a slave — one a domestic servant — one a factory girl: and there are many in the list who had no time to give to the pursuits of literature but such as was stolen from a frugal and industrial housewifery, from the exhausting cares of teaching, or the fitful repose of sickness.” (page 9)

While May calls out the horror of slavery by describing Wheatley as having been “stolen,” May’s tone questions Wheatley’s work. Griswold’s coverage of Wheatley’s life story is lengthier but acknowledges slave status, yet an American identity too.  He wanders into a gendered interpretation of her marriage with this observation about Phillis’ husband, Dr. Peters:

“Peters in his adversity was not very unreasonable in demanding that his wife should attend to domestic affairs — that she should cook his breakfast and darn his stockings; but she too had certain notions of “dignity,” and regarded as all together beneath her such unpoetical occupations.” (Griswold, 1853, page 31).

“Not unreasonable in demanding that the woman tend to domestic affairs?”  Putting dignity in quotation marks, indeed. Of Dr. Peter [sic] May writes from her female perspective:

“He was, however, proud and indolent, and brought a good deal of unhappiness upon poor Phillis.  Unfortunately, she had been a spoiled and petted child, and could not bear to turn her thoughts to household duties. Her husband required of her more than she could perform.” (May, 1848, page 40).

There is a lot to consider in these three sentences and provides insight into May’s idea of domesticity, marital duty and economic class, all matters of identity.  What is evident is the authority that these editors had to establish a gendered American literary identity and, in all that these works offered a reading public and book collectors, two works identified Phillis Wheatley and contributed to establishing her identity, editorial tone or opinion aside.  Consider also that in the case of writing about Wheatley, both editors compiled their entries sixty-plus years after Wheatley’s death in 1784, not having her or her contemporaries to consult.

That Wheatley and Ann Plato, two African American women writers, appeared in nineteenth-century reference tools is remarkable, as is that Reverend Stainforth owned copies of their writing. Perhaps I should be astonished that a British book collector had works by two black American writers in his library rather than be disappointed that he did not own more works written by enslaved American or free blacks. Stainforth certainly collected the works of abolitionists, however, works written by the enslaved are the missing voices. We cannot know whether he tried to identify works of this nature. These two are identified American writers. A future project may be to build a list of African American writers found in the African American Newspapers: 19th Century and Black Abolitionist Papers commercial databases to contrast with abolitionist writers in Stainforth’s library, but more simply to identify and recognize writers of color.

In the Internet age, one can find revised and enhanced biographical entries for Wheatley, such as the one written by Debra Michals in 2015 that provides a fuller picture of the writer’s identify based on research to date.  The challenge is to identify those who followed Wheatley and Plato for future literary analysis just as Griswold, May and Read did in an earlier time.

As an aside, Griswold’s correspondence is available at Digital Common Wealth: Massachusetts Collections Online where one can find an exchange with Abolitionist writer Lydia Child. Griswold included Child in his Gems from American Female Poets: With Brief Biographical Notices, published in 1842 which was the precursor to his Female Poets of America.


“Rufus Wilmot Griswold” is an informative sixty-five page article by Jacob L. Neu, published in Studies in English, no. 5 (October 8, 1925), pp. 101 -165.

“Embodied Pedagogies: Femininity, Diversity, and Community in Anthologies of Women’s Writing, 1836–2009,” by Karen L. Kilcup, published in Legacy, Vol. 26, No. 2 (2009), pp. 299-328.



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