"Art for truth's sake": Elizabeth Stuart Phelps as realist, reformer, stylist



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Texas Tech University


Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) was an extremely prolific writer. During her writing career, which spanned over four decades, she wrote twenty novels and many, many essays, short stories, biographical sketches, and poems. Phelps felt that writing was both physically and mentally exhausting, and she suffered from ill-health and insomnia throughout most of her life, possibly due to her exertions as a writer. When asked about how to make a living through one's writing, Phelps responds, "Living? It is more likely to be dying by your pen; despairing by your pen; burying hope and heart and youth and courage in your ink-stand" (Chapters from a Life 87). Phelps lived much of her life through her writing, only rarely getting personally involved with the various reform issues she championed, preferring instead to write about the issues, to bring them out into the open. She explains, "[T]he impulse of my heart [is] to keep step with the onward movement of human life, and to perceive the battle afar off, charging when and where I can" (252). Nonetheless, Phelps admires the women who do take the public forum and applauds them, stating that their work is not a "Reform against Nature" but an outgrowth of woman's will to survive. When reading Phelps's novels, one cannot help but notice her own socially-innovative viewpoint which demands a new way of looking at nineteenth-century society's traditional standards, continually asking her readers to understand different ways of thinking and new ways of living.

Although Phelps was virtually ignored until the 1980s, since then much more has been written about Phelps's late-nineteenth-century American writing, particularly her better-known novels. The Silent Partner, The Story of Avis, and Doctor Zay. Phelps now is best known for her writing about women's causes, particularly women in the workplace, women's education, and marriage issues. In her own time, however, she was most well-known for her best-selling novel. The Gates Ajar (1868), a story generally classified as "Utopian" in its discussion of the afterlife. It would be extremely simplistic to describe Phelps as merely a "utopian" writer or a "feminist" writer, and it would be incorrect to call Phelps's fiction "sentimental." I would argue that Phelps realistically describes many facets of the American condition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and that she is interested in pointing out and solving society's problems.

In addition, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was an extremely well-read, well-educated woman, one whose wide range of knowledge is reflected in her writing. Her novels blend myth, psychology, science, theology, philosophy, allegory, and confessional in such a way as to make her fiction work on several levels of interpretation. Finally, Phelps's writing reflects a wide range of American social ills of her day, making the stories significant in interpreting the social climate of the late nineteenth century. I would argue that Phelps's work often outshines that of her contemporaries, both in style and content. In this dissertation, I show how several of Phelps's works, instead of being merely "sentimental fiction," address important issues of her time and illustrate how Phelps's writing often presents radical views of nineteenth-century American issues. Thus Phelps, in writing "Art for Truth's Sake," as she discusses in her autobiography, may be most accurately called a realist, a reformer, and a stylist.