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Domestic Biographies

Stowe, Howells, James, and Wharton at Home


Elif S. Armbruster

Domestic Biographies: Stowe, Howells, James, and Wharton at Home presents comparative domestic biographies of four American Realist writers: Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. Drawing upon extensive primary sources to reconstruct the authors’ private lives, Domestic Biographies illuminates how they lived when no one was looking. In particular this book examines how the authors worked and wrote at home and how their home life in turn made its way into their novels and non-fiction. Domestic Biographies offers an innovative and exciting architectural and domestic lens through which to study the lives and literature of America’s best-known Realists.


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PART ONE: Writing to Live


PART ONE Writing to Live CHAPTER ONE Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Cost of Domesticity “[The home] is life’s undress rehearsal, its back-room, its dressing-room, from which we go forth to more careful and guarded intercourse, leaving behind us much debris of cast-off and everyday clothing.” —Harriet Beecher Stowe, Little Foxes, 1865 Contrary to the popular image of Harriet Beecher Stowe as a successful novelist and house-reformer, at home she was a picture of chaos. Stowe cooked, cleaned, sewed, decorated, refurbished, gardened, painted, preached, raised her children, supported her husband, and oversaw her servants—all while writing prolifically for more than forty years. In spite of her many accomplishments, however, Stowe’s household did not run smoothly: her finances were precarious and several of her children failed to live up to her example. Her home life more closely resembled the “undress rehearsal”—a phrase Stowe coined in her 1864 manual House and Home Papers (and which reappears in her 1865 book Little Foxes)—than the well-orchestrated performance that she promulgated in many advice manuals. In her lifetime, Stowe wrote more than thirty books, including several domestic treatises such as House and Home Papers (1864), Little Foxes, and The American Woman’s Home (1869), which she co- authored with her sister, Catharine Beecher. These books, like her novels, were instrumental in carving out Stowe’s identity as a moral and domestic model for America’s middle-class reading women. Whether detailing the homes of Southern slaveholding families in Uncle Tom’s Cabin or instructing women in parlor-room...

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