Reclaiming Authorship: The Modernist Aesthetics of Self-Production in Marianne Moore, Edith Sitwell, and Djuna Barnes
Richardson, Laura K.
Doctor of Philosophy
Modernism and its twentieth-century wake witnessed the gradual decline of the very power its incipience granted to the author: the authorial self in the space of writing. For modernist women authors, this facet of the period proved particularly limiting. The early twentieth century opened spaces for female authorship while closing spaces for female critics, including for women’s own comprehension of their work; while female talent was acknowledged more than ever before, critics were reticent to grant hermeneutic agency to women’s authorship. Celebrations of the work of female artists are frequently qualified by skeptical sexism—that the woman writing might “stumble upon” something poignant whose craft she didn’t quite intend. This kind of rhetoric is coterminous with the rise of literary studies as a university discipline—a movement that transferred the task of criticism from the pen of the poet-scholar to that of the university professor, moving critical agency from increasingly democratic aesthetic spaces to those populated exclusively by upper-class, formally-educated white men. Female modernist writers responded to this loss of hermeneutic agency through a system of strategies that reclaim authorship—the state of being the literary origin of a piece or body of work, of asserting authority over that work’s publishing, revision, and/or interpretation. Their strategies employ a variety of tactics to work through and against the institutions of modernism—publishing and the literary marketplace, criticism, and sex-based expectations of literary output. Marianne Moore, Edith Sitwell, and Djuna Barnes employed methodologies of restoring autonomy to their voices within their corpuses, fostering a bifurcated schema of playing into and playing along with institutional structures while producing bodies of work that challenge these very establishments—the critical modernist community, the necessary reliance on male literary imprimaturs, and the paradox between the growing tendency of literary scholarship to both pathologize women’s writing and dismiss the voice of the author within her work. Revision, criticism of one’s own work, and the refusal to publish are each moments of authoritative intervention in a text, and reassert the power of the female author over the structures that seek to remove it. Each chapter investigates a female modernist author’s aesthetic and biographical responses to the modernist climate and its scholastic reverberations in the regulation and divestment of the voice of women’s critical authorship.