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6 - The Friendship Elegy

from PART I - 1800–1840, AMERICAN POESIS AND THE NATIONAL IMAGINARY

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 January 2017

Desirée Henderson
Affiliation:
University of Texas at Arlington
Jennifer Putzi
Affiliation:
College of William and Mary, Virginia
Alexandra Socarides
Affiliation:
University of Missouri, Columbia
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Summary

A stock image from nineteenth-century visual culture shows a female mourner graveside: head bent, face veiled, clothed in black – setting, posture, and dress serving to encapsulate the predominant cultural view that grief was a feminized emotional experience and mourning an activity appropriately performed by women. [Fig. 8] Female poets of the period might have understandably felt constrained by this image and the expectations it represented, yet, for the most part, they embraced the gendered associations of mourning, turning stereotype into a vehicle for entrance into the esteemed literary tradition of the elegy. Changing cultural practices around death provided women writers with an opportunity to promote themselves as authorities on grief and commemoration, taking up sentimental tropes to represent women's experiences. In doing so, they necessarily rewrote many of the conventions of the elegy, turning elegiac modes to their own purposes and developing new criteria for evaluating the work of literary memorial.

These interventions are pronounced in the friendship elegy, a subgenre of the elegy that demonstrates how generic conventions could be leveraged to promote the status of women's relationships and women's writing. The friendship elegy is characterized by a wide temporal range, treating the event of death as a prompt to re-examine the past of the deceased and to imagine the future of her mourners. The friendship elegy highlights the different forms that women's relationships with other women could take and offers up a variety of roles for its characters and readers to inhabit. Though focused principally upon the dead, the friendship elegy could also turn the occasion of loss into an opportunity to address social issues, including the ways in which gendered norms threatened female friendships and inhibited the expression of female same-sex eroticism. What is offered as consolation is authorship itself. The friendship elegy invokes the mirror-sameness of a shared gender identity to not only communicate the deep kinship between speaker and deceased, but to enable a process of substitution whereby the poet symbolically takes the place of her deceased friend. In this way, the friendship elegy engages in a self-reflexive form of literary criticism that makes the female poet and her writing into a living memorial for the dead.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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