Elsie Dinsmore revisited: the utility of an outcast series

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University of Alabama Libraries

In this thesis, I argue that Martha Finley's Elsie Dinsmore series (1867-1905) deserves to be reconsidered for its potential utility in the broader arena of American literature. The series, popular during the latter half of the nineteenth century, is the special object of critical scorn amongst modern scholars despite having experienced a revival in popular circles. While other formerly-sidelined books, such as Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Maria Susanna Cummins' The Lamplighter (1854), have been reclaimed through sustained feminist scholarship, the Elsie series remains largely blacklisted from academic conversations. Scholars such as Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins, who worked to bring respect to female writings from the 1850s and 1860s, drew a sharp distinction between fictions written for adult audiences, like The Wide, Wide World and those written for adolescents, like Elsie Dinsmore and Little Women (1867) - a distinction that has caused juvenile fiction to be largely omitted from canon expansions benefitting adult domestic fiction. I argue that the Elsie Dinsmore series has a value within the American canon by acting as the best example of transitional literature between adult domestic fiction and the girls' series books that dominated the end of the century. To develop this argument, I first examine the textual and cultural factors that have contributed to Elsie's omission from academic conversations. I then examine the extent to which the Elsie series participates in tropes of adult domestic fiction and in tropes of girls' fiction to situate the series within the progression of American female writing in the nineteenth century. I contend that the Elsie series can make a valuable addition to courses on the development of female writing in America by acting as prime examples of texts that participate in both adult and juvenile genres.

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American literature, Women's studies