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Antebellum American Women's Poetry

Antebellum American Women's Poetry

A Rhetoric of Sentiment

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Wendy Dasler Johnson


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
12 illustrations

Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms


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About the Book

At a time when a woman speaking before a mixed-gender audience risked acquiring the label “promiscuous,” thousands of women presented their views about social or moral issues through sentimental poetry, a blend of affect with intellect that allowed their participation in public debate. Bridging literary and rhetorical histories, traditional and semiotic interpretations, Antebellum American Women's Poetry: A Rhetoric of Sentiment explores an often overlooked, yet significant and persuasive pre–Civil War American discourse.

Considering the logos, ethos, and pathos—aims, writing personae, and audience appeal—of poems by African American abolitionist Frances Watkins Harper, working-class prophet Lydia Huntley Sigourney, and feminist socialite Julia Ward Howe, Wendy Dasler Johnson demonstrates that sentimental poetry was an inportant component of antebellum social activism. She articulates the ethos of the poems of Harper, who presents herself as a properly domestic black woman, nevertheless stepping boldly into Northern pulpits to insist slavery be abolished; the poetry of Sigourney, whose speaker is a feisty, working-class, ambiguously gendered prophet; and the works of Howe, who juggles her fame as the reformist “Battle Hymn” lyricist and motherhood of five children with an erotic Continental sentimentalism.

Antebellum American Women's Poetry makes a strong case for restoration of a compelling system of persuasion through poetry usually dismissed from studies of rhetoric. This remarkable book will change the way we think about women’s rhetoric in the nineteenth century, inviting readers to hear and respond to urgent, muffled appeals for justice in our own day.


Wendy Dasler Johnson is an associate professor of English at Washington State University Vancouver whose writing and research focus on women and cultural rhetorics. She has published articles in Rhetoric ReviewSouth Atlantic Review, Rhetorica, Journal of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric, and other journals.


“Wendy Dasler Johnson reverses the condemnation of mid-nineteenth-century women poets by studying the poetry as a category of rhetoric—as textbooks of the time claimed—revealing a rhetoric designed to shape public sentiment in a culture that believed morality was motivated by feeling. Johnson reclaims popular women poets and a rhetoric of sentiment as seriously political. Situated in a broad context of canonical poets, political movements, and recent scholarship on pathos and on women’s rhetoric, passionately argued, this book is a virtuoso performance.”—Jane Donawerth, author of Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Women’s Tradition, 1600–1900, editor of Rhetorical Theory by Women before 1900