American Girls: Nation and Gender in James, Wharton, and Cather

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This dissertation examines the representations of the American girl in the works of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather in relation to the popular image of the American Girl at the turn of the century. During a process Alan Trachtenberg has termed "the incorporation of America," the cultural image of the American Girl, among others, functioned in contributing to the standardization and unification of the norms of nation and gender. A close examination of the three writers' representations of the American girl in this dissertation reveals the ways in which their awareness of complexity in the idea of girlhood in turn-of-the-century America leads to their critique and revision of the icon of the American Girl and makes their novels different both from the popular American Girl stories, where girls marry happily in the end, and from the ordinary New Woman novels, whose heroines seek their professions and remain single or in sisterhood. In addition, this dissertation investigates how the idea of "Americanness" is questioned in the three writers' works, showing the ways in which the Jamesian idea of Americanness is presented as "foreignness" in the other writers.

Chapter one briefly examines several examples of girls represented in American literature from the Victorian era to the turn of the century, exploring how the idea of girlhood became more complicated and how popular culture nevertheless tried to pigeonhole them into one category, "the marriageable girl," whose image serves to make stable the boundaries in terms of gender, race, and nation. Chapter two investigates how Henry James continues to revise his American girls, which shows his complex and shifting view of American young women and of American democracy. Chapter three explores how Edith Wharton challenges the popular image of the American Girl by playing with the typology and revealing the artificial nature of the American Girl in turn-of-the-century materialistic society. Chapter four examines how Willa Cather's "not-American" girl stories challenge the ordinary American Girl stories and serve to present her idea of multicultural America.