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Literary conventionality and unoriginality have long been presumed to be markers of lesser literary quality. Scholars of women’s literature have argued that this assumption enabled the denigration of nineteenth-century American women writers, many of whose works markedly adhered to literary convention and evaded innovation. Following the work of such critics as Eliza Richards and Virginia Jackson in unearthing the contemporary literary contexts that framed female literary conventionality, this essay argues that the writings of Lucretia Davidson, an enormously popular poet, provides an important data point in our understandings of the social uses of literary unoriginality. Specifically, Davidson’s work suggests that literary conventionality played an important role in domestic life, specifically in the socialization of girls and young women. A private domestic poet, Davidson wrote poetry as a child and adolescent, using literary conventionality specifically to rehearse the womanly responsibilities she would be expected to assume in adulthood. By replicating such genres as the maternal prayer and the infant elegy and by reiterating standard literary tropes, Davidson used poetry to envision and temporarily assume the authority of the sage matron, using poetry to practice the roles of childrearing and moral stewardship. Against the grain of twentieth-century associations of literary conventionality with conformity and servile self-suppression, Davidson’s poems suggest that, for nineteenth-century girls and women, literary convention instead enabled the acquisition of authority, both social and moral, and permitted them to insert themselves within an august poetic tradition.


Won the 2015 Florence Howe Award from the Women’s Caucus for the Modern Languages.

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University of Nebraska Press


Lincoln, NE

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Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers