Lyrical Strains

Liberalism and Women's Poetry in Nineteenth-Century America

By Elissa Zellinger

272 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5981-7
    Published: November 2020
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5980-0
    Published: November 2020
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-5982-4
    Published: October 2020
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5890-0
    Published: October 2020

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In this book, Elissa Zellinger analyzes both political philosophy and poetic theory in order to chronicle the consolidation of the modern lyric and the liberal subject across the long nineteenth century. In the nineteenth-century United States, both liberalism and lyric sought self-definition by practicing techniques of exclusion. Liberalism was a political philosophy whose supposed universals were limited to white men and created by omitting women, the enslaved, and Native peoples. The conventions of poetic reception only redoubled the sense that liberal selfhood defined its boundaries by refusing raced and gendered others. Yet Zellinger argues that it is precisely the poetics of the excluded that offer insights into the dynamic processes that came to form the modern liberal and lyric subjects. She examines poets—Frances Sargent Osgood, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and E. Pauline Johnson—whose work uses lyric practices to contest the very assumptions about selfhood responsible for denying them the political and social freedoms enjoyed by full liberal subjects. In its consideration of politics and poetics, this project offers a new approach to genre and gender that will help shape the field of nineteenth-century American literary studies.

About the Author

Elissa Zellinger is assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University.
For more information about Elissa Zellinger, visit the Author Page.


"Zellinger's fresh methodology will be an important addition to the study of poetry and to the many ongoing debates about the lyric in critical circles. . . . For both readers and writers of contemporary poetry, Zellinger's work expands and refreshes our understanding of the lyric and of the lineage of women writers."—Women's Review of Books

"Highly recommended...Zellinger traces the contributions of four women authors in the last two centuries: Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Ellen Watkins Harper, both identified as "traditional" writers; Native author E. Pauline Johnson; and the quixotic Edna St. Vincent Millay. These authors have been excluded when others, for example, Christina Rossetti, Charlotte Brontë, and Emily Dickinson, have been put in the limelight."—CHOICE

“Zellinger is an excellent reader of poems. . . . Many readers will be delighted with Zellinger’s emphasis on the concept of the Poetess as central to women’s poetry for over a century.”—Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature

“[Zellinger] bracingly shows how woman poets who did not have political claims to liberal subjectivity turned tactically to the idea of lyric as the consummate poetic expression of subjectivity . . . [and] helps us to hear them with new clarity.”—American Literary History

“Elissa Zellinger’s analysis of how nineteenth-century American lyric poems work is a fresh and radical intervention in a field that has been grappling with these questions for nearly two decades. By linking the history of the creation of the liberal self to women’s lyric production, Zellinger boldly intervenes in a variety of arguments about genre and gender in ways that will continue to shape the field.”—Alexandra Socarides, University of Missouri

Lyrical Strains makes an important intervention into debates over the existence and significance of lyric poetry in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, arguing that ‘strains’ of the lyric in a wide variety of women’s poetry contributed to a critique of the availability of liberal selfhood to those marked by gender and race. Elissa Zellinger is to be commended for the diversity of authors and texts she brings together here, as well as for her work at the intersection of literary studies and political philosophy.”—Jennifer Putzi, The College of William & Mary