Nina Baym, Who Brought Novels by Women to Light, Dies at 82
Posted June 22, 2018 7:39 p.m. EDT
Nina Baym, a scholar who asked why so few women were represented in the American literary canon, then spent her career working to correct that imbalance, died June 15 in Urbana, Illinois. She was 82.
Her daughter, Nancy Baym, said the cause was complications of dementia.
Baym, who taught English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for more than 40 years, was writing a book about Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1975 when she began to wonder why 19th-century American literature was so male-dominated. Hawthorne himself helped pique her curiosity. In 1855 he had famously complained that “a damned mob of scribbling women” was cutting into his sales.
“I wanted to know where these women were,” she recalled in an interview with The New York Times in 1987.
She went searching through library bookshelves and 19th-century newspapers and magazines, looking for information about the absent women writers. She found plenty of novels written by women in the 1800s, and though they varied in quality, she concluded that many deserved more than obscurity.
“It’s too easy to say they weren’t any good,” Baym said. “Because it turns out that what’s considered good and what isn’t is historically flexible.”
Her work in the mid-1970s coincided with a time of second-wave feminism, when women were challenging the inherent sexism in political, social, legal and intellectual spheres that had been dominated by white men.
Her 1978 book, “Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870,” was a foundational work in the field of feminist literary history and criticism. It had chapters on writers like E.D.E.N. Southworth, who wrote more than 60 novels, and Maria Jane McIntosh, whose “Two Lives” in 1846 went through seven printings. Baym, in her introduction, explained why these types of novels were worthy of study.
“Today we hear of this literature, if at all, chiefly through detractors who deplore the feminizing — and hence degradation — of the noble art of letters,” she wrote. “A segment of literary history is thus lost to us, a segment that may be of special interest today as we seek to recover and understand the experiences of women.”
She continued: “I have not unearthed a forgotten Jane Austen or George Eliot, or hit upon even one novel that I would propose to set alongside ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ Yet I cannot avoid the belief that ‘purely’ literary criteria, as they have been employed to identify the best American works, have inevitably had a bias in favor of things male — in favor, say, of whaling ships rather than the sewing circle as a symbol of the human community; in favor of satires on domineering mothers, shrewish wives, or betraying mistresses rather than tyrannical fathers, abusive husbands, or philandering suitors.”
She was born Nina Zippin on June 14, 1936, in Princeton, New Jersey, and grew up in Brooklyn. Her father, Leo, was a noted mathematician, and her mother, Frances (Levinson) Zippin, taught English in New York City public schools.
Baym earned a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University and a master’s at Radcliffe College. In the early 1960s, she received her Ph.D. at Harvard and joined the University of Illinois faculty in 1963.
Her interests and writings encompassed the traditional canonical American writers like Emerson and Thoreau. Among her early books was “Shape of Hawthorne’s Career” (1976). She took up Hawthorne again in “The Scarlet Letter: A Reading,” published in 1986.
But it was her work on female writers, and the accompanying exhortation to re-examine how society judges what writing is significant, that helped expand the reading lists of high schools and colleges to include long ignored women.
Her other books included “Women Writers of the American West, 1832-1927.” A book of her essays, “Feminism and American Literary History” (1992), led with a 1981 essay that is still being studied and quoted: “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors.”
Baym had a chance to have a direct impact on the literature presented to students when she served as general editor of several editions of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, the omnibus work used in many high schools and colleges. In her preface to the fifth edition, in 1998, she noted the addition not only of a number of female authors (among them Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Fanny Fern), but also of pre-colonial stories by American Indians.
Baym was a Guggenheim fellow in 1975 and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow in 1982. She retired as professor emerita at Illinois in 2004.
Her marriage to Gordon Baym, in 1958, ended in divorce in 1970. In addition to her daughter, Nancy, she is survived by her husband, Jack Stillinger, whom she married in 1971; a son, Geoffrey Baym; two stepdaughters, Susan Stillinger and Mary Stillinger; two stepsons, Tom Stillinger and Bob Stillinger; two grandsons; and four step-grandchildren.
Numerous social media posts from colleagues and former students paid tribute to Baym, citing both her writing and her excellence as a teacher. One, on Twitter, was from Catherine Prendergast, a University of Illinois English professor.
“Please read some American woman’s literature in her memory,” Prendergast wrote.