The Action-Adventure Heroine

Rediscovering an American Literary Character, 1697–1895

  • Author(s): Smith, Sandra Wilson
  • Series:
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2018-05-19
  • Status: Active
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“This book makes a very significant contribution in our understanding of the action-adventure heroine as a distinctive tradition in American popular print culture. Sandra Wilson Smith’s examination of thematically related texts and genres—published over the course of two hundred years—fills a meaningful gap in the scholarship of a literary character more recognized and accepted in contemporary writing. As such, this study will be of considerable interest to scholars and students of American literature, American cultural history, and women’s and gender studies.” —Daniel A. Cohen, editor of “Hero Strong” and Other Stories: Tales of Girlhood Ambition, Female Masculinity, and Women’s Worldly Achievement in Antebellum America 

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Found in scores of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American narratives, the action-adventure heroine leaves the domestic space to pursue an independent adventure. This bold heroine tramps alone through the forests, demonstrates tremendous physical strength, braves dangers without hesitation, enters the public realm to earn money, and even kills her enemies when necessary. Despite her transgressions of social norms, the narrator portrays this heroine in a positive light and lauds her for her bravery and daring. The Action-Adventure Heroine offers a wide-ranging look at this enigmatic character in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literature.

Unlike the “tomboy” or the American frontierswoman, this more encompassing figure has been understudied until now. The action-adventure heroine has special relevance today, as scholars are forcefully challenging the once-dominant separate-spheres paradigm and offering alternative interpretations of gender conventions in nineteenth-century America. The hard-body action heroine in our contemporary popular culture is often assumed to be largely a product of the twentieth-century television and film industries (and therefore influenced by the women’s movement); however, physically strong, agile, sometimes violent female figures have appeared in American popular culture and literature for a very long time.

Smith analyzes captivity narratives, war narratives, stories of manifest destiny, dime novels, and tales of seduction to reveal the long literary history of female protagonists who step into traditionally masculine heroic roles to win the day. Smith’s study includes such authors as Herman Mann, Mercy Otis Warren, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Edward L. Wheeler, and many more who are due for critical reassessment. In examining the female hero—with her strength, physicality, and violence—in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century American narratives, The Action-Adventure Heroine represents an important contribution to the field of American studies.

SANDRA WILSON SMITH is an assistant professor of English at Temple University. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of American Studies, Southern Literary Journal, and E-Learning.