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Kristen Proehl, American Studies Program, College of William and Mary

Tomboys in Rag Alley:  Gender Transgressions and Urban Poverty in The Hidden Hand

“Tomboys in Rag Alley” is part of a larger project that explores the relationship between sentimental literature and the emergence of the tomboy figure in mid-nineteenth century America.  My presentation will focus on one of the earliest known tomboy figures in American literature: Capitola Le Noir of E.D.E.N. Southworth’s The Hidden Hand (1859).  Capitola, more playfully known as Cap Black, first appears in the novel disguised as a boy and selling newspapers on the New York City streets.  Due to a stroke of fortune, she leaves street life on “Rag Alley,” but finds it difficult to adjust to a new upper-class environment in Virginia, far away from her former urban haunts.  When scolded for her restlessness and inappropriate use of “bowery” language in her genteel new home, she responds: “Yes, I am… decomposing for want of having my blood stirred, and I wish I was back in the Bowery!  Something was always happening there! One day a fire, the next day a fight, another day a fire and a fight together” (173).  In spite of its hardships, Cap continues to associate her previous tomboy existence in New York with a boyish sense of adventure.  With all this in mind, my paper explores the relationship between Cap’s early exposure to poverty and the development of her tomboy identity.  I will consider Cap in conjunction with other nineteenth century child heroines, such as Gerty of Maria S. Cummins’s The Lamplighter (1854), who likewise emerge in the context of city poverty.  In contrast to other gender-bending female protagonists, I will question why Cap is immediately recognizable as a classic tomboy figure and reveal how she relates to other sentimental figures.  Furthermore, I will ask:  is there a constitutive relationship between poverty and gender subversion in Southworth’s tomboy narrative?  And, to what extent does Southworth’s portrayal of Cap, and the potential impact of poverty on her gender development, critique the rise of industrial capitalism in nineteenth century America?


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