Published in 1860 under the pseudonym “Florence Percy,” “Rock Me to Sleep” quickly became one of the most popular and widely circulated poems of the nineteenth century. It also became the subject of a heated literary controversy, with multiple claimants coming forward to insist that they had authored the lyric; the most committed imposter was Alexander McWhorter Ball, a New Jersey legislator whose wealthy and powerful friends mounted a national campaign to prove his authorship. The poem’s actual author, Elizabeth Akers Allen, found herself in danger of losing her reputation and therefore her ability to place her work within the literary marketplace. Putzi argues that the poem’s sentimentality rendered it eminently reprintable but also distanced the text from its author, thus causing pretenders to imagine themselves in her place. The gendered implications of this sort of aggressive read ing were revealed most clearly in Ball’s claim to authorship, which was based on this middle-class gentleman’s emotional legitimacy as evidenced by the private circulation of (what he claimed as) his poetry. Rather than asserting her own femininity, however, Akers Allen exposed the gender and class privilege underlying Ball’s argument, claiming her own professionalism and disparaging Ball as a “poetaster” or a hopeless amateur. With publications across the United States taking sides on either side, the “Rock Me to Sleep” controversy became an important marker of the status of professional women writers in the post–Civil War era; more specifically, and perhaps more importantly, it positions one woman’s composition, publication, and circulation practices within a literary marketplace that paradoxically asked women poets to be simultaneously of and beyond the market—amateurs in a professional world.
Jennifer Putzi; “Some Queer Freak of Taste”: Gender, Authorship, and the “Rock Me to Sleep” Controversy. American Literature 1 December 2012; 84 (4): 769–795. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-1901436
Download citation file: