Dr. Patterson: Mondern Day Gibson Girl

Dr. Martha Patterson
Dr. Martha Patterson

By Donna Bick

Staff Writer

Martha Patterson, Ph.D. is an English professor at McKendree University and has been teaching on campus since 2004. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.; her Master of Arts degree in literary studies and her Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa. Her teaching and research interests include American late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century studies, women’s studies and African American literature and culture.

Along with her impressive teaching credentials, Dr. Patterson is a talented, skillful author. She has penned a monograph titled, Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman. Her monograph was a revision of her dissertation, a requirement for the Ph.D. It is showcased in the large display case in the front of PAC 222. She has also edited a collection of essays titled, “The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894-1930.” In the works, is another book, titled The Harlem Renaissance Weekly, which is a study of major themes in Harlem Renaissance literature through the lens of four African American weekly newspapers. Furthermore, if you visit her online profile on the McKendree website, you will see a list of awards she has won, such as a Fulbright Research/Teaching Award to Norway, University of Agder, 2010. She also has a list of accomplishments under her Administrative and Professional Service that is a must see.


Dr. Patterson has an impressive repertoire of accomplishments, but what is also remarkable about Dr. Patterson is that she is like a stick of dynamite ready to teach you American Literature in a way that makes you long for more. Although other students may not like the massive amount of reading required, her students are certain to learn. The information taught and extracted out from the reading ensures students that Dr. Patterson is well prepared and well educated. When asked where Dr. Patterson obtains some of her information, she mentioned The Poetry Foundation, and when asked specifically about her insight into Emily Dickenson, whose poetry was studied and examined in class, Dr. Patterson pulled out a 4-inch thick folder filled with information on Emily Dickenson’s writings.

Of the many discussion topics Dr. Patterson has taught, one was the portrayal of The New Woman in literature. The Gibson Girl progressed in the late 1890s to the early 1900s as an independent, athletic, talented and well-educated white woman (sound familiar?) who changed the mold of the stereotypical submissive woman of previous years. In one of Dr. Patterson’s classes, students read “Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton and “Maggie: A Girl of the Street” by Stephen Crane. All of these short stories and novels give readers a vision of how the American New Woman emerges in various forms and evolves over time.

In “Alexander’s Bridge,” Cather mimics the true events of the 1907 Quebec Bridge collapse, in which more than 70 workers died. Where the American New Woman enters this short story is as the bridge builder’s mistress, Hilda Burgoyne. Hilda represents the American New Women due to her lifestyle in this time period. She is independent, earning her own living as a singer/entertainer. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a fascinating read due to its bizarre nature of the narrator, Jane; a late 19th century woman who through journal writing, chronicles her life and confinement and describes how her yellow wallpaper slowly consumes her. Furthermore, women of this time were commonly identified with what is called a temporary nervous depression. And because of this diagnosis, women were routinely isolated with no mental or physical stimulation which brought about hysteria, and in “The Yellow Wallpaper” Jane becomes consumed with her yellow wallpaper and believes it comes alive with women behind the wallpaper reaching out to her. Jane’s imagination and desires are stifled by her husband, a physician. He views her as weak and feeble-minded, which in this time period was not uncommon. The story illustrates the effects of confinement on women and how it affects their mental health.

Other literature discussed was by authors, William Faulkner and Richard Wright. Students may have difficulty reading some of the dialogue in As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, but Dr. Patterson has a way of clarifying the many plot points that may be missed by the average student reader.  Also, the way Dr. Patterson taught Richard Wright’s, “Native Son” was enlightening because this novel provides a graphic representation of life for the African American as well as how Bigger Thomas, the novel’s protagonist, views white people. The novel also portrays how white people view life at this time from their perspective, not the African American’s perspective. I highly recommend reading Native Son whether you take her class or not as there is so much more to take in in this novel.

The movie, “Ethnic Notions” shown in class traces the deep-rooted stereotypes which have fueled anti-black prejudice. According to IMDb, terms like “Loyal Toms,” the “carefree Sambos,” “Mammies,” “savage Brutes” and “wide-eyed Pickaninnies” were described and caricatured in the film. These images were featured in “cartoons, feature films, popular songs, minstrel shows, advertisements, folklore, household artifacts and children’s rhymes. These dehumanizing caricatures permeated popular culture from the 1820s to the Civil Rights period and implanted themselves deep in the American psyche” (IMDb).

Much can be learned about African American history and culture through Dr. Patterson’s American Literature classes. While the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. was in the headlines with the shooting of Michael Brown, Dr. Patterson encouraged and discussed personal thoughts from the class about this unsettling situation, and students gained differing perspectives.

Another novel discussed was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Song of Myself by Walt Whitman. Dr. Patterson’s passion for American Literature radiates as she is both engaging and informative. So much knowledge is gained from Dr. Patterson’s instruction. I highly recommend her classes to other students.

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