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Ladies Please

All women writers are equal in the eyes of academic enthusiasts.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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A Jury of Her Peers

American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

by Elaine Showalter

Knopf, 608 pp., $30

Elaine Showalter is a somewhat anomalous feminist.

She enjoys venerable status as a pioneer for establishing one of the country's first women's studies programs and for writing a founding document of feminist literary studies, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing (1978). Along the way to Princeton, she also wrote for Vogue and People.

She has not been on "The View" (as far as I know) but she likes to mix things up. Hystories (1997) managed to offend her feminist sisters--as well as sufferers of multiple personality disorder, recovered memory, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Agent Orange. She claimed in that book that these are psychological epidemics exacerbated by the media and by "well-meaning crusaders" including, apparently, feminist theorists. Besides enjoying department stores and shopping (as she confessed in an article in Vogue), she is also a happily married woman with grown children.

Even before Hystories appeared (the title plays on the theories of hysteria of Charcot and Freud), Showalter's brand of feminism and Showalter herself came under attack for what was called her "traditional bourgeois humanism of a liberal-individualist kind" and her lack of interest in "the necessity of combating capitalism and fascism" (this from a critic who enjoys a tenured chair at Duke). Her crime was to assert, in A Literature of Their Own, that there exists a "female tradition" of writing that can be studied historically and that is different from writing by men. According to her critics, such "gynocentrism" (Showalter's term) is "essentialist," based on the supposedly natural categories of "male" and "female." In the meantime, we have moved beyond all that to "gender"; i.e., society has made or unmade us, but we can create ourselves, too.

Arriving now with much fanfare from its publisher and advance praise from the usual, and some surprising, suspects (Joyce Carol Oates and Erica Jong but also A. S. Byatt and the editor of The Columbia Literary History of the United States) is A Jury of Her Peers. Calling it a literary history and the first of its kind, Showalter ignores her critics and returns to the "female tradition of writing," unearthing the lives, careers, and "lost works" (lost because now unread) of dozens upon dozens (250 according to the publisher) of writers.

"Why don't Americans know about such landmark books as Julia Ward Howe's Passion Flowers (1854), Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood (1903), or Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928)?" she asks in the introduction. Why, indeed? According to Showalter, it wasn't because they were too sentimental or too radical, or too narrow or intense, but because such writers "needed a critical jury of their peers to discuss their work, to explicate its symbols and meanings, and to demonstrate its continuing relevance to all readers." Moreover, she will show, as with "male" literary history, "the links in the chain that bound one generation to the next."

Yet there is a major problem with this restoration project: It is not a literary
history at all.

First, a little background. The lives of artists, literary or otherwise, are often colorful and offer fascinating insights into the creative life; but they are tangential to art's true history, the evolution or development of specifically artistic forms. The blindness of Milton is an interesting fact, but what is crucial to literary history is that Paradise Lost represents a stage in the evolution of the epic, a specific literary genre extending back in time through Ariosto and Dante and Virgil to Homer. There is something oddly biological about the process of literary evolution, for just as individuals resemble their parents, so, too, do literature and the other arts recycle features of artistic predecessors.

Milton's blindness, like Edna St. Vincent Millay's alcoholism and multiple abortions, is not a literary fact, but it is of interest to feminists for revealing Milton's dependence on his daughters who, unencumbered by their father and the patriarchy generally, might have enjoyed (so feminists imagine) literary careers of their own.

True, until the early modern period, most writers were men, and histories of literature have been heavily weighted toward male writers. To late 20th-century American feminists, beneficiaries of historically unprecedented material prosperity and equality, it was obvious that men had been keeping all the goods to themselves, including the canon. To remedy the omission of women from the history of literature, feminists produced anthologies of female writers, which had the effect of separating women from the literary tradition altogether, from the transmission of literature as something specifically literary.

Thus, in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, edited by two feminist workhorses, Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert, we find that Fanny Burney, an English novelist, precedes Phillis Wheatley, an African-American poet, while Sojourner Truth follows Mary Shelley. Though they share practically identical life dates, aside from being female, they have nothing in common literarily. In other words, there is no obvious "tradition" of literature written by women, in the sense of representing the transmission of literary values.

Instead, the ascendance of women as writers, beginning in the 19th century, coincided with the growth of publishing, and women, with important exceptions, have written for popular tastes, without much regard for the canon, for high literary values, or for posterity.

Elaine Showalter gets this, so she redefines tradition. In her view, "the female tradition in American literature is not the result of biology, anatomy, or psychology. It comes from women's relation to the literary marketplace."

Thus, A Jury of Her Peers is a history "of women who wrote for publication," and their writings, whether they were imitations of an English product (Jane Eyre) or of Little Women, are as ephemeral as it took the reading public to tire of them. (Not even Louisa May Alcott could replicate her success, though she wrote another dozen novels.) As with works written by many men, these products kept bread on the table for the women and often for their families. With the passage of time their oeuvres (and some were considerable in size) passed into oblivion as quickly as have the bestsellers of 25 years ago. As a feminist, Showalter naturally thinks this is unfair.

If anything, the evidence she assembles indicates that America is a great commercial nation that quickly makes room for new female talent, though it might not be for the ages. Grace Metalious has a place in this history, as does Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth (1819-1899), "the most prolific and popular of the Southern novelists of the 1850s." Showalter's true subject, however, is the progress of feminist self-awareness, and her favored subjects concern women who have broken taboos against "sexual double standards."

To read Showalter's account is to discover that articulate American women have been complaining for a very long time, whether it be Fanny Fern (pen name of Sarah Payson Willis Parton 1811-1872), "a subversive journalist and novelist, who had no patience with organized religion, middle-class piety, or romantic ideas of marriage"; or Elizabeth Stoddard (1823-1902), whose "images of the empty room and the ancient loom .  .  . suggest her sense of frustration and limitation within the sterile confines of traditional women's poetry." I was particularly taken with the moral of Helen Hunt Jackson's story, "The Prince's Little Sweetheart" (1885): "Girls may be seduced by fairy tales and promises of luxury and adoration; but in the end, marriage is about killing spiders every day of your life." To give so much importance to the disordered life is not a literary valuation, but an extension of Romantic biography.

It strikes me that what Showalter portrays as the progress of self-awareness owes much to the growth of the American economy throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, which increasingly changed the nature of domestic life, especially for educated women, alienating them from traditional expectations. Without being Frankfurt School about it, one could write a history of the way that the American ethos of liberty and individual rights is constantly renewed for succeeding generations by commerce, including publishing and the media generally, which feed on dissatisfaction with limitations of race, gender, and class. Like many people who have it too good, feminists are ungrateful for this benefit of capitalism.

America is a land bearing in its capacious heart two conflicting human desires, one yearning for freedom and self-creation and an equally human longing for all that is encapsulated in that word "tradition": home, family, continuity, connectedness. Indeed, it may be that this is what the Western literary canon comes down to, not the victim story of the moment, but rather writing that mediates between the two, between inheritance, what has been given to us, and what we strive to be.

The work of a handful of writers in this volume fits this bill: Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet. It does no service to Bradstreet, however, to lump her (as does Showalter) with her near contemporary Mary Rowlandson, who wrote a memoir of her abduction by Indians in 1676, an account Showalter elevates by calling it a "a captivity narrative." (I don't think she is comparing it to the Israelites in Egypt.) From A Jury of Her Peers one would not know of the role Margaret Fuller played as a literary mediator who, among other things, introduced Goethe to the Transcendentalists with her translations of the German poet.

What distinguishes these women from 240 other writers in A Jury of Her Peers is their engagement with the larger literary tradition. There are, of course, important works by women--Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, perhaps Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind--that have iconic status in our national self-image. Aside from a specialist, however, who would want to read (as Showalter suggests we should) the numerous 19th-century imitations of Uncle Tom's Cabin?

This equal opportunity approach is matched by the pedestrian writing, which is not simply a function of squeezing 250 writers into 500 pages of text. A "peer," it turns out, is "a reader who is willing to understand the codes and contexts of literary writing." If Showalter identifies the central character of Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover (Emma Hamilton) as a person who didn't even have a walk-on part--the "nineteenth-century intellectual heroine Eleonora de Fonseca"--one wonders about the accuracy of these potted accounts. She not only misattributes the quote about the education of Phillis Wheatley, the first black woman to publish a book of poetry (the source is not John Wheatley, who bought Phillis at the slave market in Boston, but a later biographer), but she also repeats the unsupported claim made by Henry Louis Gates Jr. that Phillis was "cross-examined" by Thomas Hutchinson, royal governor of Massachusetts, and John Hancock, concerning the authorship of her poems.

One would imagine that these Massachusetts eminences had other things on their minds in October 1772. Alas, like Henry Louis Gates's fantastic scenario, however, A Jury of Her Peers will no doubt enter into what passes for "literary history" in the academy.

Elizabeth Powers blogs at http://goethetc.blogspot.com.