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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.