The Magazine

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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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