Feminist writer Katha Pollitt points out that the way Gilbert and Gubar reframed the study of literature is now so widely accepted that it’s easy to overlook how groundbreaking it was. “People forget that, when they were writing, even to talk about women writers as having anything in common, as having a story of their own, as being connected in any way to each other, was incredibly controversial. Now it seems completely obvious.”
After Gilbert and Gubar began publishing, the canon — the list of titles considered most important — opened up to include many more books, particularly books not written by white men.
(courtesy Sandra M. Gilbert) - The 1979 book “The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination,” by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
“There’s a lot of really great Victorian fiction that we didn’t read in a very serious way,” Pollitt said by phone from her home in New York. “ ‘Jane Eyre’ was in that camp. Its complexities were not of great interest. But then Gilbert and Gubar made us see a whole range of writing by women in a way that deepened it and made it more complex and more important.”
Some critics complained that “The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women” ghettoized women’s books, while others insisted that if women’s books were deemed important enough, they would be included in the “regular” anthologies. But plenty of scholars followed Gilbert and Gubar’s lead and began looking for works of literature that were no longer being read or no longer being read seriously.
For instance, in 1996, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley published a controversial essay in Harper’s, arguing that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” didn’t deserve to hide in the shadow of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” And in 2005, Smiley brought renewed attention to a forgotten novel by Jetta Carleton called “The Moonflower Vine” (1962), which was subsequently reissued. For Smiley, Gilbert and Gubar pointed the way with good advice. From her home in Carmel Valley, Calif., she said, “Their work came at a really important time for women writers who had been born after WWII and suddenly found themselves taking advantage of higher education en masse. They said to us, ‘Think what you want to think, believe your own instincts and express yourself. And don’t look to authorities for a pat on the head.’ In reclaiming the ground for women, they did it for everybody, not just women.”
Both Gilbert and Gubar hope to attend the NBCC awards ceremony in late February, though Gilbert will be in Italy and Gubar is being treated for cancer. They haven’t worked together for several years, but Gubar says, “We’ve remained fast and true friends.”