'Her Peers' Engenders Debate

By Meghan O'Rourke
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 14, 2009


American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

By Elaine Showalter

Knopf. 586 pp. $30

Is there such a thing as "women's writing"?

That is the vexing question that haunts Elaine Showalter's impressively researched "A Jury of Her Peers." Announcing itself as "the first literary history of American women writers ever written," the book is an encyclopedic account of some 250 female writers who have helped shape American literature since 1650. It is a call for a truce in the ongoing war over how to read literature by reconciling feminist literary criticism with what a lay reader might call old-fashioned appreciation. Showalter believes that "we need the vigorous public debate of a critical trial, with witnesses for the prosecution as well as the defense, to ensure that American women writers take their place in our literary heritage." But at the same time, she argues that American women writers "no longer need specially constituted juries . . . in order to stand alongside the greatest artists in our literary heritage." In other words, Showalter is weighing in against literary affirmative action while suggesting we pay attention to what she regards as some genuine lost treasures.

She is well-suited for this thorny task. As a literature professor at Princeton, she helped pioneer feminist criticism in the 1970s with works like "Toward a Feminist Poetics" and "A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing." Yet she also worked as a TV critic for People magazine. A translator between the academy and popular culture, she is capable of being less polarized and more nuanced than other feminist critics of her generation. At her best, she is a lively and incisive guide, the perfect Virgil for our quest; if her prose can seem hasty (Anne Bradstreet, she writes, penned "great poems expressing timeless themes"), that flaw is offset by her extraordinary comprehensiveness.

"A Jury of Her Peers" is longer on context than on textual interpretation. Showalter carefully traces the evolution of fiction, poetry and nonfiction written by women and analyzes their reception in the literary marketplace. In between short biographical sketches of the writers, she highlights features of their literature, noting, for instance, that many of the earliest works by women in America were captivity narratives like Mary Rowlandson's. She charts the rise of the domestic novel in the 1850s and the concurrent rise in female readers. She demonstrates that women writers at the beginning of the 20th century saw the short story as the most authoritative form available to them, and she details the advent of Gothic-tinged fiction in the mid-20th century. (Think Carson McCullers's "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery.")

"A Jury of Her Peers" offers mini-biographical sketches not only of luminaries like Emily Dickinson and Willa Cather but also of lesser-known precursors like Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a 19th-century novelist who sought to "add something to the scanty stock of native American literature"; the unhappily married poet Julia Ward Howe, whose autobiographical "Passion-Flowers" shocked 19th-century critics with its frankness about marital unhappiness; and Zitkala-{Scaron}a, a Dakota Sioux writer of the early 20th century.

Along the way, Showalter raises complicated questions about how art and social circumstances intersect. Crucially, she shows how many talented female writers were discouraged from developing their abilities or died in childbirth before coming to maturity. The demands of housework were a particular trouble. Fanny Fern -- a flowery novelist and columnist -- put it succinctly when she wrote in the mid-19th century, "I am sick, in an age which produced a Brontë . . . of the prate of men who assert that every woman should be a perfect housekeeper." (In fact, "A Jury of Her Peers" is not only a history of women who wrote books but also of women who hated sewing -- "that interminable thing," as Elizabeth Stoddard called it.) The sheer amount of domestic drudgery chronicled here helps explain why, unlike Britain, the United States produced no great female novelist in the 18th or 19th centuries. And those women who were writing, Showalter shows, were usually doing so to pay the bills rather than to fulfill artistic ambition.

But there are also writers, like Dickinson and Gertrude Stein, who became true artists despite the long odds against them. And when we encounter them, the difficulties with this project come to the fore. By combining all these writers under the subtitle "American Women Writers," Showalter implicitly suggests that gender is a crucial lens through which to examine writers as imaginatively distinctive as Dickinson and Cather. The limit of this approach is that, even if gender helped shape Dickinson's or Edith Wharton's or Cather's work, it's not central to what made their work great. Showalter's reading of Dickinson is one of the weaker -- and briefer -- mini-essays in the book because the source of Dickinson's eccentric originality is elusive. By contrast, Showalter is much more incisive -- and expansive -- about the less talented (if more tragic) poet Howe, whose writing was suppressed by her domineering husband, and whose work does lend itself to being read through the lens of gender.

Indeed, throughout "A Jury of Her Peers" space goes disproportionately to those female writers who take on gender or related issues such as marriage, slavery or domestic tension. Perhaps that's why so many of the most original writers in this anthology felt anxious about being identified as "female." As Cynthia Ozick put it, to accept the term "women writers" would oblige "artists who are women . . . to deliver a 'woman's art,' " as if their other preoccupations were "inauthentic . . . or invalid, or worst yet, lyingly evasive." Elizabeth Bishop refused to be in an anthology of female poets, noting, "Art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art."

Of course, what complicates Ozick's view, as Showalter points out, is that the history of art and the history of the marketplace are not the same. And it is undeniable that the host of women's anthologies and critical studies of female writers published since the 1970s has helped clear the way for today's poets and novelists (myself included) to feel free not to think of ourselves primarily as "women writers." As Lorine Pruette, a 20th-century psychologist, wrote: "If I were building a Utopia . . . I would leave principles out . . . even feminism; in place of principles I would give us all a magnificent and flaming audacity."

But we are not in that Utopia yet, which is why, in the meantime, we should be grateful for Showalter's generous, thought-provoking study.

O'Rourke is a poet and a cultural critic for Slate.

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