THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF LITERATURE BY WOMEN; The Tradition in English. Edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar.Norton. 2,457 pp. $28.95 Paperback, $19.95. THE NEW FEMINIST CRITICISM; Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Edited by Elaine Showalter. Pantheon. 403 pp. $22.95 Paperback, $13.95.
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE worried when books he considered trash sold more copies than his own. In 1854 he pilloried the authors of those best-sellers as "a damned mob of scribbling women." The writers Hawthorne feared, however, have until recently been quite excluded from the canon of literary masterpieces in which Hawthorne's own works find so secure a place. That canon -- the accepted set of great books that appear on university reading lists as "classics" -- represents a social institution. This institution is constructed in accordance with the hegemonic culture of a given historical moment and has, needless to say, long been overwhelmingly white, middle class, and male. Now here comes a countertradition, a connected universe of women writers hot out of a revisionist canon.
Add Anne Bradstreet, Aphra Behn and Fanny Burney to the roll call that contains Milton, Dryden and Pope. Add Christina Rossetti, Rebecca Harding Davis and Anzia Yezierska to the lists that include Tennyson, Melville, and Conrad. Add Phyllis Wheatley and Olive Schreiner, Radclyffe Hall and H.D., Zora Neale Hurston and Djuna Barnes to the names of Johnson, Dickens, Forster, Pound, and Wright. Anthologies do that: they trumpet and parade a litany of names; they excerpt famous passages and infamous; they embody the cultural rules for literary taxonomy -- officially by prescribed boundaries of nationality, period, and genre; unofficially by class, race, and gender. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (NALW) looks and hefts exactly like its brother Norton anthologies, but appearances deceive. This sister contains the seeds of revolution.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu advises her granddaughter in 1753 "to conceal whatever learning she attains, with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness" lest she be hated. In a 1703 poem called "To the Ladies," Lady Mary Chudleigh begins with these lines:
Wife and servant are the same,
But only differ in the name: and ends with the exhortation:
Then shun, oh! shun that wretched
And all the fawning flatt'rers hate:
Value your selves, and men despise,
You must be proud, if you'll be wise.
Sojourner Truth reports, "I think 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon." Margaret Fuller urges women to "leave off asking (men) and being influenced by them." These diverse voices ring with passions both domestic and political.
In lines frequently quoted as emblematic of covert messages in women's writing, Emily Dickinson advocates:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies.
The study of literature by women is fraught with a vocabulary developed to decode these subversions. We are finding "lost foremothers," "rehabilitating" the abused reputations of forgotten writers, "excavating" literary "artifacts" -- it's the language of archeology and social service agencies. NALW legitimizes this unearthing project. It presents well-known writers (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf), lesser-known works of major writers (Jane Austen's Love and Freindship (sic), a sonnet sequence by George Eliot), and material that has not before been widely available, or in some cases available at all (the poetry of Katherine Philips, Linda Brent's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl). NALW also redraws boundaries, shifting the usual period designations in a way better suited to women's history, considering a range of genres often dismissed (letters, diaries, polemics) and broadening the English-speaking world to embrace geographically diverse writers from India to New Zealand, Canada to Australia.
ANTHOLOGIES both reflect and create canons, and influence the way literature is presented in classrooms. Other collections have been affected by the feminist movement in literary studies, but NALW certifies that throwing in some poems by Anne Finch and a story or two by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Tillie Olsen does not redress the balance. Does NALW underwrite the segregation, then, of women writers from "mainstream" literature, or the omission of male writers from the canon? No. But it resoundingly endorses a centuries-old tradition of women's writing and a matrilineal evolution of styles and subjects. Its publication, therefore, bears witness to the coming of age of feminist literary scholarship.
NALW begins with five medieval and Renaissance writers (among them, Queen Elizabeth; women's writings were first preserved in the 14th century) and closes with a varied collection of contemporary women, from Stevie Smith to Ama Ata Aidoo, Margaret Walker to Judy Grahn -- 149 writers in all. Many groups appear: women of color and lesbians and native Americans, working-class writers and aristocrats. The uncut inclusion of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye underlines the editors' commitment to a one-text core curriculum. Readers may quibble about choices and omissions, an inevitable occupational hazard for anthology-makers, but most will find both work by their favorites and the pleasure of discovering many new voices.
By validating and systematizing feminist criticism's effort to overhaul and renovate the canon, NALW leads also to a more conceptual project -- establishing a feminist theory of literature. Moving beyond canon revision to combine methods and theories from Marxist, psychoanalytic, post-structuralist, and semiotic studies, feminist literary theorists pose fundamental questions: Does female language differ from male? What is the source of female creativity? Feminists from various countries deploy different artillery to answer these questions, the British concentrating on class and race analysis, the French deciphering the relations between language and the body, and Americans caught up predominantly in the pragmatics of classroom politics and the social function of literature.
The New Feminist Criticism collects the major essays from what editor Elaine Showalter calls this "feminist critical revolution." Gender has, indeed, become a fundamental category for interpreting literature. If art imitates life (an unrevolutionary Aristotelian idea), then to ignore or misread half of its creators is to falsify art's mimetic function. The alternative canon proposed by Gilbert and Gubar implicitly supports a critique of masculinist, heterosexist, classist, and racist cultural authority. Feminists are reclaiming both their bodies and their texts, answering Stevie Smith's sardonic couplet:
This Englishwoman is so refined
She has no bosom and no behind.
Norton is marketing NALW as a trade book, an interesting strategy. The book contains both a major political salvo for feminism and a treasure-chest of literature far too long kept on dustier shelves than those of the general bookshop, and it is well worth the price. Women writers now, finally, enter the public domain. In her poem "Pro Femina," Carolyn Kizer calls women artists "sleek saboteuses," but Adrienne Rich best taps the legacy of literary foremothers at the end of her 1958-60 poem "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law":
she's long about her coming, who
more merciless to herself than history.
Her mind full to the wind, I see her
breasted and glancing through the
taking the light upon her
at least as beautiful as any boy
poised, still coming,
her fine blades making the air wince
but her cargo
no promise then: