A Jury of Her Peers
American Women Writers
From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx
Alfred A. Knopf: 608 pp., $30
The title of this, the “first literary history of American women writers ever written,” explains Elaine Showalter, comes from a 1917 short story of the same name by a young journalist, Susan Glaspell. The story is based on the murder trial of an Iowa farmwife who strangled her husband after enduring years of his cruelty and abuse. When two of her peers located potentially incriminating evidence, they concealed it to protect the abused woman from “the patriarchal system of the law.”
Glaspell died in 1948, all but disappearing from literary history. Her story and its back story have a particular resonance for Showalter. Showalter doesn’t much like it when really good writers like Glaspell fall off of the literary map. This means that while much of the book conjures names good readers know, it is happily punctuated by names we’ve never seen, stories we never knew existed.
Showalter has organized the book by decades, beginning in 1650, when Anne Bradstreet, a settler from England in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote the first book by a woman living in America. Bradstreet’s “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America” is a collection of poems describing the difficulties and joys of being a settler, wife and mother. It was published in London and required no fewer than 11 testimonials by male friends, family and critics to convince the publisher that it was indeed written by a woman and worthy of publication. It was followed by Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 memoir of her abduction by Narragansett Indians, “A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” It was in this genre, “captivity narratives,” that American women first distinguished themselves as writers.
As education became more widespread for women, they branched out into poetry, bestselling fiction and political satire. In 1794, Susanna Rowson’s “Charlotte Temple” appeared in America, becoming the first bestselling novel here by a woman and opening the floodgates for other female novelists. By the early 1800s, women entered the publishing industry, editing periodicals with titles like Ladies, Mother and Home, as well as anthologies and annuals.
Though the 1850s are considered a golden age in American letters, with male luminaries like Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne, they were also, as Showalter quotes literary historian David S. Reynolds, the “American Woman’s Renaissance,” influenced to a large degree by the enormous popularity of Charlotte Brontë's “Jane Eyre,” published in America in 1848. The increase in “domestic novels” written by women inspired vitriolic reviews and threatened marriages. Nathaniel Hawthorne told his publisher William Ticknor, “Ink-stained women are, without a single exception, detestable.” For their part, writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe complained of the many interruptions a woman had to face: “Nothing but deadly determination enables me to ever write -- it is rowing against wind and tide.” Women depended on legendary editors such as William Dean Howells and Thomas Wentworth Higginson to take their work seriously and steer them to publication in the Atlantic Monthly, the Century, Harper’s and Everyweek.
The mid-19th century was also a renaissance for black women’s writing and slave narratives that invigorated a flagging book publishing market that had perhaps seen a surfeit of domestic novels. It’s not easy, wrote the literary editor of the New York Times in 1862, “to sit down to a tale of imaginary woes and sorrows while one great wail is going up from the sick and wounded in the swamps and trenches before Richmond.” Showalter defends Emily Dickinson’s avoidance of the Civil War in her work, pointing out that so much of the poet’s writing was about death and loss; that she was constantly undergoing a civil war within herself, against authorities in her life, who were mostly male.
Now and then, Showalter is called upon to untangle the various waves of criticism and revival that works by writers including Dickinson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eudora Welty have endured. Her approach in this thorny landscape (feminist criticism can be fierce) is unifying and magnanimous. She brings a perspective to changing literary culture that makes criticism seem not only understandable but also healthy and invigorating, making the work timeless in its ability to weather readers’ changing priorities. Dickinson, for example, has been much criticized for her narrow window on life; Jewett and Welty for bourgeois views; and Millay for her self-styled insistence on domesticity.
The early 1900s saw the end of the Victorian Age and the birth of Modernism -- many women in this next generation did not want to be defined as “women writers”; some, such as Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, openly criticized female writers. “I have not much faith in women in fiction,” Cather wrote. “They have a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable. They are so limited to one string and they lie so about that.” Showalter hardly needs to point out that this open criticism among female writers is far preferable to the silence or condescension previously offered by male critics.
In 1920, women got the vote. Women wrote with renewed vigor of the difficulties of writing and running a home: Short story writer Katherine Anne Porter spoke of the “curious idea of feminine availability in all spiritual ways and in giving service to anyone who demands it. And I suppose that’s why it has taken me twenty years to write this novel,” she said of “Ship of Fools” -- “it’s been interrupted by just anyone who could jimmy his way into my life.” Many Southern writers -- Carson McCullers, Welty -- hail from the century’s first 50 years. African American writers such as poet Gwendolyn Brooks, novelist Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and, later, Alice Walker, found their voices in this period.
In the first half of the 20th century, critics such as Louise Bogan, Mary McCarthy and others discovered new writers, rebelled against the ghettoization of female writers and fastened the work of women writers in the cultural consciousness of the century. Activists like Adrienne Rich and Grace Paley opened the eyes of readers to the working class. Gail Godwin wrote about life as a working woman; Erica Jong and others about sexual liberation.
By the 1970s, Joan Didion and others were attacking the women’s movement, accusing feminists of “narcissism, ignorance, and sloth.” By the 1980s, Showalter writes, “women fully joined the literary juries of the United States. . . . No longer dependent on judgments that denied them representation.” By the 1990s, Showalter writes, women dominated the book market, buying between 70% and 90% of all fiction, and she notes a rise in women’s gothic -- works by Mary Karr, Kathryn Harrison, Dorothy Allison, Susanna Moore and Alice Sebold that did not shy from violence. She also notes an ethnic cross-fertilization, with second-generation immigrants including Gish Jen and Julia Alvarez.
Showalter ends this remarkable book with Jane Smiley and Annie Proulx, both equally comfortable writing from male and female perspectives. Nor have they been afraid to challenge their male forebears. Smiley, in a 1996 Harper’s essay, criticized Mark Twain: “To invest ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ with greatness,” she wrote, “is to underwrite a very simplistic and evasive view of what racism is.” Proulx, for her part, reinvented the American western.
Showalter has spent her life, in and out of academia (she is professor emerita of English and Avalon professor of the humanities at Princeton) writing, thinking and lecturing on literature and judging literary prizes. “A Jury of Her Peers” does an enormous service, houses a drop-dead reading list and gives the reader a fluid framework for the great (much of it still undiscovered) wealth of writing by women in this country.
Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.