The Resisting Reader. (Plenary Remarks).(conference on American Women Writers)

Article excerpt

I began my work on nineteenth-century American women writers in January of 1980 during a semester sabbatical. The genesis of the decision to turn my attention away from what was then American literature and to look at texts that no one I knew considered worth reading or writing about was long and complex.

But I want to recall here one key generative moment. It was at the 1978 MIA, and I was lying in bed with Elaine Marks--we weren't lovers, we were just tired--and we were discussing our work. The Resisting Reader had just been published, and I was struggling with the question of what to do next. I had in mind a sequel to The Resisting Reader on the intersection of attitudes toward gender and attitudes toward language in what was then American literature, but I had also become interested in the category "women writers." "Judith," Elaine said, in a voice I wish I could imitate, "it's like coming out after years of dating and marriage. It won't be easy and it probably won't bring you as much professional success. But choose the women. IT WILL BE A LOT MORE FUN!"

And so I did and so it has been. Even planning the Hartford Conference was a lot of fun, as Joan Hedrick and I were recalling the other day here at this conference. I wish to go on record as speaking in defense of the value of having fun, and I hope all of you are having fun here and now. So much of the fun, of course, lies in the friendships that we form from and around our work. To recall another generative moment, I first met Joanne Dobson in the spring of 1980 in the basement of the SUNY/Albany library standing in line at the Xerox machine. She was clutching a volume that looked suspiciously like my own, and after stealing several furtive glances at each other--as if we had just discovered each other engaged in some subversive act or in some slightly shameful behavior (like kinky sex)--we began a conversation that has lasted to this day.

At the time I began my work on nineteenth-century American women writers, I knew no one who was working on this material. Meeting Joanne was like the experience of the king who "rules" an uninhabited planet in The Little Prince when the little prince arrives upon his planet, he is overjoyed for, as he puts it, "Voila, un subjet"--though for me, of course, the experience was that of "Voila, an intellectual companion, a collaborator."

Those were the days when in order to have access to the texts of nineteenth-century American women writers you had to xerox them. Those were the days before there were any reprints, any series. When I began my work, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of texts by nineteenth-century American women in print and available for classroom use. And those were the days when the only work by a nineteenth-century American woman to appear in the standard anthologies was the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Of course, those were also the days when you could buy first editions of Sedgwick and Stowe and Gary for $1, often less, if you had the patience to search out used bookstores and sort through their "trash."

More nostalgic still, from my perspective, those were the days when my university supported the costs of my research, and my xeroxing was charged to my department rather than subtracted from a piece of plastic I had to purchase from a vending machine. I did a lot of xeroxing, thanks to the generosity of my university and my department. Indeed, I have a whole file cabinet full of xeroxes of texts by nineteenth-century American women writers still not available in print. I hope someday that the SSAWW will establish a center with an archive where the fruits of these early labors may find a permanent home and continue to be useful.

Those were also the days before e-mail when it was possible to read books, lots of them. And those were the days when the project of recovery seemed intrinsically valuable and when it offered work sufficient for any single lifetime. …