Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Her Contemporaries: Literary and Intellectual Contexts

Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Her Contemporaries: Literary and Intellectual Contexts

Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Her Contemporaries: Literary and Intellectual Contexts

Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Her Contemporaries: Literary and Intellectual Contexts

Synopsis

By placing Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the company of her contemporaries, this collection seeks to correct misunderstandings of the feminist writer and lecturer as an isolated radical. Gilman believed and preached that no life is ever led in isolation; indeed, the cornerstone of her philosophy was the idea that "humanity is a relation." Gilman's highly public and combative stances as a critic and social activist brought her into contact and conflict with many of the major thinkers and writers of the period, including Mary Austin, Margaret Sanger, Ambrosse Bierce, Grace Ellery Channing, Lester Ward, Inez haynes Gillmore, William Randolph Hearst, Karen Horney, William Dean Howells, Catharine Beecher, George Bernard Shaw, and Pwen Wister. Gilman wrote on subjects as wide ranging as birth control, eugenics, race, women's rights and suffrage, psychology, Marxism, and literary aesthetics. Her many contributions to social, intellectual, and literary life at the turn of the 20th century raised the bar for future discourse, but at great personal and professional cost.

Excerpt

“Emerson's remark, 'Misunderstood! It is a right fool's word!' pleased
me much.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living 74

Misunderstood in her own day, Charlotte Perkins Gilman is also misunderstood in ours. This would not have surprised her. Musing upon her own “absolute consecration to coming service,” she wrote, “Regarding consequences I had no illusions. No one who sets out to make the world better should expect people to enjoy it, all history shows what happens to would-be improvers. … What I had to expect was mostly misunderstanding” (Living 73–74). In citing Emerson's quip, she aimed for a devilmay-care attitude, though her private writings suggest how often and how deeply being misunderstood wounded her.

By placing Gilman in the company of her contemporaries, this essay collection seeks to correct misunderstandings of not just her “consecration” but also its “consequences.” An examination of the individual life can only clarify so much, for as Gilman believed and preached, no life is ever led in isolation; indeed, the cornerstone of her philosophy was the idea that “humanity is a relation” (Home 189). Situating Gilman in relation to others is the only way to understand fully how she thought and lived. As a methodology, it honors her own belief system even while interrogating its potential exclusions and generalities.

Among the consequences of her avowed devotion to world service and others' misinterpretations of this devotion, Gilman lists persecution and ostracism. Is it fair to say that she was ever the victim of either? If she was, it was not so much for public obligations as for a particular personal choice, although for her this choice was deeply informed by professional commitments. In 1894, struggling to support herself and launch a magazine as well as develop a career as a lecturer and writer, she . . .

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