Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

'A Room of One's Own,' Personal Criticism, and the Essay

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

'A Room of One's Own,' Personal Criticism, and the Essay

Article excerpt

Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please--it is not a matter of any importance).

(A Room of One's Own 5)

Why is A Room of One's Own taken so personally by so many readers when it is full of devices designed to distance Virginia Woolf from the speaking voice of the essay? How can something be personal when the author wants to keep her life entirely private, so private that her book on women and writing is presented through the medium of a first-person narrator, Mary Beton? Does it seem personal largely because we now have almost total access to Woolf's private letters and diaries? One way to answer these questions would be to examine Woolf's role as a cultural icon, as Brenda Silver does in a recent article. Where Silver emphasizes the importance of extra-literary factors in creating an author's reputation, I have focused on literary qualities which precede and must in some measure shape the kind of icon that gets constructed. In A Room of One's Own Woolf writes a personal criticism that does not compromise her privacy, that, in fact, conceals it even as it enters into a conversation with the reader which seems very personal. This allows her writing to speak to readers such as Alice Walker who feel a connection to Woolf in spite of their awareness of the many differences between them. That is, the persona of Mary Beton deflects attention from Virginia Woolf as a personality and focuses it on the narrator's general openness of mind. This in turn translates into a similar porousness of the text for her readers. The seeming paradox is: how can a writer as private its Woolf be associated with "personal criticism"?

When the idea of the personal comes up in literary criticism, it is usually part of a discussion of either feminism or the essay. With the exception of G. Douglas Atkins's Estranging the Familiar, these two discussions of the personal have rarely overlapped. Feminists advocate a more personal literary criticism, apparently unaware of the category of the essay, while critics of the essay often seem to have only a nodding acquaintance with feminism's theorization of the personal. Atkins connects recent developments in feminism, especially Jane Tompkins's conversion-experience essay, "Me and My Shadow," to a resurgence of interest in the essay among general readers, and argues that literary critics should seize the opportunity to move away from arid articles to a more personal style.

This paragraph from "Me and My Shadow" has become the chief example of the personal in recent discussions:

Just me and my shadow, walkin' down the avenue.

It is a beautiful day here in North Carolina. The first day that is both cool and sunny all summer. After a terrible summer, first drought, then heat-wave, then torrential rain, trees down, flooding. Now, finally, beautiful weather. A tree outside my window just brushed by red, with one fully red leaf. (This is what I want you to see. A person sitting in stockinged feet looking out of her window--a floor to ceiling rectangle filled with green, with one red leaf. The season poised, sunny and chill, ready to rush down the incline into autumn. But perfect, and still. Not going yet.) (128)

The coy "Not going yet" refers both to the coming autumn and to a passage, several pages earlier, about having to go to the bathroom, and this, I suspect, is a large part of what makes the passage memorable: it is an attempt at being outrageous and personal that is ultimately neither. While going to the bathroom may be private, it is certainly not unique to Tompkins, and not particularly personal. More to the point, her other attempts at placing herself are not particularly complex or individual. The description of the weather is generic. She lists the varieties of "terrible" weather she has experienced, "torrential rain, trees down, flooding," in a lazy shorthand and remains unconnected to the violence, turmoil, anti drama implicit in the description. …

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