Legitimate Aesthetic Grounds

By Allen, Brooke | The New Leader (Online), January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

Legitimate Aesthetic Grounds


Allen, Brooke, The New Leader (Online)


VIRAGO PRESS was founded in 1 973 . According to its editors, four years later the appearance of Elaine Showalter's first book, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (Princeton), which brought to light a legion of forgotten writers, moved the English publishing house to enormously expand and enrich its list. Now Showalter has produced anew groundbreaking study, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf, 568 pp., $30.00). It is the first comprehensive history (believe it or not!) of its kind. One hopes it will have the same impact on this side of the Atlantic that her maiden volume had on the other side, for it reveals a plethora of fascinating writers unfamiliar to modern readers.

One is Lydia Maria Child, the rebellious abolitionist and feminist. Her 1 824 novel Hobomok "anticipated [Nathaniel] Hawthorne," Showalter notes, in its "use of real historical characters and . . . portrayal of Salem's obsession with savagery, the devil, and witchcraft as a dark reflection of itself." Another is Julia Ward Howe, famous as the author of the lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic but forgotten as the brilliant poet whose dark 1853 volume Passion-Flowers moved Hawthorne, no fan of what he called "scribbling women," to deem her "beyond all comparison the first of American poetesses." Still another is the boldly realistic African- American writer Harriet E. Wilson, author of Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, a narrative that Showalter says "opposed the lingering romanticism of even [Harriet Beecher] Stowe's writing about black women, especially in her mixture of religious piety and blunt language." Then there is the colorful Mary Wilkins Freeman, whose 1 891 story "A New England Nun" sounds utterly outrageous and fabulous. And what about Constance Fenimore Woolson, the well-known author of sophisticated, disturbing psychological tales that rivaled those of Henry James? Her present-day fame derives almost solely from her having been the model for the slightly pathetic Maria Gostrey in James' The Ambassadors.

Showalter's history makes you long to read the works of those writers. A few are available from Virago, which publishes some American authors along with its mostly British list; more have been put out by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York's Graduate Center. Showalter herself has compiled a nice collection in her Scribbling Women: Short Stories by 19th-century American Women (Rutgers, 1997). But far too many are either out of print or available only in expensive editions from obscure publishers.

"Why did this woman disappear from literary history?" Showalter asks about Susan Glaspell, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the story "A Jury of Her Peers," whose title she has appropriated. "Repeatedly, in looking at studies and biographies of individual American women writers, I came upon the same question." Could it really be that their work just did not stand up against that of male authors? "Or perhaps these women writers, among many others, needed a critical jury of their peers to discuss their work, to explicate its symbols and meanings, and to demonstrate its continuing relevance to all readers."

In A Literature of Their Own, Showalter identified three phases in the development of women's writing "that were akin to those of any other literary subculture." First came the feminine phase, a prolonged period of imitation of the culture's dominant modes; second, the feminist phase, a period of protest against these modes; and finally the female phase, a period of "self-discovery, a search for identity and a specific aesthetic." In the three decades of unprecedented social change since that book was written, Showalter proposes, we have entered a fourth phase, one she calls "free." Women writers in the 2 1 st century finally feel free to tackle any subject they choose, and from any point of view, male or female - as the last writers in her study, Jane Smiley and Annie Proulx, have proven. …

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