Commentary Magazine


A Jury of Her Peers, by Elaine Showalter

I Am Writer Hear Me Roar

A Jury of Her Peers:
American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx
By Elaine Showalter
Knopf, 608 pages, $30

Elaine Showalter has long been on the forefront of feminist literary criticism. As a young professor in the heady days of the 1970s, she pioneered “gynocriticism,” which she intended as a corrective to the so-called “linear absolutes of male literary history.” Scholars, she wrote, need to “stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture,” and to that end, she began working to compile a history of this new “feminist poetics.”

In her study of British women writers, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977), she traced the evolution of women’s writing, dividing it into three distinct phases: “feminine,” a phase of imitating prevailing standards; “feminist,” a phase of protest against the indignities suffered by women; and “female,” a phase of self-discovery and search for a female aesthetic.

More than three decades later, Showalter has finally produced a follow-up: A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. The labor of six years, A Jury of Her Peers is a mammoth volume, covering 250 writers over 350 years of American history, and is billed as no less than “the first comprehensive history of American women’s writing.” A Jury of Her Peers is monumental in another respect: It marks a break with 1970s-era feminist literary theory and the attempt to construct a female alternative to the traditional literary canon. “Women’s writing as a separate literary tradition,” she declares, “[has] reached the end of its usefulness.” In its place is a new generation of “free” women writers, who have reached the final phase of the female literary tradition, “a seamless participation in the mainstream.”

As social history, A Jury of Her Peers is immensely entertaining and readable. Showalter may be an academic, but after stints as a critic at People, Vogue, and the BBC, she knows how to be accessible. The book is best when it follows the rise of women writers during the 19th century, providing both historical context and cogent commentary throughout. Showalter captures well the “Jane Eyre mania” that swept the nation in the mid-1800s and inspired hundreds of passionate imitators (one woman, who worked in the famous female-only mills of Lowell, Mass., said the novel spread through her factory like “an epidemic”). In her chapter on the Civil War, Showalter makes a convincing case for Harriet Beecher Stowe as the most underrated of women writers (no less than Edmund Wilson championed Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its “eruptive force” and Dickensian characterization and scope), and provides a fascinating history of the “anti-Tom” novels written in response by affronted female Confederates.

Showalter is not averse to spinning a good yarn either. In one of the collection’s many compelling anecdotes, she recounts the unhappy marriage of Elizabeth Robins, America’s foremost interpreter of Ibsen and herself a playwright. As Robins began to make a name for herself, her husband, a jealous unemployed actor, demanded she give up the theater. When she refused, he donned a full suit of stage armor and jumped into the Charles River.

Erica Jong once said that literary history offered only two models for female artists: those “timid in their lives and only brave in their art” or those “severe, suicidal, strange.” Even the most cursory reading of A Jury of Her Peers demonstrates just how specious such a claim is. Take Anne Bradstreet, authoress of the first book by a woman living in America, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America (1650). She was as complete a repudiation of the stereotype of the tragically oppressed female writer as one could find. A happily married mother of eight, Bradstreet fought off disease and starvation along with her fellow colonists in Massachusetts Bay while writing over 6,000 lines of poetry, more than almost any other English writer composed in a lifetime. Her first collection of poems—published by her brother-in-law in England—was a bestseller alongside Milton and Shakespeare.

A Jury of Her Peers abounds with such tales of determination. For many of its plucky heroines, writing was their sole means of support after the untimely death or illness of a male relative. “Would you make money?” ran one advertisement aimed at would-be women writers. “Write a novel!” Women responded in droves—much to the displeasure of their male competitors. “America is now wholly given over to a d—d mob of scribbling women,” Nathaniel Hawthorne griped to his publisher after Maria Cummins’s domestic novel, The Lamplighter (1854), sold over 70,000 copies in its first year. “Worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand.” As women with bills to pay, most were glad to trade prestige for money. Lydia Maria Child, who supported herself and her ne’er-do-well husband with her pen, surely spoke for many women writers when she said, “I am American enough to prefer money to fame.”

____________

Showalter means A Jury of Her Peers to be more than mere social history. It is also a work of literary history, she writes, “which inevitably makes selections, distinctions, and judgments.” Unlike other “self-flagellating critics,” Showalter does not fear creating hierarchies among women writers, distinguishing between the “minor” and “major.” She will not apologize for her subjects, nor will she pretend, as many feminist literary critics do, that they are more accomplished than they are. “I believe that women writers no longer need specially constituted juries, softened judgment, unspoken agreements, or suppression of evidence in order to stand alongside the greatest artists in our literary heritage,” she declares. At her most daring, Showalter calls Gertrude Stein, the high priestess of literary modernism, a fraud: “unreadable, incomprehensible, self-indulgent, and excruciatingly boring.”

Such frankness is refreshing, even if Showalter’s opinions are not quite as daring as she thinks they are. As Showalter herself notes, Stein’s star has long been on the wane as the more unsavory details of her life—including her collaboration with the Vichy government and her nasty treatment of her partner, Alice B. Toklas—have come to light.

On subjects that might provoke genuine debate, Showalter is decidedly more reticent. Her section on contemporary women writers is by far the least critical, and, as a result, the weakest. The entries on Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Annie Proulx are dutiful and bland, more like a National Women’s History Month brochure than an act of critical appraisal. At times, the entries get mired down in standard-issue feminist complaint, which feels all the more absurd after reading about the hardships faced by women like Bradstreet. In her entry on Oates, for example, Showalter laments that while Oates, a precocious child, read deeply in “American and British classics,” she did not encounter any “daring women writers” in her studies. Showalter wants to emphasize the self-made quality of the careers of present-day women writers like Oates, but in doing so, she diminishes their predecessors and engages in the very kind of résumé-padding she disapproves of when it comes to 19th-century writers.

Showalter claims to be “interested in the efforts of women writers to move beyond female experience, to create male characters and to write outside of their own race and place,” yet her own survey stresses “female” subjects like courtship, marriage, domestic life, and motherhood. She gives less space to exploring the nuances of her subject’s individual styles than how their work explores traditionally feminist themes: women’s roles in society, their rebellion against male standards and norms, and their demands for autonomy.

Such an emphasis is, in part, the inevitable result of a comprehensive survey. Not to put too fine a point on it, most women’s writing—and for that matter, most men’s—is interesting only from a cultural or historical standpoint. Works of true and lasting artistic significance are few and far between. But while such an approach can prove fruitful when discussing minor writers like Fanny Fern (1811-1872), it’s inadequate to the task of understanding the great women writers—an Emily Dickinson or an Edith Wharton.

The result is readings that are strikingly reductive and tend to obscure truly individual voices. They are treated not as writers first and foremost, but as women, members of an oppressed class. Works explicitly featuring feminist themes are favored over those that don’t, even when the work in question is artistically superior. Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918)—with its eco-feminist undercurrents—is discussed at length while her more accomplished novel about male friendship and religious faith, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), is dismissed in a sentence. Showalter makes much of Anne Bradstreet’s playful address to male poets in her epic poem, “The Four Monarchies,” and what it tells us about the “standard subjects of pious women’s verse” in Puritan New England, but she otherwise ignores the poem and Bradstreet’s handling of the supposedly verboten male subjects of war and empire. Even the “free” women writers of today cannot escape the gynocritical impulse: Marilynne Robinson’s career is discussed entirely in the context of whether her first novel Housekeeping (1980) is a “feminist novel.” Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead (2004), the story of an aged Iowa preacher writing a letter to his young son, is mentioned only once in passing.

_____________

Showalter’s survey is, in her own words, the story of women’s struggle to be “free” as writers, to define for themselves what it means to be an artist and a woman. But what Showalter does not realize is that this struggle has been as much against other women as it has been against men. She offers a terrific rejoinder, for example, to a fellow feminist critic on the subject of the career and reputation of Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909). First, she writes, Elizabeth Ammons stoutly defended Jewett’s charming, but disjointed novel The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). According to Ammons, the novel’s shapeless structure is meant as a “feminine” alternative to what Showalter called the “linear absolutes of male literary history”—its circularity corresponding to the more diffuse unfolding of the female orgasm. Showalter suggests Jewett (who often said she preferred the short story form) simply had trouble constructing longer, more complicated plots. Then Showalter notes that in the 1990s, as postcolonial and multicultural studies were on the rise, Ammons retracted her earlier praise of Jewett, denouncing the author as racist, imperialist, even “proto-fascist.” “Obviously, Jewett’s work had not changed,” Showalter observes before suggesting that literary criticism might be more usefully based on “aesthetic principles” than “time-bound . . . political sensitivities.” Jewett’s “dizzy ride on the roller coaster of critical politics” is an example of the particular burden of women writers, who can find themselves championed one moment, execrated the next as feminist scholars decided among themselves what women should think. This is a problem Showalter is unable to see, let alone diagnose.

_____________

For all its attempts at iconoclasm, A Jury of Her Peers is ultimately a very conventional book. Women may be free to write on any subject they choose, but Showalter remains trapped in the “gynocritical” box, fixated on questions of oppression and liberation her best subjects rise above in their work. Perhaps she should go back to her first survey and consult Virginia Woolf’s classic A Room of One’s Own (1929). “It is fatal,” Woolf writes, “for anyone who writes to think of their sex. . . . It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death.” A woman writer may be in need of a room of her own, but—as Woolf, Wharton, Cather, and Dickinson can attest—she has never needed a literature of her own.

About the Author

Cheryl Miller, a new contributor, is a 2007 Phillips Foundation fellow in journalism and the editor of Doublethink magazine.




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