How Does She Do it?
I was disturbed by Rebecca Steinitz’s suggestion that Sandra Gilbert doesn’t have the right to move on, in Death’s Door, to another subject, that she, as a “mother of feminist criticism,” is abandoning feminism by writing a book about death. She has, after all, given generously to the cause—why she has to go on writing the same book, and why, if she doesn’t, this means she’s given up on feminism, I don’t know. (And I’d argue that the consciousness of gender informs this book more than Steinitz’s suggests—there is a long, fascinating discussion of widowhood, not mentioned in the review.) Anyhow, we’re all of us “moving on” in our lives, toward that end which is the subject of Gilbert’s book. Death “dwarfs most things,” as William Carlos Williams says, in one of the many memorable lines Gilbert has brought to my attention. Even gender. It’s an equal opportunity kind of thing.
I was disturbed to hear the book described as too long, too literary, too highbrow. It seems unfair to call “highbrow” a book that finds a new poetics in the “spontaneous shrines” that sprang up around Princess Diana’s death, in the “missing” posters that appeared after 9/11: this “democratization of death,” this flattening of pomp and ceremony, is the spirit Gilbert shows animating contemporary elegies. It’s true that many of the authors she looks at, Plath, Whitman, Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, are “canonical”—so, a feminist doesn’t get to write about these authors any more? even if she has amazing new readings, as Gilbert has? Yes, the book is long, and it’s challenging; it demands attention; it actually makes a sustained argument, from beginning to end, something I treasure in a book. I read it with the excitement of discovering a new form—I know of nothing remotely like this mingling of personal, elegiac, literary critical, historical writing, in the literature—and new material: she introduced me to a wealth of literature I had no idea existed and made me see old works in new ways. I read with the excitement of reading Madwoman in the Attic, those many years ago, and I thought, she’s done it again, done for death what she did for the 19th century novel.
But what I want to know is, how did she do it? how she could have stayed in this place as long as it took to do it, kept her imagination there, digging around those graves, those death camps, those ICUs, rooting around that charnel house, staring into that void. I don’t know how she did it--“even to focus on such a mysterious blank is a struggle,” as she writes— but I’m grateful that she did. It’s an act of generosity, a long, difficult, intense book, especially a book like this, which harrows hell, so that when we get there, to that next death, a loved one’s, or our own, we’ll have words to light our way.
Maybe Steinitz is right that only academics will read a book so long and learned, though I suspect readers will be scared off by the subject rather than the length and footnotes. But I bet anyone wanting to know about death and loss will burn right through. It is powerfully written, poetically written. I couldn’t put it down.
It’s a generous book. I wish it had found a more generous reviewer, a reviewer who responded to the book as it is and not found it lacking by some standard she imposes on it.
Rebecca Steinitz responds: Any book as compelling and capacious as Death's Door is bound to generate different responses from different readers. My review agrees with the letter writer on many points such as the power and beauty of the book's writing, the force of its argument, and the quality of its readings. There is no need to quibble over our points of disagreement, which are largely matters of emphasis. However I do want to note that I never accuse Gilbert of giving up on feminism, nor do I suggest she should have continued to write solely about feminism; rather, I regret that she did not use gender as a category of analysis where it often felt warranted.
In the March/April issue of WRB, the pull-quote in the review of Robin Becker’s book of poetry, Domain of Perfect Affection, should have read “The Horse Fair is framed by two long poems, complex tributes to the women painters Rosa Bonheur and Charlotte Salomon.”