Scribbling Women


A Jury Of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

by Elaine Showalter

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, 608 pages, $30.00, hardcover


Reviewed by Carole DeSanti


The image that comes to mind over the course of reading Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers is that of a stage-set concealed behind a theatrical scrim, opaque and mysterious. As the spotlights come on one by one, the scene behind the scrim is slowly revealed as a huge, complicated tableau vivant of lives, deaths, births, loves, and struggles, portrayed by costumed actors and set against the backdrop of successive eras—the great untold story of women’s literary effort on these shores. The effect of the whole is stunning in its scope and sometimes shocking in its particulars. Altogether, A Jury of Her Peers is a generous, significant guide to heretofore uncharted terrain. Showalter has cut a path through the wilderness.

Indeed, it is in the wilderness that her epic begins. A Jury of Her Peers opens with the New England Puritans, reminding us that US women’s female literary ancestors, the first two of whom were born in England and traveled to the New World by sea, insisted on putting pen to paper despite God’s apparent decree that they were intellectually inferior beings, had nothing of worth to express, and did not merit public attention. Notoriety, they had been told, wrongly invaded their appropriate terrain, the private sphere. If their writings did happen to achieve publication, it was only as anomalies and with a great fuss of preamble and apology. Anne Bradstreet, America’s first woman poet, wrote:

Men can do best, and Women know it well.

Preeminence in all and each is yours

Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.

But the human appetite for the taboo and forbidden, along with puzzling evidence that women’s “intellectually inferior” work could be highly marketable set the stage for much of what was to come.

Revealingly, the first known narrative work by an American woman writer was A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson published in 1682, an account of the 1676 Indian raids in Western Massachusetts that resulted in the author’s abduction and three-month imprisonment among the Narragansett. Rowlandson’s captivity narrative sets the tone for many of the lives that follow: the paths of women writers, as described by Showalter, have been characterized by difficult dislocations, epics of peregrination, or flights of imagination, followed by confinement—and poor nourishment. Rowlandson recounts her diet among the Indians:

Horses’ guts and ears, and all sorts of wild birds…Also Bear, Venison, Beavers, Tortois, Frogs, Squirils, Dogs, Skunks, Rattle-snakes: yea, the very Barks of Trees.

Entrapment is an ongoing theme. Women writers are held captive in oppressive marriages, as in the case of Julia Ward Howe (1819 – 1910) or Genevieve Taggard (1894 –1948); in sanitariums, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1869 –1935); by domestic encirclement like Lydia Maria Child (1802 –1880); and in many cases by imprisoning structures of thought. Following a highly productive and public career, Shirley Jackson (1916 –1965), according to Jonathan Lethem’s introduction to Jackson’s book We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which Showalter quotes, “succumbed almost entirely to a crippling doubt and fear, … a squalid, unreasonable agoraphobia—a sort of horrible parody of the full-time homemaker’s role she assumed.” Even when the uprooting is done by the women themselves, their expressive, imaginative selves have often remained restricted and bound—as if the world didn’t know what to do with them, or indeed, they did not know what to do with themselves.

One thing, though, is clear: women writers through the eras have demonstrated talent, ingenuity, creativity, and ambition in abundance. They contributed energetically the creation of an American literary culture, an effort defined, initially, as replacing British content with American scenes and characters in both children’s and adult literature. From the early English settlers, Showalter reconnects us to the first American woman playwright, Mercy Otis Warren; Phyllis Wheatly, the first African American woman poet; Judith Sargent Murray, the first major feminist author; and Susanna Rowson, the first bestselling American woman novelist. Rowson’s novel Charlotte Temple, published in 1794, went through 200 printings, stealing its way (writes her biographer in 1870) “into the study of the divine and the workshop of the mechanic; into the parlor of the accomplished lady and into the bed-chamber of her waiting maid; into the log hut on the extreme border of modern civilization and into the forecastle of the whale ship on the lonely ocean.” And with that, we are off and running. According to a writer in 1798—a novelist herself—novels became “the favourite, and the most dangerous, kind of reading now adopted by the generality of young ladies…They often pervert the judgment, mislead the affections, and blind the understanding.”

The mass market for women’s fiction truly established itself in the 1850s, and it was in this era that the battle lines between literary and marketplace acclaim, male canonization vs. female popular appeal, began to be drawn. Showalter writes, “As women’s fiction became more and more commercially popular, male editors and writers protested more vigorously against a female invasion of the literary marketplace.” In an anecdote that presages the still-unresolved tensions of our own day, she recounts Nathaniel Hawthorne’s rage against Maria Cummins’s bestselling novel The Lamplighter (1854). Hawthorne railed angrily to his publisher, William Ticknor,

America is now wholly given over to a d---d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is so occupied with their trash… [w]hat is the mystery of these innumerable editions of The Lamplighter?

A Jury of Her Peers is both thematically and chronologically organized. Certain subjects echo and recur from the Puritans through the modernists and beyond: race and slavery, madness and captivity, and the lack of social and critical leverage for women’s literary efforts. Showalter discusses at length the relationship that race- and/or class-privileged women writers—the first to have any public voice at all—have had with the dispossessed races of their new nation. Catherine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867), a New Englander famous in the 1820s, possessed “a keen and daring sympathy for the outsider,” including slaves and Native Americans. However, she adopted anti-abolitionist views later in her life, abandoned a novel about slavery, and eventually described her own successful literary career as “accidental,” a pastime to console herself for being unmarried and childless. The prolific Lydia Maria Child (1802 – 1880), born to a working-class Medford, Massachusetts, family and raised with little formal education, took issue with what she felt was Sedgwick’s “deficient…moral courage” with regard to the issue of race. Child herself adopted an outspoken stance against slavery, proposing interracial marriage as a solution to the racial divide. Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791 – 1865) was also impassioned about the injustices perpetrated on Native peoples, and continued to write on the topic despite its unpopularity. In 1852 came the juggernaut Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a worldwide sensation that united the category of bestselling novel with the issue of slavery on the eve of the Civil War, earning its author an unparalleled position in this canon: Showalter argues that Harriet Beecher Stowe, despite all the controversy surrounding the novel and the criticism of it, both in its own era and ours, is “the most important figure in the history of American women writers.”

In the mid-1850s, black women writers began to emerge to speak in their own voices, although these works raised “problems of authorial identification,” and were “difficult to categorize in terms of genre.” (p 122). From this era we have Frances Watkins Harper (1825 – 1922), a free black woman from Baltimore who published poetry in response to Stowe in the abolitionist press, thanking the novelist.

In 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl appeared under a pseudonym, presented and “edited” by Lydia Maria Child – who was widely, at the time, considered to have authored it. The mystery was resolved only in 1971, when Jean Fagan Yellin established the author as Harriet Jacobs, born a slave in North Carolina. Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, (1859) was also questioned as to its authenticity before being verified in the twentieth century; and in our own era, the provenance of The Bondswoman’s Narrative by “Hannah Crafts,” another tale of the 1850s, is still in question. Throughout Showalter’s history, the work and social interests of a wide spectrum of writers converge, part, overlap, and collide in myriad of ways—and under many guises. However, the long history of absent institutional support for writers of color is striking: even after 350-odd years of unstinting effort, a petition to the New York Times Book Review was put forward in 1987 to protest the non-recognition of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in that year’s fiction awards.

Though some influences among women writers can be traced (especially on the subject of race) Showalter does not propose or analyze patterns in the work she discusses; this history is sometimes more akin to the silent passing of a baton. When one voice falters or falls silent, another picks up, nearly undefined by what came before—in part because there is no codifying or categorizing of the earlier efforts, no agreement about what shaped or influenced the forebears’ life and work. In many cases, women barely acknowledge female literary ancestors, although apparently they did experience George Eliot’s death in 1880 as “the exorcism of an oppressive ghost.” Eliot’s accomplishments were perceived to have set an impossible standard—and her strategic male nom de plume had allowed her work to be taken seriously from the outset. Understandably, as femininity is by definition silent, dependent, hidden, suppressed, and nonauthoritative—all qualities opposed to the writer’s task—various strategies for disidentifying with the feminine persist.  

Showalter devotes her chapter on Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, two of our best-known and most-canonized American women writers, to the theme of writing “against” gender. She argues that both Wharton and Cather, different in every other way, shared a strategy of disclaiming feminine identity, or at least the conventional, belittling persona of the “lady writer”—or, as Cather put it, the “authorine.” They emerge as most notable, perhaps, for prying open yet another set of prison doors: the social definitions imposed on them. Setting their voices against those of their peers puts both in a new context, however: no longer supporting players in the male canon, they emerge as distinctive representatives, diplomats and ambassadors for a population much broader, vaster, and more diverse and self-transforming than we have been led to believe.

For this, A Jury of Her Peers is an invaluable resource. For the intellectual sifting of many dusty volumes and the carrying-forward of these lives, Showalter deserves enormous credit. The beauty and reward of this history lies in its precise archeology, its bringing to light individual lines of poetry, plots of novels, observations, insights, and dramatic moments from our unseen yet collective past, in both life and art. Page for page, the number of revelations is astonishing: my copy bristles thickly with yellow flags. Yet my sense is that this history could have been twice as long; that a single volume can hardly meet the task.

Still, I cannot wholeheartedly agree with Showalter’s optimistic conclusion, that women writers have passed through three distinct stages, “feminine, feminist, and female,” and have moved into a fourth stage, “free,” “no longer constrained by their femininity” and enjoying a “seamless participation in the literary mainstream.” The baggage of history, so vividly evoked, may not be thrown off so easily, and Annie Proulx’s statement that “[w]riters can write about anything they want, any sex they want, any place they want” seems more a starting point than a working definition of the condition of women writers today. Certainly they can, but do they? And if they do, what are the consequences as they move from the writer’s desk into the public world?

As an editor of (primarily) women writers for 25 years, I have seen too many still held “captive” by both internal and external forces: talent held hostage by domestic demands and internal burdens on the writing self; worthwhile effort ignored and unheralded; a deserved sense of authorship waylaid by phantoms of fraudulence or insufficiency. Patterns of social oppression and self-subjugation thrive, while models for creative resilience remain elusive. From where I sit, our “rooms of one’s own” are haunted by legacies of dependency, martyrdom, and self-annihilation that are well-documented here. The cultish fascination with suicidal female genius—i.e., Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath—persists despite Adrienne Rich’s emphatic disavowal of this archetype at Sexton’s 1974 memorial: “We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women …” (not to mention Muriel Rukeyser’s poetic quip: “I’d rather be Muriel / than be dead and be Ariel”). With the continuing weakness of structural and institutional support—robust and well-intended criticism, supportive institutions, resources outside the publishing industry—women writers can find themselves sacrificing depth and innovation, intellect and history, and the intangible rewards of writing, clinging to that for which there seems an unlimited, urgent demand from the marketplace. After all, who of all of the many hungry voices in their lives is asking them for anything else? Women writers from the acclaimed to the unknown struggle with multiples of these issues simultaneously—and they do it while balancing an astonishing array of other life responsibilities.

And, too, readers and writers alike are (often unknowingly) caught in the unresolved battle of the 1850s between “the literary vs. the commercial,” which continues as code for male worth vs. female inauthenticity. Hawthorne’s objections to The Lamplighter in 1855 created the template for the Jonathan Franzen/Oprah Winfrey debacle, in which Franzen publicly expressed his distaste that Winfrey had chosen his novel The Corrections (2001) for her book club. One of his complaints was that Oprah “picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional [books] that I cringe, myself [at being included.]” Disinvited from the show, he won the National Book Award for that year.

What seems evident from A Jury of Her Peers is that women writers across the centuries have undergone a vast process of self-transformation, altering landscapes, cultures, and communities book by book, story by story, poem by poem, and life by life, whether or not they have acknowledged this as a collective effort. The struggle is ongoing, a work-in-progress; fragile, vulnerable, subject to reversal and I think, recently under siege—a process of transformation that is an epic unto itself, of which the next chapters have yet to be written.

Carole DeSanti is vice president, editor at large at Viking, a member of the Penguin Group.

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