The ghosts of women writers haunt the landscape of American literature; intentionally silenced, forgotten, they have been awakened once more. The souls of best selling author Catharine Sedgwick (1789-1867), and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Susan Glaspell (Trifles 1916) had been left to wander eternity in unrest, the grave markers of their achievements removed from the literary boneyard. Under Elaine Showalter's quickening, their spirits have finally been laid to rest forever. They have once again taken their right place amongst such celebrated contemporaries as Gertrude Stein, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
There are few books on the role of women in writing that can compare to the masterful collection that Elaine Showalter has created. In her introduction she states "Although I am aware that literary judgments are subjective, and that they reflect critical tastes and temporal values rather than establish eternal and unchanging monuments of excellence, I still believe that such judgments are part of the ongoing arguments of a culture which need to be shared and made public." The result of that bold statement is A Jury of Her Peers (named in deference to Susan Glaspell's 1917 groundbreaking true crime article). Not a catalog nor an encyclopedia of writers, Jury is a biography of sorts. It is the biography of that great American writer known as woman. Her many names, faces and ethnicities. Her accomplishments, her misdeeds against others of her kind and the secret lives she has led in order to survive in a world where she was not always wanted.
In A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter explores women writers by generation, focusing on the obstacles that had to be overcome, as well as the triumphs that changed the place of women, not only in literature, but in the overall scheme of intellectual society. From the Nobel Prize winners and most beloved writers in American literature, to those whose names have been intentionally erased from the literary landscape, Showalter reveals their contributions in facing down, and finally breaking down, the patriarchal guard.
With the characteristic brilliance we've come to expect from her — as both author and feminist historian, Elaine Showalter uses wit, intelligence and a decisive pen to confront the societal and political ideologies behind what makes a writer, and their works, worthy of historical notation. She not only raises from the dead those who should never have been forgotten, but also puts those whom she feels are overrated firmly, and sometimes controversially, in their places. As author and editor of more than 20 books on feminism, literature, and writing she has proven herself to be an uncompromising authority on American literature in general, and the role of women in literary culture, specifically.
Showalter opens with an introduction to the first published woman living in America, the poet Ann Bradstreet. Her book of properly pious poems required the testimonials of no less than 11 men to assure the world that she had not become derelict in her household chores whilst writing. Such testimonials were requisite for women writers living within the puritanical constructs of the colonies.
All of the first American women writers were, like Bradstreet, born abroad, but after making the harrowing sea voyage to the colonies, they considered themselves, and wrote distinctly as, American. While their writing had nothing to do with the lives they had left behind in the old world, they fascinated with their exotic and trial-ridden portrayals of life in the wilderness; their roles as wives and mothers facing the challenges of starvation and illness in the isolation of the New World. They terrified and intrigued readers with their accounts of raising a family under the constant threat of death at the hands of the feral native tribes upon whose land they trespassed.
New World stories like A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, the memoir of a woman kidnapped and held captive by Narragansett Indians, as well as the tales of wild west adventures authored by women, created new — and decidedly American — genres. Genres that captured the imagination of readers all over the world.
Showalter examines those women who were forced to write under emasculated or androgynous pseudonyms and those whose works, once celebrated in society, have since been completely obliterated from the annals of American writing history. Why did they suddenly disappear? What offense had they committed? For the most part none other than simply being female. Their gender alone was enough to make their beloved works suspect during times of heightened misogynistic agendas. Those times when fear of revolution and the growing power of the female voice in a volatile society made their male counterparts question, not so much the writing, nor the value of the story, but the intention, the motivation, behind the writer as woman. The only crimes they had committed were that they were better, or more popular, writers than their male peers in the same genre, and that they were changing the psychological landscape of literature by emancipating themselves from the standards of the masculine paradigm.
Showalter discusses the women who participated in the building of editorial and journalistic empires, yet whose own works were purposefully excluded, women who were taking part in the literary panels that removed the works of female authors from journals and periodicals. One cannot help but be fascinated by these stories, wondering at the mindset of the women who assisted in deleting their own kind from literary history. Were they truly followers of the male dominated thinking of their time, or were they merely acquiescing as a strategic maneuver; a lesser of evils attempt to maintain their seats of power? Was it self preservation during a war of attrition, or simply a battle lost in hopes of winning a greater war? Many realized, or perhaps rationalized, that they were marking a place of advantage at that table for future generations of women — and by walking away in protest they would have only served to vacate a powerful position coveted by their male constituents.
The motivation of others in supporting the removal of some of the most important works by women writers is not so clear. But what is clear, when you read this historical biography, is that many of these writers yet remain unrecognized and their ground-breaking literary works are still being excluded from the reading lists of prestigious academic institutions.
Showalter has made herself, and us, the readers and writers of America, the jury in judging these women, as well as all of those writers who have been celebrated and obliterated in the course of 350 years of literary history.
The most captivating part of Jury is not so much the examination of those writers that we have all grown up with, whose works we know well, but the introduction of works that had been thought lost forever. Showalter has dug through Internet archives as well as physical archives to piece together what remains of some of the rarest and most influential works created by women.
Showalter humbly admits that she is, by no means, the final authority on the most significant women in American literature, that many who are deserving may have been left out, while others might argue with her choices for inclusion. However, at nearly 600 pages and featuring mentions of more than 250 American writers Jury is the author's attempt to do what has never been done before: create a comprehensive history of the most important women writers in American literature and, moreover, to start a discussion that has, until now, only occurred behind the closed doors of literary and periodical panel meetings.
A Jury of Her Peers is a book that promises to become debated and oft-cited on the forums and discussion panels of literary intellectuals, whether feminist or otherwise. It should be requisite reading for the members of academia who are charged with the literary education of students world-wide. It should not be allowed to become, as have many of the works that it covers, a pearl before swine.Powered by Sidelines