In the Introduction, author and Princeton University professor emerita Elaine Showalter explains “the main reason women do not figure in American literary history is because they haven’t been the ones to write it.” For the benefit and reading pleasure of both genders, Showalter works to fill in the gaps of that unfortunate omission with this companion to her A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (2009).
The Vintage Book of American Women Writers covers 400 years of writing and contains work from quite a number of familiar names such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, and Joyce Carol Oates. Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery” and Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” may be the most well-known pieces. I found myself most intrigued by the work of writers I had never known before.
Poems by Anne Bradstreet, who came over to the Massachusettes Bay Colony in 1628, opens the book. Topics among the selections include her faith in God providing the strength to endure a fire destroying her home; her eight children, three of which were still at home; and her husband, whose love she valued “more than whole mines of gold.” The latter poem is a welcome reminder that there were marriages at that time based on love.
The New World could be a perilous place as Mary White Rowlandson discovered when she and her children were taken into “grevious Captivity” by Narragansett Indians. Her story, the only piece she had published, is a captivating account as she details the brutal fighting that resulted in her capture and the weeks spent as a prisoner of “those Barbarous Creatures.” Over 160 years later, Lyndia Huntley Sigourney would have an opposite view of Indians, seeing them as “a noble race and brave” as did Lydia Maria Child, who in “The Church in the Wilderness” wrote a fictionalized account of English settlers destroying an Abenaki village.
As the years pass, the writings reveal women pushing boundaries as they cover subjects that reveal more of themselves. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” presents a look at postpartum depression, and thankfully she didn’t listen to her foolish doctor’s suggestion “never to touch a pen, brush, or pencil again as long as [she] lived.” Gertrude Stein’s “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” is considered of the first lesbian stories and may well be the reason the word “gay” became associated with homosexuality. It’s not a story in the traditional sense as Stein plays with language in a very engaging way. A few authors write about their ethnicity and roots, opening up new worlds for many of the readers.
The one negative of the book is a few of the pieces had dialogue written in a dialect that made them tough to read, such as Louisa May Alcott’s “My Contraband,” Mary Noailles Murfree’s (who published under the male name Charles Egbert Craddock) “The ‘Harnt’ That Walks Chilhowee,” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat.”
The Vintage Book of American Women Writers provides an outstanding overview that can be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates good writing regardless of its source. Showalter does a great service by spotlighting these women and their work.