'Her Peers': A Gutsy Anthology Of Women Writers

Jury Of Her Peers
A Jury Of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet To Annie Proulx
By Elaine Showalter
Hardcover, 608 pages
Knopf Publishing Group
List price: $30.00
Read An Excerpt

For those of us crepuscular enough to remember the first flowerings of feminist theory and "Womyn's Literature" courses in college, part of the pleasure of reading Elaine Showalter's grand new work of literary history, A Jury of Her Peers, derives from nostalgia. It was such a disco inferno thrill, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to glimpse, for the first time, a lost continent of books — a veritable Herland at the time uncharted by those male-dominated Norton Anthologies.

Early feminist literary archaeologists excavated the work and life stories of forgotten women writers such as Phillis Wheatley, Vera Brittain, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fanny Burney and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Granted, some of the disinterred turned out to have curiosity value only. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's nine-book novel in blank verse, Aurora Leigh, may have been a hit in 1857, but as someone who read it and taught it in those dizzying gynocentric days, I'm here to tell you that it's a little slooow.

In recent decades, academic recovery work has tapered off — all the poshest tombs have been raided and, more importantly, it now seems a tad unsophisticated to simply want to wedge a forgotten woman writer into the canon when the idea of the canon itself has been "problematized." The very act of judging, of making hierarchical distinctions, many postmodernist theorists would say, unavoidably imposes white male European cultural norms on women's literature.

But Showalter has never been a slave to academic fashion — though she's certainly gotten into hot water with other feminist critics for writing too enthusiastically about fashion. In her introduction to what she says is the first comprehensive literary history of women's writing in America, Showalter bulldozes through the usual objections to literary history being worthwhile, politically correct, or even doable. Showalter's Rosie the Riveter attitude seems to be that there's so much recovery and critical work left to do that second guessing a project like hers is a luxurious academic distraction.

A Jury of Her Peers attempts the mammoth task of discussing and unapologetically judging the writing produced for publication by American women from the days of Puritan Anne Bradstreet to the modern-day gay cowboy tales of Annie Proulx. Of course, Showalter stumbles sometimes on this long matriarchal march: For instance, she doesn't seem as engaged in the final chapters of this book, maybe because contemporary writers like Proulx and Toni Morrison are all too familiar to us.

But in addition to the sheer jumbo size of this project, two things make it a critical standout: First, there's Showalter's commitment to gathering both highbrow and lowbrow writers together in one place, thus giving us a different sense of literary history. Respectable Founding Mothers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Willa Cather share space with Grace Metalious of Peyton Place fame and lesbian pulp princess Ann Bannon.

Even more crucial to the value — and, certainly, the incendiary potential of this book — is Showalter's bossy critical presence throughout its pages. As a feminist scholar, Showalter rejects the Voice of God narrative style of traditional literary history; instead, she opines with zest on the personalities and books of the writers here. Take this kick in the bloomers to Gertrude Stein. Showalter concludes her irreverently brief entry on Stein with a paragraph of dismissal; here are its first and last sentences: "Although she is widely acknowledged to be unreadable, incomprehensible, self-indulgent, and excruciatingly boring, in the twentieth century Stein always had a cult of devotees. ... Stein seems more and more like the Empress Who Had No Clothes — a shocking sight to behold in every respect." I don't agree with Showalter about Stein, but I do relish her critical gusto and guts.

A Jury of Her Peers includes so many writers and dusts off so many intriguing books and poems that to even give a sense of its scope would reduce this review to a chorus line. Suffice it to say that Showalter has inspired me with the quaint resolve to read, among others, Mary Rowlandson, who wrote the first white woman's narrative about being taken captive by Indians; Susan Glaspell, whose 1917 short story of the same name gives Showalter's literary history its title; Pauline Hopkins, who in 1902 produced a feminist African-American spin on popular quest romances like Treasure Island; and Julia Ward Howe, poet, novelist, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and heroine of a life story that should have been made into one of those glorious Joan Crawford Hollywood weepies. The unorthodox intelligence with which Showalter discusses the work of these and a cavalcade of other American woman writers makes a literary history like A Jury of Her Peers — which some would regard as an old-fashioned project — its own critical excuse for being.

Excerpt: 'A Jury Of Her Peers'

A Jury Of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet To Annie Proulx
By Elaine Showalter
Hardcover, 608 pages
Knopf
List price: $30.00

A New Literature Springs Up in the New World

From the very beginning, women were creating the new words of the New World. The first women writers in America, Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) and Mary Rowlandson (1637–1711), were born in England and endured the harrowing three-month voyage of storm, seasickness, and starvation across the North Atlantic. In Massachusetts, where they settled, they led lives of extraordinary danger and deprivation. Both married and had children; they thought of themselves primarily as good wives and mothers. Both made the glory of God their justification for writing, but they prefigured themes and concerns that would preoccupy American women writers for the next 150 years and more—Bradstreet, the poet, writing about the intimacies and agonies of domestic life, including pregnancy and maternity, the death of three of her grandchildren, and the destruction of her home by fire; and Rowlandson, writing a narrative of her captivity by Narragansett Indians, and pioneering the great American theme of interracial experience in the encounter with Native American culture.

Both Bradstreet and Rowlandson entered print shielded by the authorization, legitimization, and testimony of men. In Bradstreet's case, no fewer than eleven men wrote testimonials and poems praising her piety and industry, prefatory materials almost as long as the thirteen poems in the book. In his introductory letter, John Woodbridge, her brother-in-law, stood guarantee that Bradstreet herself had written the poems, that she had not initiated their publication, and that she had neglected no housekeeping chore in their making: "these Poems are the fruit but of some few houres, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments." Rowlandson's narrative too came with "a preface to the reader" signed "Per Amicum" ("By a Friend"), probably the minister Increase Mather, which explained that although the work had been "penned by this Gentlewoman," she had written it as a "Memorandum of Gods dealing with her," and it was a "pious scope, which deserves both commendation and imitation." The author had not sought publication of her narrative out of vanity; rather,

some Friends having obtained a sight of it, could not but be so much affected with the many passages of working providence discovered therein, as to judge it worthy of publick view, and altogether unmeet that such works of God should be hid from present and future Generation: and therefore though this Gentlewoman's modesty would not thrust it into the Press, yet her gratitude to God, made her not hardly perswadable to let it pass, that God might have his due glory, and others benefit by it as well as her selfe.

Having given a lengthy defense of the virtues of the book, the Friend concluded with the hope that "none will cast any reflection upon this Gentlewoman, on the score of this publication," and warned that any who did "may be reckoned with the nine Lepers," symbols of ingratitude. Apparently no one dared come forward to complain about Rowlandson after this endorsement.

We know that New England Puritans in the seventeenth century believed that men were intellectually superior to women, and that God had designed it so. They were notoriously unsympathetic to women who defied God's plan for the sexes by conspicuous learning or reading, and they could be hostile to women who went outside their sphere by preaching or writing. The most official expression of this hostility was the trial of Anne Hutchinson in 1637. Hutchinson belonged to a dissident sect, but she had also been leading her own discussion groups for women. Tried for "traducing the ministers" and for blasphemy while she was pregnant with her fifteenth child, Hutchinson was excommunicated and forced to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with her husband and children. The entire Hutchinson family, with the exception of one daughter, were killed by Indians in 1643. In 1645, when Ann Yale Hopkins, the wife of Governor Edward Hopkins of Hartford, became insane, John Winthrop blamed her "giving herself wholly to reading and writing," rather than the hardships of colonial life, for her breakdown. "If she had attended to her household affairs, and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger . . . she had kept her wits."

Despite these instances, the shared hardships of life in the New World gave women an existential equality with men that allowed Bradstreet and Rowlandson self-expression. Both men and women shared cold and hunger, faced disease and death, and risked captivity and massacre. Almost two hundred members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony died during the first year. Women had to do the hard physical labor of cooking, baking, cleaning, dairying, spinning, weaving, sewing, washing, and ironing. They endured the dangers of childbirth in the wilderness, nursed babies, and often buried them. While in strict religious terms "goodwives" were not supposed to trespass on the masculine sphere of literary expression, in reality there was more flexibility and tolerance. As two of her modern editors observe, "Bradstreet was not censured, disciplined, or in any way ostracized for her art, thought, or personal assertiveness, so far as we know. Rather, she was praised and encouraged; and there are no indications that the males in her life treated her as 'property.' If anything, she was treated as at least an intellectual equal."

A Poet Crowned with Parsley—Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet's The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) was the first book by a woman living in America, although it was actually published in London and entered in the Stationers' Register. Bradstreet wrote with both an awareness of her gender, and a sense of rootedness in New England Puritan culture. Adrienne Rich has paid tribute to her achievement and summed up her inspiring example for future American women poets:

Anne Bradstreet happened to be one of the first American women inhabiting a time and place in which heroism was a necessity of life, and men and women were fighting for survival both as individuals and as a community. To find room in that life for any mental activity . . . was an act of great self-assertion and vitality. To have written poems . . . while rearing eight children, lying frequently sick, keeping house at the edge of the wilderness, was to have managed a poet's range and extension within confines as severe as any American poet has confronted.

But Bradstreet was much more than a heroic female survivor who courageously managed to compose poetry in her spare time. She was also a strong, original poet whose work can be read today with enjoyment and emotion, a woman who wrote great poems expressing timeless themes of love, loss, doubt, and faith. Despite her strict Puritan beliefs, she had wit and a sense of humor. And while she dutifully imitated the prevailing models of male poetic excellence, from Sir Philip Sidney to the French Protestant poet Guillaume Du Bartas (whose huge unfinished epic of the Creation was among the Puritans' most revered texts), she also explored some of the most central issues for the development of American women's writing—how to make domestic topics worthy of serious literature, and how to use strong and memorable language without ceasing to be womanly.

We don't know all the facts of Anne Bradstreet's life, but what we do know suggests that growing up in England she began to think of herself as a poet from an early age. While her brother went to Cambridge, she was tutored in Greek, Latin, French, and Hebrew by her father, Thomas Dudley, the steward to the Earl of Lincoln, and had access to the earl's large library. She had begun to compose her own poems by the time she was sixteen, when she married twenty-five-year-old Simon Bradstreet, a graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, who had assisted her father in his stewardship. The marriage was a love match, and indeed Bradstreet would dedicate to Simon one of the most beautiful poems a woman ever wrote about her husband.

In early April of 1630, the Bradstreets and the Dudleys were among the Puritan members of the New England Company who embarked on a three-month voyage to America on the Arbella, the flagship of a little fleet of four vessels. Another passenger, John Winthrop, who would become the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a famous sermon to the pilgrims aboard, declaring that God was supporting their expedition, and that their settlement would be like "a Citty upon a Hill," with the "eyes of all people" upon them. But when they arrived in Salem on June 12, 1630, they discovered that disease and starvation had decimated the small Bay Colony, and many among their own numbers died in the first weeks. The Salem settlers had been living in caves, huts, and wigwams, and had not even been able to plant crops. For the next few years the pioneers battled to survive, eating clams, mussels, nuts, and acorns; building shelters; and facing cold, hunger, and illness as well as anxiety and homesickness.

Both Bradstreet's father and her husband served as governors of the struggling colony. For the difficult first five years of their marriage, Anne was unable to have a child. In her journal she confessed: "It pleased God to keep me a long time without a child, which was a great grief to me, and cost me many prayers and tears before I obtaind one, and after him gave me many more." She also became ill and was bedridden for several months in 1632 with fever and coughing. When she recovered, she wrote her first poem, "Upon a Fit of Sickness," thanking God for his mercy in sparing her life. And the following year, she gave birth to her first son, Samuel.

Anne Hutchinson came to New England in 1634, and Bradstreet witnessed the events of her rise and fall. But as Charlotte Gordon points out, "ironically, Mistress Hutchinson's downfall ushered in the most fertile decade of Anne Bradstreet's life—fertile in every sense of the word." Already the mother of a son and a daughter, Bradstreet gave birth to five more children during these years. From 1638 to 1648, she also "wrote more than six thousand lines of poetry, more than almost any other English writer on either side of the Atlantic composed in an entire lifetime. For most of this time, she was either pregnant, recovering from childbirth, or nursing an infant, establishing herself as a woman blessed by God, the highest commendation a New England Puritan mother could receive."

The poems Bradstreet was writing were intellectual and scholarly, formally influenced by English and European masters. But she was aroused and provoked by the great political events taking place in England in the 1640s, particularly the English Civil War, which led to the execution of Charles I. Five thousand of the six thousand lines of poetry she composed during the decade came from her long poem in heroic couplets, "The Four Monarchies," in which she chronicled the pre-Christian empires of Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome, examining the legitimacy of kings and emperors. These were not the standard subjects of pious women's verse, and in a "Prologue" to her poems, Bradstreet protected herself from criticism by insisting that she was a modest woman who had no intention of competing with male epic poets:

To sing of wars, of captains, and of kings,
Of cities founded, commonwealths begun,
For my mean pen are too superior things . . .
Let poets and historians set these forth,
My obscure lines shall not so dim their worth.

Like English women poets of her time, such as Anne Finch and Anne Killigrew, she emphasized her inferiority and temerity in writing at all, calling her Muse "foolish, broken, blemished." While men rightly contended for fame and precedence, Bradstreet flatteringly claimed, she was content with her humble domestic niche, and her poems would make those of her male contemporaries look even more impressive:

If e'er you deign these lowly lines your eyes,
Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bayes.
This mean and unrefined ore of mine
Will make your glist'ring gold but more to shine.

Instead of striving for the bay or laurel wreath, she asked only for a wreath of parsley and thyme, kitchen herbs rather than Parnassian prizes. Bradstreet was the Poet Parsleyate, the woman poet whose domestic work enabled the leisured creativity of men; but her imagery of the humble kitchen of Parnassus would be echoed in many heartfelt cries by the American women writers who came after her.

The humility of these lines, however, was balanced by her request for men to give women poets the space and the chance they deserved:

Men have precedency and still excel,
It is but vain unjustly to wage war;
Men can do best, and Women know it well.
Preeminence in all and each is yours;
Yet grant some small acknowledgment of ours.

In 1649, Bradstreet's brother-in-law, the Reverend John Woodbridge, who was in England acting as a clerical adviser to the Puritan army, arranged to have her poems published by a bookseller in Popes Head Alley, London, under the title The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, or Severall Poems, compiled with great variety of Wit and Learning, full of delight. As the cover went on to explain, the book included "a complete discourse and description of the Four Elements, Constitutions, Ages of Man, Seasons of the Year" and "an Exact Epitome of the Four Monarchies . . . Also a Dialogue between Old England and New, concerning the late troubles, with divers other pleasant and serious Poems." In his prefatory verse, "To my Dear Sister, the Author of These Poems," he congratulated her on her achievements:

What you have done, the Sun shall witnesse bear,
That for a womans Worke 'tis very rare;
And if the Nine vouchsafe the Tenth a place,
I think they rightly may yield you that grace.

In England, The Tenth Muse was well received as evidence of the genius of the woman of the New World, and became one of the "most vendible," or best-selling, books of the period, at the top of the list with Shakespeare and Milton. In New England, it was widely read and esteemed.

Excerpted from A Jury of Her Peers by Elaine Showalter Copyright © 2009 by Elaine Showalter. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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