TERRY GROSS, host:
Elaine Showalter helped usher in the initial wave of feminist literary criticism in the 1970's with her book on British female writers called "A Literature of Their Own." Showalter went on to have a distinguished career at Princeton. She served as president of the Modern Language Association. And she's written sometimes controversial, scholarly and popular criticism. Now retired from teaching, Showalter has just brought out her much anticipated opus, the first literary history of American women's writing called "A Jury of Her Peers." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says it makes her feel like a giddy young grad student again.
Professor MAUREEN CORRIGAN (English Department, Georgetown University; Book Critic): For those of us crepuscular enough to remember the first flowerings of feminist theory and women'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 '70s and early '80s, 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 archeologists excavated the work and life stories of forgotten women writers, such as Phillis Wheatley, 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 gyno-centric days, I'm here to tell you that it's a little slow.
In recent decades, academic recovery work has sharply 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 being problematized.
But, Elaine 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.
"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 stand-out: First, there's Showalter's commitment to gathering both high and low writers in one place and, 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.
And even more crucial to the value — and, certainly, to 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 20th century Stein has 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.
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.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "A Jury of Her Peers" by Elaine Showalter.
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I'm Terry Gross.
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