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

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

by Elaine Showalter

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An unprecedented literary landmark: the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to the present.
In a narrative of immense scope and fascination, here are more than 250 female writers, including the famous—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison, among others—and the

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An unprecedented literary landmark: the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to the present.
In a narrative of immense scope and fascination, here are more than 250 female writers, including the famous—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison, among others—and the little known, from the early American bestselling novelist Catherine Sedgwick to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Susan Glaspell. Showalter integrates women’s contributions into our nation’s literary heritage with brilliance and flair, making the case for the unfairly overlooked and putting the overrated firmly in their place.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Exhilarating, provocative, revelatory, magisterial . . . The celebrated get their due . . . and so do the forgotten.”

“A work of astonishing vision, breadth, intelligence, and audacity. . . . Sure to be required reading for all who have an interest in American literary history.” 
—Joyce Carol Oates

“[A] grand new work of literary history . . . A critical standout . . . [Showalter] opines with zest on the personalities and books of the writers here . . . I do relish her critical gusto and guts . . . [She] has inspired me.”
—Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air, National Public Radio
“Remarkable. . . . A Jury of Her Peers does an enormous service, houses a drop-dead reading list and gives the reader a fluid framework for the great (much of it still undiscovered) wealth of writing by women in this country.” 
The Los Angeles Times

“Impressively researched. . . . Generous, thought-provoking. . . . [Showalter is] less polarized and more nuanced than other feminist critics of her generation . . . She is a lively and incisive guide, the perfect Virgil for our quest.” —The Washington Post
“Enlightening . . . the book may be dipped into at any chapter with much reward . . . . Showalter captures so well, often in just a few paragraphs, the image of the women she writes about. . . . Reading A Jury of Her Peers is not only an education in literary history, it is eminently satisfactory intellectual nourishment. 4 out of 4 stars.” —Free Press
“[A] vast democratic volume . . . . Vivid . . . extremely readable and enlightening . . . . Her short, incisive biographies offer a glimpse into the exotic travails of the past and the eternal concerns of female experience . . . [A] ranging, inclusive history . . . . likely to become an important and valuable resource for anyone interested in women’s history.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A delicious compendium, a book that belongs in literature courses, of course, but also in writerly libraries and in the hands of anyone who enjoys reading about writers’ lives. . . . Essential.” —Barnes & Noble Review
“Clear-sighted, ambitious . . . minutely researched and rich with opinion, anecdotes, samples, and interpretation. . . . Monumental.” —Elle
“Absorbing. . . . excellent. . . . insightful. . . . the prose is so good that the 500-plus-page book also works as an absorbing cover-to-cover read. . . . Showalter does not try to force any of these writers into uncomfortable slots in any kind of artificial female pantheon. These writers are all individuals, and Showalter treats them as such.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Elaine Showalter has delivered the first literary history of American women ever published, and the result is a riveting journey with scarcely a becalmed page . . . rich, readable . . . an immensely valuable work . . . vibrant regardless of where one dips in.” —The Seattle Times
“Accessible and readable.  Brimming with wit and insight . . . . This monumental book will greatly enrich our understanding of American literary history and our culture.” —Tuscon Citizen, Recommended New Title
“Showalter may have written the perfect book-group book: Not only is it fascinating on its own, but it also opens up possibilities for decades of further reading. . . . Like a raucous party, with some squabbling going on in the darker corners. . . . Showalter’s prose is lively, and she has no problem expressing her opinions” —The Columbus Dispatch
“A breathtaking overview of the intersections of gender and genre in American letters. . . . With its frank assessments, impressive research and expansive scope, A Jury of Her Peers belongs on the shelf of any reader interested in the development of women’s writing in America.” —Ms. Magazine

Katie Roiphe
…this comprehensive record of American women's attempts at literary achievement holds its own fascination; the small, vivid portraits of women's lives are extremely readable and enlightening…A Jury of Her Peers is likely to become an important and valuable resource for anyone interested in women's history. It outlines the rich and colorful history of women struggling to publish and define themselves, and the complex and tangled tradition of women's writing in this country.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

By covering the lives and careers of hundreds of American women writers of all backgrounds, this survey is ambitious and galvanizing, contributing to feminist theory without itself reading like theory. Diverse beyond easy description, these women, especially in earlier centuries, have two things in common. One is an almost universal break with patriarchal constructs. Second is gaining independence from European literary models, female as well as male. Although there have been multivolume, encyclopedic works of greater scope, like Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Norton Anthology of Literature by Woman, this is the first guide and history ever attempted by one scholar working solo. With a generally chronological approach (including a handful of sensible deviations), Showalter's Baedeker showcases the rise and fall of styles and genres. Lives and careers of superstars such as Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Pearl S. Buck and Toni Morrison are put into high relief. In Showalter's book, the voices of several hundred other authors, ranging from Phillis Wheatley and Julia Ward Howe to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Grace Metalious and James Tiptree Jr., sing out in a monumental choral orchestrated by Showalter (A Literature of Their Own), a groundbreaking feminist scholar at Princeton. (Feb. 25)

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Library Journal

Women have been writing and publishing since the beginning of the American experience. But as Showalter argues convincingly in her substantial literary history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000, their contributions have been largely overlooked and underrated by the men who controlled "scholarly editorial boards, panels of consultants, and academic leadership posts." Each of the 20 chapters begins with the historical context of the period and an assessment of "women's relation to the literary marketplace" during that time. Within each chapter, Showalter (A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing) supplies biographical details and an assessment of the work of the writers she has identified as important. One of Showalter's judgments is that "[Harriet Beecher Stowe's] achievements and her wide influence make her the most important figure in the history of American women's writing." She also argues that Emily Dickinson "reinvented American poetry." Showalter's writing is clear, lively, and authoritative; her research is impressive. Recommended for academic and public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/08.]
—Kathryn R. Bartelt

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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.”1

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.2

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.”3

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.4

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