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Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography

by Cynthia Davis

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman offers the definitive account of this controversial writer and activist's long and eventful life. Charlotte Anna Perkins Stetson Gilman (1860-1935) launched her career as a lecturer, author, and reformer with the story for which she is best-known today, "The Yellow Wallpaper". She was hailed as the brains of the US women's movement, whose


Charlotte Perkins Gilman offers the definitive account of this controversial writer and activist's long and eventful life. Charlotte Anna Perkins Stetson Gilman (1860-1935) launched her career as a lecturer, author, and reformer with the story for which she is best-known today, "The Yellow Wallpaper". She was hailed as the brains of the US women's movement, whose focus she sought to broaden from suffrage to economics. Her most influential sociological work criticized the competitive individualism of capitalists and Social Darwinists, and touted altruistic service as the prerequisite to both social progress and human evolution.

By 1900, Gilman had become an international celebrity, but had already faced a scandal over her divorce and "abandonment" of her child. As the years passed, her audience shrunk and grew more hostile, and she increasingly positioned herself in opposition to the society that in an earlier, more idealistic period she had seen as the better part of the self. In her final years, she unflinchingly faced breast cancer, her second husband's sudden death, and, finally, her own carefully planned suicide-she "preferred chloroform to cancer" and cared little for a single life when its usefulness was over. Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents new insights into the life of a remarkable woman whose public solutions often belied her private anxieties. It aims to recapture the drama and complexity of Gilman's life while presenting a comprehensive scholarly portrait.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In her immensely readable and comprehensive biography, Cynthia J. Davis tells Gilman's fascinating life story with precision, wisdom, and tact. Davis's Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography provides the most complete consideration of Gilman's life. This book includes twenty-five photographs, some never before published, and its careful documentation of sources will prove a boon to future Gilman scholars."—Jean M. Lutes, Feminist Collections

"Davis's long-awaited masterpiece is the most comprehensive Gilman biography to date. Both lyrical and scholarly, this splendid volume offers a coherent and compelling narrative of Gilman's life, work, and philosophy, drawing upon a rich field of source material . . . It is essential reading for Gilman scholars and promises to be the definitive Gilman biography for years to come."—Jennifer S. Tuttle, Resources for American Literary Study

"Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a remarkable retelling of a 'living' that includes, but is not limited to, the career of a figure larger than life . . . Refreshingly, Davis does not shy away from juxtaposing Charlotte's professed philosophies with her lived experiences. A major strength of this biography is Davis's willingness to reveal inconsistencies, contradictions, and potentially unflattering elements of Charlotte's aspirations . . . Even though Davis's work weighs in at over five hundred pages, her writing style and fruitful research leave the reader wanting more, rather than less, of both Charlotte's and Davis's observations."—Cara L. Burnidge, H-Net

"Thanks to Cynthia J. Davis, scholars, students, and general readers finally have a definitive, authoritative, and comprehensive biography of the often enigmatic Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This much anticipated study of Gilman is, in a word, superb . . . [I]t is in the lesser known documents and materials that Davis has found the stuff great biographies are made of. Her meticulously researched volume brings both substance to and new revelations about Gilman's life in a manner that is captivating, thorough, well-informed, and inclusive . . . This book is a must read for anyone interested not only in Gilman but also in the cultural, intellectual, and social history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."—Denise D. Knight, Legacy

"To read Davis's book is to be enriched by the lively, evocative pen of Gilman the poet. Every chapter and every section of every chapter (generally there are five) has an epigraph, often a selection from the poetry, which Davis uses skillfully to interpret her life."—Louise W. Knight, Women's Review of Books
"The plethora of biographical data the author resurrected informs this comprehensive, scholarly portrait of Gilman's complex, controversial life and career, significantly contributing to the study of American literature, particularly 19th-century American women writers. The book is noteworthy not only for its inclusion of new salient information about Gilman, but for the careful correlations Davis provides to better present Gilman, the private woman, and her particular public forums of activism . . . Summing up: Essential."—M.L. Mock, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, CHOICE
"This may be the definitive biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Over the last twenty years, a wealth of biographical data has come to light, much of it unearthed by Davis. Felicitously written, judiciously organized, and critically and theoretically informed, this Gilman biography will supersede all that have come before it."—Gary Scharnhorst, University of New Mexico

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Stanford University Press
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

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A Biography

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-3889-7

Chapter One

"Beginnings" (-1876)

It takes great strength to train To modern service your ancestral brain; To lift the weight of the unnumbered years Of dead man's habits, methods, and ideas.... "Heroism," 18981

In the summer of her fourth year, Charlotte Anna Perkins and her five-year-old brother Thomas eluded their caretakers and snuck into an old graveyard. They wanted to find out if dirt could extinguish fire. The experiment failed, and the flames soon spread beyond their control, consuming the surrounding hillside and leaving the siblings soot-blackened, tear-streaked, and terrified. Charlotte went on to claim this incident as the beginning of her incendiary career. A dedicated conflagrationist to the end, she torched decrepit ideologies, methodologies, and ontologies and fiddled while they burned. This irreverent self-portrait is hard to reconcile with Charlotte's genealogical pride, however. Her autobiography begins, after all, with references to her distant connection to Queen Victoria as well as to governors, lords, dukes, kings, and conquerors. Charlotte prided herself most of all on her Beecher relations, "that family of world-servants." Her Aunt Isabella's motto, "the world is my country; to do good is my religion," succinctly conveys both the Beecher commitment to reform and the family's belief in its own crucial, historical role, convictions Charlotte inherited as if Lamarck were right and acquired traits could be passed down.

At the height of her fame, Charlotte was hailed as the most "emphatic exponent of the Beecher character" and as the epitome of the family's world-reforming, convention-defying missionary zeal. She boasted of her Beecher heritage from every lectern, in every puff piece, and at every opportunity. Her friends helped to advertise the connection: the writer Zona Gale described her as "direct, abrupt, blunt, devastating, as the need arises, and oblivious-as any Beecher ever was." Another writer friend, Martha Bruère, maintained, "[t]he husband of Mrs. Gilman says that she was born saying, "Tain't so!' And we should be prepared to believe this on account of her heritage-from that famous line of Beechers who each and all undertook to set their country right-about-face."

As a young girl, Charlotte admired the Beechers for modeling the service-oriented life she hoped to lead, a life her more immediate family seemed to want only to thwart. The more she lamented her home life, the more she idealized the Beechers and their contributions, and the more she vowed to take up their mantle and set the problems she confronted as a girl "right-about-face." She boasted of descending from the Beechers, but what she really wanted was to ascend to their seemingly lofty level, the better to transcend the difficulties she experienced closer to home.

* * *

So proud of our grandsires are we.... Untitled limerick, 1920s

Throughout the long nineteenth century, Beecher was a household name. Charlotte's great-grandfather, Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), was acclaimed in his heyday as the most famous minister in America-that is, until his son Henry outshone him in the 1850s. A revivalist and theologian who preached an alleviated Calvinism, Lyman wedded God's anger to God's love and Christianity to rationality. He boasted of "switching," "scorching," and "stomping" his congregation with his impassioned sermons while simultaneously envisioning his church as a "spiritual hospital," where he preached a "clinical theology" and attended to his parishioners' bodies along with their souls.

As a member of the "New School," Lyman recoiled from the notion that the inheritance of original sin damned infants and other innocents; he also modified the Calvinist doctrine of predestination by arguing for free will in choosing faith and salvation and by maintaining that spiritual redemption derived from the choices people make rather than from some foreordained plan. Charlotte inherited his skills as a polemicist and his emphasis on reason, agency, and the will, as well as his self-definition as a missionary with a message.

Less evidence exists of a family resemblance between Charlotte and her great-grandmothers, if only because these women's stories remain obscured by the impressive shadow their husband cast. Lyman's first wife, Roxana Foote, hailed from a relatively affluent Anglican family. During their courtship, Lyman sought to woo her both to him and to Calvinism. Lyman later declared Roxana his ideal mate, having "sworn inwardly never to marry a weak woman" but to seek instead a wife who combined both sense and "strength to lean upon." Throughout their marriage, Roxana appeared the "calm and self-possessed," submissive and domestic counterweight to Lyman's more passionate model.

A letter Roxana wrote to her sister-in-law hints that she learned her revered Christian submission at bitter cost: she alludes to vexing domestic circumstances and mourns her limited knowledge and her inability to find time to read more than a page or so a week. She also confesses to eagerly devouring information gleaned from conversation and envying other women their greater opportunities to pursue further education in the arts and sciences. Along with her sister Mary, who lived with Roxana and Lyman, Roxana had opened a school to teach young girls English, French, art, needlework, and, for a time, chemistry. The school's success only heightened Roxana's regrets over the gaps in her education. Charlotte shared Roxana's thirst for knowledge and remorse over its lack, which may explain why she insisted that she resembled her great-grandmother as much as her great-grandfather.

In eighteen years of marriage, Roxana bore nine children, one of whom died in infancy, before dying quietly of consumption in 1816, at age forty-one. She told the children gathered around her deathbed that she hoped they would all grow up to become missionaries. A Beecher biographer suggests that guilt over the possibility that overwork had hastened Roxana into her grave prompted the family to make "a legend out of her sensitivity, gentleness and purity, remembering only an angel who had never grown old-perfect mother, ideal woman."

With eight mouths to feed and a flourishing ministry, Lyman determined to remarry. Within a year, he had located his new wife in the lovely and accomplished Harriet Porter. Catharine Beecher described her stepmother as "a model of propriety and good taste." Catharine's younger sister Harriet portrayed her as "so fair, so delicate, so elegant that we were almost afraid to go near her" and joined her siblings in remembering their stepmother as a poor substitute for the saintly Roxana.

Harriet Porter Beecher initially welcomed the "great cheerfulness and comfort" of her new circumstances but eventually felt the strain of so many responsibilities. She bore Lyman four additional children: Frederick, Isabella, Thomas, and James; Frederick died in his second year. After Harriet died of consumption in 1835, Lyman married his third and final wife, an efficient widow named Lydia Jackson. While two of his wives were "consumed" in midlife, Lyman survived until his eighty-eighth year, lionized as an American "Cato." Lyman Beecher's fame was augmented by his role as paterfamilias: Theodore Parker called him "the father of more brains than any other man in America." There did appear to be a Beecher gene for prominence. One Beecher descendent claimed, "Lyman Beecher's children were just as sure as he was, that they were God's agents, commissioned by Him to carry out His will." By all accounts, Lyman was a doting father, kind-hearted and playful when he was not warning his children of the hellfire awaiting them if they failed immediately to repent and convert. He may have considered his dozen offspring "his own personal band of apostles," but most of them eventually rejected their father's stern Calvinism and his pitiless Old Testament God for a more sentimental religion featuring a more parental, loving, and suffering deity who deserved emulation, not fear. Their greater investment in human conduct as the test of piety also led most of Lyman's offspring to take a sharper interest in worldly concerns. Lyman had desired moral reform to preserve the traditional social order that his reform-minded children sought to dismantle. As the biographer Milton Rugoff observes, "where Lyman was a priest and a prophet, his children were social servants and reformers; where he was intent on saving men's souls and fixing their thoughts on the life to come, his children sought to change men's ways here and now...." In truth, though, his children kept their eyes on both prizes. Even as they diverged from their father's orthodoxy, each of Lyman's sons became a preacher. One of them, Henry Ward, occupied the country's most influential pulpit, mesmerizing his congregation from his self-designed stage at New York's Plymouth Church and from editorial positions at the Christian Union and the Independent. With one exception, the Beecher daughters were also illustrious. The first-born, Catharine, devoted herself to education, founding a renowned seminary in Hartford and teaching the readers of her treatises the benefits of domestic economy, fitness, health, and happiness according to largely circumspect and circumscribed middle-class ideals. Harriet Beecher Stowe became an international celebrity with the 1851-1852 serialization of her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. When published in book form, the novel soon rivaled the Bible in sales and purportedly led Abraham Lincoln to credit its author with "starting this big war." Isabella Beecher Hooker, the lovely youngest daughter, was a prominent socialite who helped to organize and lead the radical wing of the woman's suffrage movement.

The only child of Lyman Beecher who did not make a public contribution was Mary Foote Beecher, "the anomaly," "the lady," Charlotte's grandmother. Mary apparently enjoyed basking in her siblings' reflected glory. At the end of her life, she observed contentedly, "When I was a young woman I was known as the daughter of Lyman Beecher. In my middle age I was introduced as the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher. Now in my old age I am identified as the mother-in-law of Edward Everett Hale." To her family, Mary appeared an oasis of calm amid the crosswinds of fame and scandal buffeting the others. Her father faced a heresy trial in 1835 for preaching the doctrine of immediate repentance, which, in affording man free will to repent of his sins, seemed to his accusers to undermine the Calvinist concept of preordination and to challenge God's almightiness. At the height of the Civil War, her brother Charles was tried for heresy on account of his belief in the preexistence of souls; he was convicted, but the verdict was later overturned.

Henry was embroiled in a sordid controversy, accused (with apparent justification) by Theodore Tilton of adultery with Tilton's wife Elizabeth. This national scandal lasted three years and culminated in a skeleton-exposing, ego-bruising trial. The jury voted nine-to-three in Beecher's favor; his enemies believed the vote had been rigged. Isabella entered the fray when she sided against her brother and with the outrageous Victoria Woodhull-the controversial stockbroker, presidential candidate, and journal co-editor who published the allegations against Henry in hopes of claiming him as a fellow apostle of "free-love." Henry subsequently pronounced his half-sister insane. Harriet's most famous novel outraged southern slaveholders, one of whom sent her a human ear in the mail. Another scandal ensued when she vindicated Lady Byron and in the process published the rumors of Lord Byron's incestuous relationship with his half-sister. In short, the Beechers seemed to cultivate scandal as readily as sanctity. Mary Foote Beecher Perkins witnessed the turbulence at some remove. She remarked to Isabella, the half-sister she essentially raised and whom, in the wake of the Beecher-Tilton scandal, she disowned, "I could not perform any of my duties if I gave way to my feelings and allowed myself to attend meetings and become as much interested as I easily could." For Mary, domesticity was paramount. Her family considered her the personification of the angel enshrined within domestic ideology, the true spiritual daughter of her sainted mother Roxana.

During the antebellum period, middle-class ideologues revered the "true woman" for her piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. Of course, "true womanhood" remained more of a prescription than a description, but Mary, of all the Beecher siblings, seemed closest to this ideal. Her granddaughter Charlotte would attempt to topple this paragon but not without cost, as the angelic, domestic ideal was used by many (and even, at times, by Charlotte upon herself) as a yardstick to measure a woman's personal failures.

Born in 1805, Mary Beecher initially showed great promise as a student, winning prizes and praise. She helped establish her elder sister Catharine's Hartford Female Seminary and taught there briefly before marrying Hartford lawyer Thomas C. Perkins in 1827. Like her granddaughter, she suffered from poor health and underwent a therapeutic regime resembling the one Charlotte would find so detrimental, for it too proscribed exercise and activity. Throughout her marriage and until the ripe old age of ninety-five, she lived in apparent style in downtown Hartford.

Yet her married life was never as blissful as family members and some scholars have suggested. In a letter describing her forebears, written at a desperate time in her own life, Charlotte claimed her paternal grandmother "hated matrimony. Had 'nervous fevers' ... and was obliged to leave home at recurring intervals. Could not bear to see her husband at such times." Money also remained a perpetual problem: the Perkins family routinely took in up to a dozen boarders, usually students, to help make ends meet. In 1837, during the financial panic, her husband lost virtually everything to his creditors, including Mary's piano. While Thomas had suffered failure once before, he now had twice as many (four) children to support among his expanding financial obligations. The family weathered this storm, but they endured a rocky ride back to financial stability. Mary's eldest son and Charlotte's father, Frederic Beecher Perkins, grew up to dabble in assorted careers, desert his first wife and children, and achieve limited renown as a librarian and author before dying in relative obscurity and depleted mental health. About the second son, Charles, little is known. Charlotte referred to him as a "fine lawyer" in his father's law office but scarcely mentions him otherwise.

The two Perkins daughters led variously troubled lives. Charlotte described her Aunt Emily as suffering from "nervous prostration" and her Aunt Katherine as of "infirm mind." Emily Perkins married quite well, to Edward Everett Hale. The great nephew of the Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, he was a Unitarian minister (later chaplain of the U.S. Senate), reformer, and prolific author who is perhaps best remembered for his story "The Man Without a Country."

Katherine ("Katy") married William Gilman, a lawyer who during the financial panic of 1877 forged a certificate so that it read $30,000 instead of $3,000, got caught, lost his reputation and business, and went to prison. His wife subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown, from which she recovered only to die two years later in her forty-fifth year. According to Charlotte, she was "out of her mind when she died...." Katy and William were the parents of George Houghton Gilman, called "Houghton," Charlotte's first cousin and second husband. During their courtship, Charlotte told Houghton, "I think my life would have been smoother if I'd grown up with my father's side of the home ...," only one of her lifelong idealizations of the Beecher line.


Excerpted from CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN by CYNTHIA J. DAVIS Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Cynthia J. Davis is Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. She is the author of Bodily and Narrative Forms: The Influence of Medicine on American Literature, 1845-1915 (Stanford, 2000) and co-editor of Charlotte Perkins Gilman And Her Contemporaries: Literary and Intellectual Contexts (2004) and Approaches to Teaching Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Herland (2003).

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