A Jury of Her Peers

Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers covers the writings of American women from Anne Bradstreet, who published The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America in 1650, to Annie Proulx, as she reinvents the western for the 21st century. It’s 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.

Showalter covers more than 250 women writers in 20 chapters. Along with the iconic authors (Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Marilynne Robinson among them) she includes vital lesser-knowns, such as Susan Glaspell, whose 1917 short story gives this volume its name and its theme. (In this tale, a staple of contemporary literature textbooks, a farm woman accused of murdering her husband is acquitted when the local women, who are not yet citizens and thus can’t join the men on the jury, recognize the domestic signs of her mental distress and devise ways to help her.)

Not surprisingly, Showalter often underscores her pioneering 1978 scholarly work (A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing) by offering a contextual counterpoint to the traditional (male) literary canon. She highlights, in one example, a raft of literary masterworks from the 1850s — Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the most widely read American novel of the century); Hannah Gardner Creamer’s Delia’s Doctors; or, A Glance Behind the Scenes, the first novel to support women’s right to vote; and Julia Ward Howe’s “frank and disturbing” poetry collection Passion-Flowers (and most of us only know about her “Battle Hymn of the Republic”). She offers the set as a female parallel to the contemporaneous publication of widely recognized classics by male authors during the same decade, including Emerson’s Representative Men, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Thoreau’s Walden, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

During this first flowering of American women’s writing, Showalter notes, there was a flood of bestsellers written by women in the 1850s, establishing a benchmark for American literature. A mass market for fiction — and a fascination with women’s domestic lives, including their secret yearnings — emerged. Susan Warner’s domestic drama The Wide Wide World sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, and Maria Cummins’s “run-of-the-mill” novel, The Lamplighter, sold 70,000 copies the first year. An envious Hawthorne wrote to his publisher that “he was thinking of giving up fiction in light of Cummins’s fortune.” Hawthorne wrote, “America is now wholly given over to a d____d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash?”

By the late 1850s, influenced by Stowe (and the execution of radical abolitionist John Brown), black women writers had begun writing innovative autobiographical novels modeled in part on slave narratives, including Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, originally published in 1861 under the pseudonym “Linda Brent,” with abolitionist Lydia Maria Child credited as “editor.” The book was little noted at the time; it was more than a century (1971) before a feminist scholar, Jean Fagan Yellin, identified the book’s author, Harriet Jacobs, and tracked down her story. Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 Little Women marked another, even more visible turning point in American women’s writing. It was the first American novel to rival Jane Eyre in its appeal to women readers in England and the rest of the world. Showalter notes that Alcott’s take on the battle between “selfless femininity and artistic creativity is the reason many feminist critics have called it the story of Alcott’s personal Civil War.” Alcott’s tomboyish Jo March, a professional writer of genre fiction, influenced female intellectuals and artists decades later (Gertrude Stein and Simone de Beauvoir among them). By the early 1870s, Alcott had allied with the American Woman Suffrage Association and concluded that marriage and writing were incompatible. “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,” she told a friend. “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body.” Showalter’s survey of the 19th century would not be complete without feminist utopias (Eveleen Mason’s household of the future, envisioned in her little-remembered 1889 novel, Heiro-Salem, would be “egalitarian and free of racial, religious, regional, class, and sexual prejudice”) and dystopias (Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s widely read autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” described a common “rest cure” for female depression and neurasthenia).

Moving into the 20th century, Showalter devotes a lengthy chapter to Wharton and Cather on the basis of their literary achievement and historical range. “They were great novelists whose careers spanned a long period from the 1890s to the 1940s; both won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1920s,” she writes. Ironically, both “refused to be defined as women at all.”. Showalter suggests this marks a new stage in development: “For any literary subculture?aesthetic maturity requires a rejection of special categories, and an insistence on access to any subject, any character, any style. Paradoxically, American women’s writing could not fully mature until there were women writing against it.”

In her section on the 1940s, Showalter parses the appeal of Kathleen Winsor’s scandalous blockbuster Forever Amber, about a “headstrong, beautiful, resilient” English country girl with “a kind of warm luxuriance?suggestive of pleasurable fulfillment,” who becomes one of Charles II’s mistresses. She also notes that the push to lure women back to the home after World War II led to such travesties as a 1949 Ladies’ Home Journal story about Edna St. Vincent Millay called “Poet’s Kitchen,” pointing out to readers that if housework was not beneath a great poet, they should put their own dissatisfactions to rest. “Since Millay?by then was subsisting on wine, morphine Seconal, and liver extract, prepared by her nurse, this propaganda piece seems particularly ghoulish and fake,” writes Showalter. Further on, the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are invoked as tragic symbols of the housebound 1950s.

Showalter acknowledges the 1985 publication of the groundbreaking 2,500-page Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, as a reframing event that “transformed the teaching of literature at all levels, and raised fundamental questions about the history of women’s writing?” The doors were open for experimentation and transcendence of prior limitations. The creative outpouring by America’s women writers in the last quarter of the twentieth century included a postmodern “even celebratory literature of generational change and cultural interaction,” emerging from groundbreaking work by Julia Alvarez, Jhumpa Lahiri, Min Jin Lee, Amy Tan, Bharati Mukherjee, Gish Jen, and others.

Showalter posits the 1990s as a fourth stage for American women writers: after feminine, feminist, and female writing, they were free. A Jury of Her Peers ends the century that began with two Pulitzer winners, Wharton and Cather, with latter-day Pulitzer awardees Annie Proulx and Jane Smiley. Smiley wrote in a 1996 essay in Harper’s, “the canonization of a very narrow range of white, Protestant, middle-class male authors?has misrepresented our literary life,”and opted for Harriet Beecher Stowe over Mark Twain. Smiley followed her award-winning King Lear-on-the-prairie, A Thousand Acres, with a vividly rendered novel set in 1855, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. Its heroine was a Huck Finn–Harriet Beecher Stowe hybrid.

Proulx, who got her start writing about hunting and fishing for men’s magazines, started writing postmodern westerns in 1995. She took a distinctly antiheroic stance, with subject matter ranging from the relationship between two cowboys, memorialized in her short story “Brokeback Mountain,” to tales of rodeos to the harsh lives of female homesteaders in the Wyoming territory.

Both Smiley and Proulx, Showalter writes, “developed as writers beyond gender and genre.” Or, as Proulx put it, “Writers can write about anything they want, any sex they want, any place they want.” This new freedom coexists with chick-lit and other retro forms. And who knows what will come next? Showalter will need to be on the alert for new voices to add to new editions of this essential literary volume.

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