A compelling critical investigation into Gilman’s conception of setting and place
Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a Woman’s Place in America is a pioneering collection that probes how depictions of space, confinement, and liberation establish both the difficulty and necessity of female empowerment. Turning Victorian notions of propriety and a woman’s place on its ear, this finely crafted essay collection studies Gilman’s writings and the manner in which they push back against societal norms and reject male-dominated confines of space.
The contributors present fascinating and innovative readings of some of Gilman’s most significant works. By examining the settings in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Herland, for example, the volume analyzes Gilman’s construction of place, her representations of male dominance and female subjugation, and her analysis of the rules and obligations that women feel in conforming to their assigned place: the home. Additionally, this volume delineates female resistance to this conformity. Contributors highlight how Gilman’s narrators often choose resistance over obedient captivity, breaking free of the spaces imposed upon them in order to seek or create their own habitats. Through biographical interpretations of Gilman’s work that focus on the author’s own renouncement of her “natural” role of wife and mother, contributors trace her relocation to the American West in an attempt to appropriate the masculinized spaces of work and social organization. Engaging, well-researched, and deftly written, the essays in this collection will appeal to scholars of Gilman, literature, and gender issues alike.
About the Author
Jill Bergman is the author of The Motherless Child in the Novels of Pauline Hopkins and a coeditor of Our Sisters’ Keepers: Nineteenth-Century Benevolence Literature by American Women. She is a professor emerita at the University of Montana, where she taught courses in American literature and women’s studies. Her work on American women writers has appeared in numerous journals and collections.
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Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a Woman's Place in America
By Jill Bergman
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2017 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the US West
Jennifer S. Tuttle and Gary Scharnhorst
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is usually considered an easterner, the child of such distinguished families as the Beechers, the Perkinses, and the Westcotts. After all, she lived most of her life in the Northeast: in New England, where she spent her first twenty-eight years (largely in Hartford, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island); in New York City, where she resided between 1900 and 1922; and in Norwich, Connecticut, where she lived from 1922 until 1934. But this long residence in the East belies a more complex regional affiliation. Certainly Gilman spent some nomadic years "at large," proudly claiming no fixed address. More significant, she resided for a time in California: in Pasadena, Oakland, and San Francisco, where she lived off and on for eight years and visited on multiple occasions. She repaired to the West during two crises in her life: in 1885, in the midst of severe depression; and again in 1888, after her failed rest cure and as her marriage to Charles Walter Stetson was unraveling. She returned to the West in 1934 to be near her daughter and grandchildren in Pasadena as she was dying of cancer. The US West, particularly California, was significant to Gilman both biographically and intellectually, and its impact on her work merits greater critical scrutiny.
Recovering Gilman's affiliations with and relationship to the West complicates prevailing views of her as an easterner and yields a more accurate picture of her self-construction as an author. It also provides new and compelling contexts in which to interpret her writing and her social philosophy. For beyond its healthy climate and geographical distance from the oppressive duties of the East (as she described it), the West appealed to Gilman because of its supposed association with progressive values, the vanguard of women's suffrage, and new possibilities for social organization. It was no accident that the West was the region in which Gilman launched her career as the poet of the socialist movement known as Nationalism and found her voice as an author. Hence the West's preponderance in Gilman's creative output as a laboratory for social experimentation and a setting for utopian plots. We advocate here, then, a more expansive conception of Gilman's relation to place through illustrating how extensively and inextricably the West figures in her life and work. Understanding Gilman through this lens also makes possible a new reading of her best-known utopia, Herland, that ties the novel to a western locale.
Acknowledging the ways that the West informed and enabled Gilman's career as an early feminist philosopher has the power to shift our frames of reference in Gilman studies. In general, recognizing the western origins of Gilman's utopian texts and reformist ideals further elucidates her leadership in the turn-of-the-century US women's movement and therefore the West's role in shaping the movement's intellectual underpinnings. Finally, this work can further illuminate western literary studies and critical western regionalism, where the recovery of women's cultural production is still underway and where, despite promising and innovative recent work, a masculinist orientation still tends to remain unchanged.
Although a significant portion of Gilman's writing is implicitly or explicitly about the West, only one of her more than twenty-one-hundred published poems, stories, and essays contains the word West in its title, and that work illuminates her association of the region with progressive social change. "Woman Suffrage and the West" was published in the Kansas Suffrage Reveille in 1897; the single extant original copy of this essay resides in the archives of the Kansas Historical Society. Gilman was on a lecture tour in Kansas when it appeared. As she remarked in the article, the first four states to recognize the right of women to vote and run for public office, all between 1869 and 1896, were in the West: Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah.
"It is a significant fact that the first state to adopt full woman suffrage [Wyoming] was a western one," Gilman wrote, "after long experience of its advantage in territorial government; and that all the three following states to set their women free are also western, and are in close geographical relation." (The first nine states to pass suffrage laws were, significantly, in the West.) In a comment that betrayed her tendency toward racial essentialism, she averred, "In China you should allow a thousand years for a new idea to take root and not look for a crop for another thousand. It takes longer to move an Oriental than a European, longer to move a European than an American, and in America the westerner moves faster than his grandfather 'back east.' ... As American women are given higher place — have won higher place — than any women on earth, so the women of the west stand higher than any in America." Seventeen years later, in her essay "Why Nevada Should Win Its Suffrage Campaign in November," she reiterated that "the Southern and Eastern states" are "the least progressive of the whole country" and called for "a 'Solid West' of courage, liberty, and justice — the land that is not afraid of its women." That is, Gilman shared the conventional opinion, epitomized by Frederick Jackson Turner's essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," that western Americans, in her case especially western American women, were the most progressive people in the world. She was a believer not only in American exceptionalism but also in western American exceptionalism.
The Turnerian bent of Gilman's work undoubtedly was informed by her biographical experience, in which the West served as a zone of healing, regeneration, and intellectual progress. Although S. Weir Mitchell's rest cure failed to restore Gilman to health in 1887 after her now infamous nervous breakdown, she twice recovered her health in the 1880s by self-administering what modern critics Barbara Will and Jennifer S. Tuttle have called the West Cure, which Mitchell often prescribed for men, a treatment that embraced the masculine prerogatives of freedom and independence and contributed to the West's preeminence as a popular site for health tourism. Like Mitchell's West Cure practitioners, Gilman healed and revitalized herself in the West repeatedly throughout her long life. The West, not rest, rejuvenated her. Echoing promotional language commonly used about the region, Gilman opined of her first journey to Pasadena in 1885, "This place did not seem like earth, it was paradise." Her use of a religious trope to describe the West was quite deliberate; in her poem "In Mother-Time" she touted California as a prelapsarian Eden, "the Garden of the Lord" — a characterization that would fuel her portrayals of the West throughout her career. During her first use of the West Cure, she reported, she recovered her health "so fast" that she "was taken for a vigorous young girl." When she returned to Providence and to her husband and her daughter after several months, however, she relapsed. Soon after welcoming his wife home from Pasadena, Walter observed that "it is pretty hard to see what real good her winter's sojourn did her." Gilman herself confirmed, "I saw the stark fact that I was well while away [in the West] and sick while at home [in the East]."
In 1888, after Mitchell failed to help her, Gilman separated from her husband, left Providence with her daughter in tow, and moved west to California, where she lived until 1895. This move signified her embrace "of the principles of the West Cure not as a temporary salve, but as a way of life." Coincident with (and, as she suggested, enabled by) the move to California, Gilman inaugurated her career as a professional writer, lecturer, reformer, and activist. "Before that there was no assurance of serious work," she wrote in her autobiography. "To California ... I owe much. Its calm sublimity of contour, richness of color, profusion of flowers, fruit, and foliage, and the steady peace of its climate were meat and drink to me. ... Everywhere there was beauty, and the nerve-rest of steady windless weather." Her husband Walter, who traveled West in vain seeking a reconciliation, confirmed in a letter to R. S. Stetson in July 1889, "It is astonishing how much she has changed for the better in every way. She never was so well or so calm. She is doing lots of good work and making no end of friends without any effort." During these years Gilman became a member and the president of the Pacific Coast Women's Press Association and edited its magazine, the Impress. She helped organize a pair of Women's Congresses in the Bay Area and became active in the women's club movement. Gilman was mentored by Charles Fletcher Lummis, the editor of Land of Sunshine magazine (later called Out West), and regularly published work in his magazine as well as in the Pacific Monthly, the Pacific Rural Press, the California Nationalist, the San Francisco Star, the San Francisco Wasp, the San Francisco Call, the Oakland Enquirer, the Stockton Mail, and the Californian Illustrated Magazine. The first edition of In This Our World, a collection of her poetry and her first important book, was issued by an Oakland press in 1893, and this was followed by a second American edition issued by a San Francisco press in 1895.
It is understandable, then, that Gilman associated California (and the West in general) with health, freedom, beauty, and a potential for change; it was the site of a personal and professional transformation, inspiring and enabling her creative and intellectual work. "Almost all of my descriptive poetry is about California," she allowed. "To this day, when in that lovely country, the verses come of themselves." She wrote lyrics with such titles as "Thanksgiving Hymn for California," "Christmas Carol for Los Angeles," and "Our San Francisco Climate." She wrote "Powell Street," the free-verse dramatic monologue of a passenger on the Powell Street cable car in San Francisco. A good deal of this work conveys a promotional tone and is written from the perspective of a blue-blooded New Englander making herself at home in the Edenic West.
"Thanksgiving Hymn for California," which first appeared in the Pacific Monthly, imagines that the poet and the reader share a Puritan ancestry, which survived legendary hardship in that first New World settlement and now enjoys "a land all sunny with gold, — / A land by the summer sea; / ... Comfort, and plenty, and beauty, and peace, / From the mountains down to the sea," In "The Changeless Year — Southern California," which appeared in Harper's Bazar in the midst of winter, the speaker beckons: "Come here, where the West lieth golden / In the light of an infinite sun, / Where Summer doth Winter embolden / Till they reign here as one!" Gilman's poetic boosterism continued well beyond her departure from California in 1895. "An Invitation," for example, encourages the beleaguered eastern reader, "tired of the doctoring and nursing, / Of the 'sickly winters' and the pocket pills," to come West.
Despite her cultural and familial allegiances with New England, Gilman wrote frequently and satirically on eastern snobbery. Take, for example, "Our East":
Our East, long looking backward over sea,
In loving study of what used to be,
Has grown to treat our West with the same scorn
England has had for us since we were born.
You'd think to hear this Eastern judgment hard
The West was just New England's back yard!
That all the West was made for, last and least,
Was to raise pork and wheat to feed the East!
A place to travel in, for rest and health,
A place to struggle in and get the wealth, ...
Our Western acres, curving to the sun,
The Western strength whereby our work is done.
Gilman expressed the same point more succinctly in the epigraph to chapter 5 of The Crux: "Old England thinks our country / Is a wilderness at best — / And small New England thinks the same / Of the large free-minded West." However hackneyed such lyrics may be, Gilman's western writings in general were no more or less didactic than her other work. (Even "The Yellow Wall-Paper," after all, was written while she was living in Pasadena.) What is significant is her repeated self-assertion as a champion of the West and that much of her writing was fueled and shaped by her life there. Throughout her life, her verse expressed such praise of the region. The final poem she is known to have composed pays homage to the California Grapevine, the "long and winding" mountain pass leading to the "paradise" of California.
While the West inspired Gilman's poetry, it also served as the stage for her rise to fame. Gilman launched her public career by writing and speaking around California on behalf of Nationalism, the socialist movement inspired by Edward Bellamy's 1888 utopian romance Looking Backward, which contrasted the class conflict and cutthroat competition of the Gilded Age with the commonwealth of the imagined twenty-first century. In this utopia all industries have been nationalized (hence the name of the movement), and all citizens enjoy equal economic and political rights. Female readers were attracted by the promise of the abolition of sexual slavery, and from the beginning Nationalism thrived in California even more than in its native New England. About sixty-five Nationalist Clubs had been organized in the state by November 1890, according to the movement's publication.
Gilman noted, "California is a state peculiarly addicted to swift enthusiasms. ... In 1890 the countryside was deeply stirred" by Looking Backward. She joined the movement, and her poem "Similar Cases," composed in March of that year, was published in the leading Nationalist magazine and won her immediate celebrity. William Dean Howells, the most prominent American man of letters at the time, wrote to her, "We have nothing since [James Russell Lowell's] Biglow Papers half so good for a good cause," and Lester Ward hailed the poem as "the most telling answer that has ever been made" to Social Darwinians. Even Gilman's bête noir, Ambrose Bierce, conceded in his weekly column in the San Francisco Examiner that "Similar Cases" was a "delightful satire upon those of us who have not the happiness to think that progress of humanity toward the light is subject to sudden and lasting acceleration." By the summer of 1890, Gilman had begun to lecture regularly around central and southern California on such topics as "What Is Nationalism?," "Nationalism and the Virtues," "Nationalism and the Arts," "Nationalism and Love," "Nationalism and Religion," and "Why We Want Nationalism." "It was pleasant work," she later recalled. "I had plenty to say and the Beecher faculty for saying it." Soon after joining the lecture circuit, Gilman also helped organize a Social Purity society in Pasadena — which, in her view, was allied with the Nationalist cause. From the beginning, her feminism was inextricable from her advocacy of socialist principles, women's sexual education and self-determination, and eugenics. Through her activism she met Edwin Markham and other progressives. More than any other figure active in the movement, Gilman built her career by espousing its platform while she lived in the West, and to the end of her life Nationalism was the source of her utopianism.
For many months after she left California in the summer of 1895, Gilman continued to position herself within the state's literary and reform establishment. In 1896 she attended a suffrage convention in Washington, DC, as well as the International Socialist and Labor Congress in London. On both occasions she registered as a delegate from California. In February 1896 she expressed the hope to return eventually to California — "my dear Southland" — to live. Two years later she went so far as to berate Lummis for not including her in his New League for Literature and the West, a joint-stock company of "recognized Western writers who would be listed on the masthead of Land of Sunshine." Melody Graulich has rightly labeled this an "insist[ent] claim" to the title of "Western writer," and it was effective: Lummis included Gilman's name in the magazine's next issue, formalizing her status as a California writer and legitimizing her as an authority on the state's curative and progressive potential. Although her career eventually drew her far afield from California, she arguably never let go of her desire to associate herself with the West — this despite her deep bitterness at her harsh treatment by the San Francisco press and Bay Area society as a result of her very public divorce and the scandal over her parenting arrangements. As late as January 1935, seven months before her death, she wrote Alice Stone Blackwell that "I love California, and this beautiful city [Pasadena] is more like home to me than any place on earth."
Excerpted from Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a Woman's Place in America by Jill Bergman. Copyright © 2017 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction: A Woman’s Place Is Not in the Home
I. Geography and Biography: Places in and of Gilman’s Life
1. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the US West
2. Artistic Renderings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
3. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as Modernist Space
II. Know Your Place: Limits on Women’s Freedom and Power
4. “Perhaps This Was the Opening of the Gate”: Gilman, the West, and the Free Will Problem
5. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Giant Wistaria”: A Hieroglyph of the Female Frontier Gothic
III. Reclaiming and Redefining a “Woman’s Place”
6. “A Crazy Quilt of a Paper”: Theorizing the Place of the Periodical in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Forerunner Fiction
7. The Power of the Postal Service in Gilman’s “Turned”: Exposing Adultery and Empowering Women to Find a Meaningful Place
8. Eavesdropping with Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Fiction, Transcription, and the Ethics of Interior Design
9. Recovering the Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman; or, Reading Gilman in Rome