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Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World

Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World

by Claudia Roth Pierpont

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With a masterful ability to connect their social contexts to well-chosen and telling details of their personal lives, Claudia Roth Pierpont gives us portraits of twelve amazingly diverse and influential literary women of the twentieth century, women who remade themselves and the world through their art.

Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty,


With a masterful ability to connect their social contexts to well-chosen and telling details of their personal lives, Claudia Roth Pierpont gives us portraits of twelve amazingly diverse and influential literary women of the twentieth century, women who remade themselves and the world through their art.

Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Anais Nin, Zora Neale Hurston, Marina Tsvetaeva, Hannah Arendt and Mary Mccarthy, and Olive Schreiner: Pierpont is clear-eyed in her examination of each member of this varied group, connectng her subjects firmly to the issues of sexual freedom, race, and politics that bound them to their times, even as she exposes the roots of their uniqueness.

"Pierpont['s] graceful essays are at once erudite and personal in their focus." ?The Boston Globe

"One of the most ceaselessly interesting books I've read in some time." - Lorrie Moore, The New York Review of Books

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“One of the most ceaselessly interesting books I’ve read in some time.”–Lorrie Moore, The New York Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Considering "how ambitious women worked out their destinies in an age of momentous transition," Pierpont scrutinizes 12 well-known 20th-century women in these essays (revised and expanded from their original publication in the New Yorker). In her highly capable hands, these diverse women--writers, philosophers and a movie star--come alive through probing questions about their work and vivid details about their lives. In the first grouping, Pierpont explores "issues of sexual freedom" through the widely varying perspectives of Olive Schreimer, Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin and Mae West. The second part, concerned with race, and the third, with politics, cover figures from Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Mitchell and Eudora Welty to Ayn Rand, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. Of course, connections and overlapping concerns emerge through the course of these excellent, astute pieces. The most interesting parallels are those that are least expected and those that occur across the borders of nationality, class and medium--such as coincident views of women's power between Arendt and Mitchell, or similar sexual stances on the part of Nin and Rand. In her arrangement of writings, Pierpont raises questions about women's progress through the century: What do these "women of a transitional age" tell us about our own "internal change"? She also defends her subjects from harsh contemporary judgment, "for they had hardly any models to follow, apart from a handful of suicidal literary heroines." Indeed, perhaps this collection's most noteworthy contribution is its levelheaded, sympathetic and unsentimental nature, especially given that the name alone of many of these figures (such as Rand and Nin) can provoke powerful reactions from both admirers and detractors. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Pierpont began writing thoughtful and provocative essays of literary biography/ criticism for The New Yorker in the 1990s. (Her recent essay on Edith Wharton appeared in the April 2, 2001 issue.) Passionate Minds is a collection of essays on women writers; all originally appeared in The New Yorker. Most of the writers are associated with the U.S.: Anais Nin, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurs-ton, Eudora Welty, Ayn Rand, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. Doris Lessing and Olive Schreiner were born in Africa and immigrated to Europe. Marina Tsetaeva was Russian and Gertrude Stein was a country unto herself. Taken together the essays, about women of disparate sensibilities, education, and family and economic backgrounds, point to the societal changes that were taking place in the 20th century. The differences of gender and sex are articulated in Schreiner's novels, West's scripts, the tortured poetry of Tsvetaeva, and in the works of the other nine writers. Pierpont ably ties the individual author's lives and writings to the political, social and cultural history of the times. The book is loaded with interesting and important connections: for example, Zora Neale Hurston died four days before the first sit-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Pierpont's literary criticism is insightful and witty. Scarlett O'Hara is described as "suffering from painfully hardened prose implants." Henry Miller sent his unpublished Tropic of Cancer to Anais Nin "...in hopes of a few golden eggs. The following March, he found himself laying the goose." We hope in another few years there will be a Passionate Minds II. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended forsenior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House, Vintage, 298p. illus. notes. index. 21cm. 99-33349., $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Penelope Power; Libn., Garrison Forest Sch., Garrison, MD , July 2001 (Vol. 35, No. 4)
A scintillating collection of brief lives of women writers, a book that sparkles with intelligence, wit and human interest . . . Pierpont's adroit melding of biography and criticism makes most of today's literary scholarship seem lame and ponderous.
The New York Times Book Review
Arturo Sacchetti
Claudia Roth Pierpont's book, a collection of articles previously published in The New Yorker, deals unapoligetically with the ways in which class, age, race, and sexual orientation affect the style and content of women's writing. And her subjects are impressive, not least for their diversity...
The Boston Book Review

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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T his book was conceived when two writers who seemed to embody entirely different concerns — the South African "agnostic" novelist Olive Schreiner and the author of America's champion best-seller, Margaret Mitchell — turned out to have a great deal in common. Born nearly half a century and half a world apart, both wrote about race and its place in the history of a bitterly divided country, about a time of difficult change from one era to the next, and about women who were too strong to fit into established feminine patterns. And both had an extraordinary effect on readers: in the 1880s, Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm was widely perceived as a spiritual bridge between Darwinian science and the need for God; in the mid-1930s and for a long time after, a significant number of Americans viewed the Civil War and Reconstruction — with all their implications for the contemporary racial order — as Mitchell had portrayed them in Gone with the Wind. Whatever the merits of their prose or their arguments, these women told stories that changed the way people thought and lived.

Fascinated by this kind of naïve power — both Schreiner's and Mitchell's books were first novels — I began to consider other literary women of influence (very different from women of literary influence) whose domain is somewhat off the usual critical path. The resulting group is emphatically diverse; there is hardly a woman here who would not be scandalized to find herself in company with most of the others. Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand, Gertrude Stein and Mae West, Doris Lessing and Anaïs Nin, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty, Marina Tsvetaeva and Mary McCarthy: what could they possibly have in common? Part of the excitement of working with such contrary figures lay in comparing their different versions of absolute truth: the individualism of Rand versus the Communism of Lessing, the ideal of sexual liberation in Mae West versus that of Nin or Lessing or McCarthy, the voice of the American South as heard by Hurston and by Welty. And yet, again, similarities began to emerge, not in what these women wrote but in how they contrived to get it written: that is, in how ambitious women worked out their destinies in an age of momentous transition for their sex, when — to paraphrase Olive Schreiner on religious faith — the old ways seemed outworn but new ones had not been invented.

This book is organized into three sections within an overall (if elastic) chronological sequence. Broadly speaking, the first section deals with issues of sexual freedom (Schreiner, Stein, Nin, West), the second with race (Mitchell, Hurston, Welty), and the third with politics — particularly with the idea and reality of Communism (Tsvetaeva, Rand, Lessing, Arendt and McCarthy). There are, however, many overlapping interests and crossings of category. Marina Tsvetaeva, for example, might easily have been placed within the first group — for her life's lesson about sexual desire as a driving source of creativity — but her experience under Stalin offers a valuable check against some of the more theoretical responses to the Soviet state that follow. Mae West may not seem to belong in this book at all, but it is precisely the point that she was, by necessity, a writer as well as a performer; if she hadn't made herself up, characters and plays and scripts and jokes and all, no one would have done it for her. And this process of self-creation is only slightly less true — less obviously, literally true — for many of the others. (Can there be two grander, braver, more perversely endearing heroines in twentieth-century fiction than Gertrude Stein and Ayn Rand?)

Certain bases of comparison, then, are obvious: this book is constructed around them. Others appeared only as I went along, and these themes will emerge from story to story: the undermining dangers of ro-mantic love, knowingly avoided or helplessly pursued; the vital, unused energies of an earlier generation of mothers who were strong enough to push (or weak enough to drive) their daughters out into the world; physical beauty as a useful weapon and as a mirror-lined trap; the question of a feminine style in writing, aspired to or despised; the opposition between moral and artistic purpose — or, as it was often defined, between proper womanly sacrifice and disgracefully unfemale selfishness. There were so many possibilities for error and catastrophe, all so eagerly embraced, and all likely to prompt furious exasperation from today's reader — along with the affectionate gratitude that these women deserve. For they had hardly any models to follow, apart from a handful of suicidal literary heroines; one of the reasons we can judge so harshly now is because we have had them.

It might reasonably be asked whether this book represents a progress. What are the advances made in the lives and attitudes of women over the course of a century, from Olive Schreiner to Doris Lessing? The rights and advantages that Schreiner fought for — the votes, the jobs — have been well established. But what of internal change? That has turned out to be the most difficult subject to grapple with, impossible to summarize because so distinct from life to life. These are, after all, women of a transitional age — as Schreiner defined it, as Lessing also experienced it, as many women still do. These are lives in which success is hard won, retreat and even breakdown are common, love is difficult, and children are nearly impossible, lives in which all that is ever certain is that books and plays and poems are being written.

Meet the Author

Claudia Roth Pierpont, a contributor to The New Yorker since 1990, has received a Whiting Writer's Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She holds a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance art history from New York University. She lives in New York City.

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