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Are women writers undervalued because of what they write or how we read?

Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Bronte to Lessing (1977) changed the way we read fiction by women by showing female writers in historical, political, and literary relation to one another, and doing it in prose that was energetic, enjoyable, and blessedly free of academic jargon. At the time, this was a controversial project. The previous year, Ellen Moers’ brilliant (and, sadly, out of print) Literary Women was attacked by Anne Tyler for arguing that great women writers like Dickinson, Collette, and Woolf shared something like a literary tradition with lesser writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Fanny Fern. You can see why Tyler bridled: After all, it was the misogynists who usually grouped women writers together, the better to dismiss them all—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “damned mob of scribbling women,” churning out their hypersensitive derivative poems, their narrow, pedestrian domestic fiction. Women writers, the good ones, anyway, tended not to want to be put on the bookshelf next to the other women writers.

Thirty years and many books later (to say nothing of a stint writing at People and a distinguished Princeton teaching career), Showalter has done for America what she did for Britain, and the results are equally exhilarating, provocative, revelatory, and even more magisterial. The 350-year span of A Jury of Her Peerstakes in more than 250 writers and covers sweeping tides of history and social change. It’s a long book, but it doesn’t feel long at all because it is so full of information, ideas, stories, and characters. The celebrated get their due—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison—and so do the forgotten: Mercy Otis Warren, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Mary Austin, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Emma Lazarus, Anzia Yezierska, Nella Larsen, Meridel LeSueur, Ann Petry, and a host of others.

Who decides which subjects matter; what voice is appropriate for what kind of story; what books get published, reviewed, read and reread, and enshrined as Literature with a capital L? Showalter takes her title from Susan Glaspell’s 1917 story “A Jury of Her Peers,” in which a sheriff and an attorney, at a loss to find a reason why a wife would murder her husband, overlook clues to his brutality and her desperation that their wives, rummaging around the farmhouse crime site, easily discover—and, sympathizing with the accused, destroy. Women, of course, could not sit on juries in 1917, or even vote; they were judged and governed by laws and codes and procedures they had had no hand in making or applying. In the same way, Showalter argues, for most of our history women writers lacked “a critical jury of their peers to discuss their work, to explicate its symbols and meanings, and to demonstrate its continuing relevance to all readers.”

A woman could do very well in the popular marketplace, and many have—women were, and are, the major readers of novels and poetry, a source of much annoyance to male writers from Hawthorne’s day to our own—but men had a lock on prestige. They ran the elite magazines and publishing houses and gave out patronage. (If Emerson or Thomas Wentworth Higgins liked your poetry, you were in.) They wrote the important, serious, taste-making reviews. (Henry James, despite being Edith Wharton’s great friend, seems never to have missed a chance to savage a woman writer in print.) Most important for the long haul, they edited the histories and surveys of American literature that shaped the canon, and they made no bones about their preferences. In 1917, the four male editors of the Cambridge History of American Literature set out to “enlarge the spirit of American literary criticism and render it more energetic and masculine.” The Literary History of the United States, published in 1948, was edited by 54 men and one woman.

Showalter organizes her history—the first of its kind, she tells us—around the theme of women’s relationship to the literary marketplace. There is indeed a female tradition in American writing, she argues, but biology and psychology do not explain it: ”[I]t comes from pressures on women to lead private rather than public lives, and to conform to cultural norms and expectations.” Anne Bradstreet’s first book of poems (1650) was prefaced by testimonials to her humility and piety from no less than 11 English men. Like many women writers to come, Bradstreet was careful to disclaim high ambition, even as she penned a 6,000-line epic about ancient history and produced at least a few poems that speak to us today and that Showalter forthrightly calls great. “Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bayes,” she modestly asks—kitchen herbs, not the laurel of poetic immortality.

The clash between literary ambition and family demands, between truth-telling and propriety, between the longing to express oneself and the inadequacy of the available commercial forms in which to do so, made for a lot of careers that went off the rails or never quite got on them. Abolitionist Julia Ward Howe began as a daring and highly gifted poet, whose “frank,” “disturbing,” “intimate” first book, Passion-Flowers, shocked and thrilled the eminent men of Boston when it appeared anonymously in 1853; when word of its authorship got out, her husband, an eminent Bostonian himself, threatened to divorce her and take the children if she wrote more poetry. Although Howe went on to produce reams of political prose (and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), her literary development—Showalter thinks she was potentially a great poet—was stopped in its tracks. A hundred years later, women writers, whether regionalists, Communists, members of the Harlem Renaissance, or whatever, were still struggling against male norms that defined female ambition as deeply unfeminine—shouldn’t that poet be baking a pie? getting married? having a baby?—and female experience as trivial and/or embarrassing, and writing by women as unlikely to be all that good.

Women’s relation to the literary marketplace explains an apparent paradox: A woman could be renowned in her own time, and a fair number were—but almost always, her fame was ephemeral. Lydia Maria Child (1802-80) was a celebrated and prolific writer (47 books, including  Hobomok, a path-breaking novel about the relations between white settlers and Native Americans) and a key figure in the abolitionist movement. Today she’s known as the author of the children’s Thanksgiving Day song “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Margaret Fuller? We remember she was the only female Transcendentalist, but what did she actually say in her once-indispensable Woman in the Nineteenth Century? In 1923, Sherwood Anderson wrote admiringly to Southwestern writer Mary Austin, “[W]hat Twain and Harte missed you have found”—but the literary West coalesced around the strong and silent cowboys of Owen Wister, Jack London, and Zane Grey, not the white and Native American women Austin wrote about. Glaspell herself, “although she won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1931 and was ranked in her lifetime with Eugene O’Neill … quickly dropped out of the canon.”

Showalter sees women’s writing as a story of progress toward self-definition: from feminine (imitation of prevailing modes) to feminist (protest) to female (self-discovery), and, finally, free. “American women writers in the twenty-first century can take on any subject they want, in any form they choose.” We have indeed come a long way, but I’m not so sure we’ve reached nirvana yet. The marketplace, with its many gendered strictures and codes, has not disappeared. Thus, it matters that girls and women will buy fiction by and about both sexes, but boys and men—the relative few who buy fiction at all—stick to their own gender. (There was a reason that J.K. Rowling used her initials instead of her name, and that her student magician hero was not Harriet Potter.) It matters that the Great American Novel for which critics are always hunting is imagined as a modern Moby-Dick, not The House of Mirth. It means there’s a certain kind of critical receptivity, a hope of greatness for certain kinds of books by men that hardly ever comes into play with books by women, no matter how wonderful they are. Moreover, in literature as in life, men have much more license to display their whole unlovely selves and be admired for it, as the career of Norman Mailer shows.

Many women writers have complained that fiction by women is undervalued because we undervalue the domestic and the personal as opposed to big manly subjects like war and whaling. It’s an important point, but I think there’s something deeper going on. In fact, there are men who write about intimate life and women who take on big public subjects. More different than the books themselves is the gendered framing of how we read them. Nobody says Henry James is a less ambitious writer because he wrote The Portrait of a Lady and not The Portrait of a Sea Captain. If  The Corrections had been written by Janet Franzen, would it have been seen not as a bid for the Great American Novel trophy, but as a very good domestic novel with some futuristic flourishes that didn’t quite come off? If the most prolific serious American writer was John Carroll Oates, would critics be so disturbed by the violence in his fiction? Perhaps we emphasize different elements in similar books and only notice the evidence that confirms our gender biases—and give men more benefits of more doubts, too. Gertrude Stein is a difficult and frustrating writer, but so is the Ezra Pound of The Cantos and the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake, and nobody serious calls them (as Showalter does Stein) basically frauds.

Try it yourself with the novels and poems on your bookshelf. Jane Updike? John Smiley? And while you’re at it, picture a literary America in which women were not just the major purchasers and readers of imaginative writing but also controlled the world of reviewing, prizes, awards, fellowships, relevant academic jobs, important panels, readings, international festivals, and those infernal best-book-of-the-year/decade/century lists. That this would be a highly speculative exercise suggests that Showalter is a bit overoptimistic. Women writers have come a very long way since Anne Bradstreet, Julia Ward Howe, and Mary Austin, but the jury of their peers has yet to be empanelled.