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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Scribblers of America, Unite!

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 Peers takes 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.


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