American women have been authors for more than three hundred and fifty years. Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers is quite astonishingly the first comprehensive history of these writers. Showalter is a literary critic celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic for her scholarship, wit and lucid prose. This prodigious undertaking reflects these qualities and moreover is written with a great generosity of spirit that leaves the reader inspired and humbled.
The book takes the form of a roughly chronological account of these women and their work. By the end, Showalter has traced a development from what she calls ‘feminine’ writing, which reflects already-established male traditions, to ‘feminist’ writing, which strives against the aforementioned, then ‘female’ writing, which is specifically introverted and concerned with establishing identity, finally reaching ‘free’ writing, beyond restrictions of form, gender or subject matter, oblivious equally to the mouldered monoliths of ‘patriarchal norms’ and the barbed prescriptions of extreme feminist scholarship. Showalter is not the first to describe this: Avital Ronell in a neat Nietzschean pun writes that we are now (or ought now to be) thinking ‘Jenseits von Mann und Frau’ – not just beyond good and evil, but beyond man and woman. But it is unreasonable to criticise this book in terms of its critical stances, because it is so light on theory and so large with common sense and interesting facts.
The simple fact, of course, is that some women write and some don’t, some need encouragement and some don’t care; it’s the same with men I believe. But the huge question raised by the past is, how did they do it at all? We read of women struggling with disease, plague, revolution, dissolute or hostile husbands, endless childbearing, and jobs outside the home. In contrast to their English contemporaries, American women just got on with it. Few had servants, as even the poorest nineteenth-century English writer did, and many valued domesticity even when they saw how it interfered with writing. (As for modern times, well, no less an authority than Betty Friedan has pointed out what I have always said – that labour-saving devices are in fact labour intensive.)
Ideology and politics have been more important for American women writers than for their British counterparts. Many of these women were intensely involved in the struggles, defeats and occasional visionary glories of their times, willingly or unwittingly contributing to the grand canon of American literature, albeit that they were frequently and randomly forgotten. In 1883 Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet for a fundraising enterprise. The object was the purchase of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. At the dedication her poem was not read, but six years after her death it was engraved on the pedestal. Many know of the ‘huddled masses’ and ‘wretched refuse’ who teem onto the shores of the United States, but very few are aware of the author of these magnificent words. And all her other work is quite forgotten. Again and again in these pages, there are women who have written something of huge interest, even influence, for its time, who have then just disappeared. Showalter suggests this happened because the works lacked an informed readership that might have demonstrated their value to others, and that this lacuna is a thing of the past. Her voice throughout is quiet and calm. She allows facts to speak for themselves, but her great gift is in telling us what to think about these facts without making us object to, or even be aware of, her position. We enjoy her too much to disagree.
Chapters begin with a short overview of the historical context, followed by brief accounts of writers’ lives and works. Even in the earliest writing, the women’s voices are remarkably various. In the seventeenth century the poet Anne Bradstreet writes of her home, her children and her beloved husband, while Mary Rowlandson describes her abduction by Indians who murdered twelve members of her family and friends; her six-year-old daughter died of her wounds and was left unburied. (In the 1970s literary historians accused her of being ‘pervasively racist’ and failing to mention the suffering of Indians.) Elaine Showalter ends the book with an acknowledgement to her own husband using Bradstreet’s very words: ‘If ever wife was happy in a man/Compare with me, ye women, if you can.’
What makes this book exceptional is its vigorous presentation of character and quotation, lives lived, and lives created. Willa Cather describes an old woman entranced by Wagner. She does not want to leave the concert:
For her, just outside the door of the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.
Showalter adds, ‘It is Cather’s vision of the wasteland, the nightmare landscape of failed quest, like Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”.’ In one neat sentence we are given a parallel, an explanation, an interpretation and a judgement.
The aspirant hetaira Edith Wharton is easy enough to mock, but Showalter’s picture of her with her Pomeranians and Pekinese is a tiny delight. ‘Toward the end of the marriage, the dogs in the photographs sit snarling on her lap, shoulders and arms, totemic bodyguards of her erogenous zones.’ Gertrude Stein earns opprobrium for her ‘division of household labor between two women with one doing everything and the other doing nothing’. Of gladsome Pollyanna, the 1913 creation of Eleanor H Porter, who teaches everyone she meets to be glad, Showalter comments: ‘Despite her commitment to the power of positive thinking, Pollyanna is sorely tried when she is hit by a car and is presumed to be paralyzed for life.’ Nevertheless, she informs us, ‘Glad Clubs’ were formed, even by prisoners, and ‘the name has become emblematic of an American message of mindless optimism’. Mary McCarthy skewers an entire cultural myth with ‘I’ve never noticed that women were less warlike than men’, and a paragraph on Dorothy Parker finely illustrates Showalter’s method:
In the 1930s, Parker went to Hollywood, where she had a period of fame and wealth, but her alcoholism and a wretched marriage contributed to severe writing blocks. She went to France to work on a novel, to be called ‘The Events Leading Up to the Tragedy’; but she never completed it. Her prayer at the time – ‘Dear God, please make me stop writing like a woman. For Jesus Christ’s sake, amen.’ – may have had something to do with her inability to finish the book.
A work of selection must perforce have omissions. I would have liked to see Dawn Powell included, as well as the very witty Woman Who Shot Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas, author of the sublime SCUM Manifesto. Few of us today want to be like either Powell or Solanas. Dorothy Parker ‘saw a long parade of weary horses and shivering beggars and all beaten, driven, stumbling things’. We don’t want to be like that. We don’t want the ‘animal fatalism’ noted by Edith Wharton. We may not want to be wise high priestesses in the Toni Morrison mode either. Nor need we be ‘lush maternal gardens’. Among other things this book announces that the time of prescription and proscription for women writers is gone. With one bound we are free, and while this freedom presents new terrors, like those brave dead women, we must just get on with it.