America’s Women Writers, Word By Word

By Harsh A. Desai, Womens Feature Service

Elaine Showalter has written one of the first comprehensive histories of women writers in America. In her recent book, ‘A Jury of Her Peers – American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx’, she provides the reader with a panoramic view of America’s leading women writers – from the devout puritan poet Bradstreet of the 17th century to Proulx, famous for her Wyoming stories as also her novels, ‘Shipping News’ and ‘Postcards’, written in the 1990s.

Showalter’s book is, at least partly, an attempt to give women writers in America their rightful and long overdue place in world literature. The title ‘A Jury of her Peers’, comes from a very interesting short story and play, entitled ‘Trifles’, by Susan Glaspell, which concerns a wife who is accused of having murdered her husband. When the men in the town start investigating, the women destroy all the evidence that could convict the accused woman because they believe that only they can truly understand what she had gone through.

The phrase, ‘Jury of Peers’, used throughout the book, is there to also remind the reader that women writers in this work are being judged by a woman.

For women in the western hemisphere, writing might be thought to be the oldest profession. Much before professions like law and medicine came into vogue, women found that they could support themselves by their writing. In fact, in the 1850s, you had reputed writers like Hawthorne and Melville complaining that women writers were selling far better than them. And they had good reason to feel cheated! Even in those early days, the best known work was a story, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, written by a woman – Harriet Beecher Stowe.

First published in 1860, it went on to become the first international bestseller with more than 305,000 copies sold in the first year within the United States itself. It was translated into 18 languages and Charles Fredric Briggs, editor of Putnam’s, predicted that the popularity of the novel was the commencement of a miraculous era in the literary world. He wrote: “Hereafter, the book which does not circulate to the extent of a million copies will be regarded as a failure.” Incidentally, Stowe had stated – long before Virginia Woolf – that a woman needed a room of her own to enable her to write.

Many of these women writers had no formal education. They often acquired their skills with the pen in their fathers’ libraries. Popular fiction was their preferred genre and within it emerged what came to be seen as “domestic fiction” with the family and its fortunes being the heart of the story.

Others, like the reclusive Emily Dickinson, drew inspiration from their inner selves. Although Dickinson, who wrote in the 1860s, was hardly published in her lifetime, her terse, path-breaking poetry, published posthumously, was quickly recognised as outstanding. In fact, well-known literary critic, Harold Bloom, rates her as the greatest poet ever. Like Dickinson, many other women writers – even when their work was judged as popular – never won critical acclaim and did not receive their due until decades after they had passed away.

Showalter takes each decade from the 1850s as a chapter and enumerates the social history of the America of the day. This helps her to dwell upon the chief concerns of women in each period and the forces that impacted their lives. The reader is thus able to better appreciate the writers since their biographies had clearly impacted their literature. Many (too many) of the writers and poets cited in this work seem to have led tormented lives, which drove them into their private world of words, even as they tried to reach out to a broader audience. The collapse of the extremely gifted American-born poet, Sylvia Plath, who took her own life in 1963, is chronicled in the book.

Interestingly, several of the concerns central to these women writers were common to their peers across the ages. There is, for instance, a constant reiteration of the motif of the bee and the flower. It was used first by Margaret Fuller in her Journal to express the bitterness of sexual difference. Louise May Alcott, in her most feminist novel, ‘Work, A Story Of Experience’, had a frontispiece of a Morning Glory erect and in full bloom being fertilised by a large and energetic bee – the female flower as powerful as the bee that fertilises it. It is said that Dickinson, too, used the analogy, although in a completely different context – as a cry for independence.

Another concern that gets reflected over the years is the question of the colour of one’s skin. Black writing emerged quite early in women’s literature, but it seemed to have flowered in the 1960s. The Black Power movement may have had something to do with this. Gwendolyn Booth once observed that Black poets should write as blacks about blacks and assess themselves as blacks. In time, African American women writers became part of the mainstream, whether it was the much-read Alice Walker, a Maya Angelou reciting her poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration as US president in 1993, or Toni Morrison being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Feminism, too, surfaced early in American women’s literature, although it needed writers like Erica Jong, writing in the 1960s and 1970s, to give it that popular touch. Her ‘Fear of Flying’, about a married 29-year-old Jewish American women poet from Manhattan learning to ‘fly’- which to her was the ability to express her sexual independence, creativity and passion – became a bestseller. It was truly the coming of age, not just for Jong’s protagonist, but for American women in general.

In fact, the political and social developments of their times did impact women writers greatly. Take the 1860 civil war, which greatly influenced their works. Although women were far removed from the actual theatre of conflict, many became nurses. ‘Hospital Sketches’ was one of the books produced about that experience. Watching soldiers come back from war, battered and sick, caused one woman to write a song that became the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

An early concern was the plight of the American Indian and the cruelty meted out to them. Helen Hunt Jackson wrote ‘Ramona’, the dark tragic love story of a half-Native Indian half-Scottish girl and her Native Indian lover, in 1884.

Also, like men, women too have written many utopian novels picturing their perfect world where they had equal power and men shared equal responsibilities. Charlotte Perkins Gilman used the Rip Van Winkle device in her book, ‘Moving the Mountain’ in 1911, to picture a perfect America of the 1940s that had community kitchens and was free of crime and diseases through eugenics.

The vision and talent that Showalter showcases in her work is truly remarkable, all the more so because it has lain buried for so long.

(‘A Jury of Her Peers – American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx’ by Elaine Showalter; Published by: Virago Press; Pp: 512; Price: Rs 1,210.)

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