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A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 24, 2009
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A Jury of Her Peers is an unprecedented literary landmark: the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000.
In a narrative of immense scope and fascination--brimming with Elaine Showalter’s characteristic wit and incisive opinions--we are introduced to more than 250 female writers. These include not only famous and expected names (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Gwendolyn Brooks, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, and Jodi Picoult among them), but also many who were once successful and acclaimed yet now are little known, from the early American best-selling novelist Catherine Sedgwick to the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Susan Glaspell. Showalter shows how these writers--both the enduring stars and the ones left behind by the canon--were connected to one another and to their times. She believes it is high time to fully integrate the contributions of women into our American literary heritage, and she undertakes the task with brilliance and flair, making the case for the unfairly overlooked and putting the overrated firmly in their place.
Whether or not readers agree with the book’s roster of writers, A Jury of Her Peers is an irresistible invitation to join the debate, to discover long-lost great writers, and to return to familiar titles with a deeper appreciation. It is a monumental work that will greatly enrich our understanding of American literary history and culture.Amazon Exclusive: Elaine Showalter's Top Ten Books by American Women Writers You Haven't Read (But Should)
Everyone knows the handful of novels by American women writers, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The House of Mirth and Beloved, that make it onto standard reading lists. But there are hundreds of wonderful books by American women that have been underestimated, overlooked, or forgotten.
Here’s my starting guide to ten extraordinary works of fiction--one from each decade of the twentieth century--that deserve to be much better known.
A moving collection of stories emphasizing the California landscape and the vulnerability of women, especially Native American women who were seduced and abandoned by white men in the Wild West. The memorable final story about a mysterious woman in the desert, “The Walking Woman,” is Austin’s manifesto of female independence, equality, tenderness, and sorrow.
Gilman’s clever utopian novel imagines three American men on a scientific expedition who hear tales of a “strange and terrible Woman Land in the high distance,” and decide to find and invade it. Expecting to rule over the women, the men are astounded, entranced, and defeated by the resourcefulness of an all-female society.
Fisher was a prolific novelist, a judge for the Book of the Month Club, and a pioneer of Montessori education in the U.S. She claimed that The Home-Maker was more about children’s rights than women’s rights, but she empathized with all the members of a middle-class family whose lives are being destroyed by the straitjacket of maintaining proper male and female roles. When an accident forces the husband and wife to change places, everyone is much happier. This could be a comic premise--Mr. Mom--but Fisher treats it with seriousness and psychological insight.
Slesinger used her disillusion with the whole cultural spectrum of the 1930s for her sparkling satire of the New York leftwing editors of a radical magazine. The novel is both a penetrating autobiographical portrait of the divided woman intellectual of the decade, painfully torn between party politics and personal emancipation; and a timeless and very funny lampoon of ideologues driven by vanity, political trendiness, and competition.
Stafford was at her best in this powerful coming-of-age novel about a young brother and sister, Ralph and Molly Fawcett, who spend their summers at their grandfather’s ranch in Colorado. While Ralph is being initiated into adventurous manhood, Molly is fiercely and tragically resisting the dull femininity which lies in store for her.
The only novel by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha tells the story of a poor black Chicago housewife, in a lyrical form like that of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but suffused with anger against racism, war, and the daily small tragedies of black women’s lives. An American classic.
Long overlooked, Jackson’s masterpiece has been rediscovered in the twenty-first century by writers from Stephen King and Jonathan Lethem to Joyce Carol Oates. A perfectly constructed and spine-chilling example of the female gothic, the novel was among the first great stories of the weird girl, part teenage outcast, part witch, as a dark heroine of American horror.
While Diane Johnson’s novels about Americans in Paris (such as Le Divorce) have been bestsellers, The Shadow Knows is my favorite among her books. Set in Northern California in the early 1970s, it is about the racial conflict and paranoia of the decade, and, in Johnson’s words, “about persons on the fringe; they happen to be women, and what happens to them is meant to be particular to America in the seventies.”
In her first novel, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Robinson traced the lives of three generations of women in the imaginary Idaho town of Fingerbone, which is surrounded by mountains and next to a dark lake. The narrator, Ruth, and her sister, Lucille, are passed from one family caregiver to another; finally, their aunt Sylvie Fisher, a wanderer and transient, comes back to keep house for them. But Sylvie’s bizarre housekeeping is like something out of a gothic fairy tale, and the sisters find their separate ways to create their own domestic visions.
Gish Jen is one of the funniest and most free-wheeling novelists of the multicultural 90s. In Mona in the Promised Land, whose title plays off a long tradition of Jewish-American immigrant writing, the adolescent Chinese-American heroine Mona Chang is at a new stage of ethnic identity, renaming and self-creation. In their own enclave, she and her high school friends exchange food, music, games, and politics. In the promised land, American girls can change their names, their religions, even re-invent their nationalities.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. By covering the lives and careers of hundreds of American women writers of all backgrounds, this survey is ambitious and galvanizing, contributing to feminist theory without itself reading like theory. Diverse beyond easy description, these women, especially in earlier centuries, have two things in common. One is an almost universal break with patriarchal constructs. Second is gaining independence from European literary models, female as well as male. Although there have been multivolume, encyclopedic works of greater scope, like Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Norton Anthology of Literature by Woman, this is the first guide and history ever attempted by one scholar working solo. With a generally chronological approach (including a handful of sensible deviations), Showalter's Baedeker showcases the rise and fall of styles and genres. Lives and careers of superstars such as Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Pearl S. Buck and Toni Morrison are put into high relief. In Showalter's book, the voices of several hundred other authors, ranging from Phillis Wheatley and Julia Ward Howe to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Grace Metalious and James Tiptree Jr., sing out in a monumental choral orchestrated by Showalter (A Literature of Their Own), a groundbreaking feminist scholar at Princeton. (Feb. 25)
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Top customer reviews
In 600 pages she covers the history of American female writing, from Colonial times to the day before yesterday, bringing to light writers and literature that time had buried and shows how the writing reflected themes historical, social and psychological. Her writing appears effortless and the reading becomes so as well. Her research is prodigious. Clearly Showalter is aiming to write a definitive history and if her ambition exceeds her accomplishment, it is only because of the inherent limitations of a single authored work.
As she explains in her introduction, she is not shy of expressing her opinion and making artistic judgements but it is here one finds the book's weaknesses.
Apropos of Victorian pious, conventional poetry she approvingly quotes "The simpler the surface of a poem, the more likely it is that a second, and more difficult poem, will exist beneath it" (p.60). Does that mean simplistic sentimental verse is always complex? Could this simply mean you can always find what you want to read into something (a not uncommon academic ploy)? And why can't a cigar simply be a cigar?
She also makes the statement that Harriet Beecher Stowe is "the most important figure in the history of American women's writing"(p.109). I presumed this is meant in busting the door open for woman authorship because she never defines "important". If she means sales and influence, then Dan Brown's "Da Vinici Code" is the most important book of our time. If she means morally important, why doesn't that make Toni Morrison equally important for "Beloved"?
She throws in the bizarre statement that some of the lyrics of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" reflect the "expression of rage Howe stifled in her marriage"(p.134). How does she know this? She never says.
And so on.
Unfortunately the cumulative effect comes off as affirmative action in literature. Artistic mediocrity should be stated outright(which in fairness she frequently does). Historic worth and artistic worth should not be conflated. And feminist motivation should not need to be taken on faith. We don't have to even the playing field. Writers such as Willa Cather and Emily Dickinson and Edith Wharton deserve better. They have proven that no one must play with a handicap for them to triumph.
American citizens should read this book to learn how women have viewed America since 1630.
American literature students, male and female, should buy, read and refer to this book. It is an excellent teaching source; it is an engaging source to acquaint students with an entire body of little known literature.
Male and female students of writing should buy, read and refer to this book.
If Americans of all ilks believe they have read as much American literature as is available, this book will provide at least 50 novels to read.
For example, Jo Marsh of Little Women wrote books about her family, sequels to Little Women. One of those books discusses in the 1870s a woman’s wish today: “Having it all.”
An issue in the 1960s Civil Rights movement was the position of women. Not intending to be pejorative or derisive, Stockily Carmichael accurately described that position as “prone.” Doubly for Black women. Should Black women support the Civil Rights movement or the Women’s Movement? Each involved different and conflicting obligations and goals. In history, sociology and journalism there is little development and discussion of the issues. HOWEVER, black female authors raised and wrote about this issue. These books are described and discussed in Showalter’s book.
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This literary history, organized chronologically over...Read more