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Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper"by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
Synopses & Reviews
In Wild Unrest, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz offers a vivid portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the 1880s, drawing new connections between the author's life and work and illuminating the predicament of women then and now.
"The Yellow Wall-Paper" captured a woman's harrowing descent into madness and drew on the author's intimate knowledge of mental illness. Like the narrator of her story, Gilman was a victim of what was termed "neurasthenia" or "hysteria"--a "bad case of the nerves." She had faced depressive episodes since adolescence, and with the arrival of marriage and motherhood, they deepened. In 1887 she suffered a severe breakdown and sought the "rest cure" of famed neurologist S. Weir Mitchell. Her marriage was a troubled one, and in the years that followed she separated from and ultimately divorced her husband. It was at this point, however, that Gilman embarked on what would become an influential career as an author, lecturer, and advocate for women's rights.
Horowitz draws on a treasure trove of primary sources to illuminate the making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper": Gilman's journals and letters, which closely track her daily life and the reading that most influenced her; the voluminous diaries of her husband, Walter Stetson, which contain verbatim transcriptions of conversations with and letters from Charlotte; and the published work of S. Weir Mitchell, whose rest cure dominated the treatment of female "hysteria" in late 19th century America. Horowitz argues that these sources ultimately reveal that Gilman's great story emerged more from emotions rooted in the confinement and tensions of her unhappy marriage than from distress following Mitchell's rest cure.
Wild Unrest adds immeasurably to our understanding of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, uncovering both the literary and personal sources behind "The Yellow Wall-Paper."
"Reformer and author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who in 1890 wrote the hair-raising, semiautobiographical, and now iconic short story 'The Yellow Wall-Paper,' documenting an isolated wife's descent from nervous illness into madness, was intimate with her subject. In 1887, when she had a nervous breakdown, Perkins Gilman sought the rest cure of famed neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, and later, she claimed she wrote 'The Yellow Wall-Paper' in protest against Mitchell and his methods, which limited women's intellectual activities (though, Horowitz says, probably not as much as the story indicated). But Smith College historian Horowitz, drawing on the personal writings of Perkins Gilman and her first husband, artist Charles Walter Stetson, and Mitchell's abundant papers, concludes that the story was a cri de coeur against Stetson and the traditional marriage he had demanded. Perkins Gilman accused Mitchell, according to Horowitz, primarily to protect her daughter, Katharine, and also her dear friend Grace Channing, who married Stetson after his divorce from Perkins Gilman, and raised Katharine. This convincing, absorbing, and perceptive book should find a general readership as well as an important place with women's studies and psychology students. 20 b&w illus. (Nov.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was one of the most notable American women in her day. Author, poet, lecturer, reformer, and suffragist, she advocated broader freedom for women throughout her long life. She was also one of the nineteenth-century's best known victim of what her era called a case of the nerves, neurasthenia, or hysteria. Today she is primarily remembered for her 1892 short story, The Yellow Wall-Paper, widely anthologized and read in college and high school classrooms. The classic tale captures a woman's descent into madness and drew on the author's intimate knowledge of mental affliction. The central character, who narrates the tale, experiences nervous illness and is confined to an upstairs nursery in a country house. Isolated from others, forbidden to write, and demeaned by her physician husband, she moves by stages from nervousness to insanity.
WILD UNREST offers a focused exploration of Gilman in the 1880s, and sheds light on her classic story. Drawing on primary sources, it recovers her life in her twenties when she met and married the artist Charles Walter Stetson and they had a child. She had faced depressive episodes from her adolescence, and within the context of marriage and motherhood, they deepened. In 1887 she suffered a breakdown and sought the rest cure of famed neurologist S. Weir Mitchell. In the several years that followed, she separated from her husband, moved to California, and began to gain prominence as a lecturer, poet, and writer of fiction. In June 1890 she wrote The Yellow Wall-Paper.
Years afterward, as the story began to be better known, she told her public that she had written it to oppose Dr. Mitchell's treatment and get him to change his ways. What was on her mind in 1890, however, was not Mitchell but her husband and the confinement of their marriage.
About the Author
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz is Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of History at Smith College and is the author of Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America; The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas; and Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. She divides her time between Northampton and Cambridge, MA.
Table of Contents
1. Charlotte at Twenty-One
2. Walter Happens
3. Pull Back and a Proposition
4. To Wed and to Bed
5. After Marriage, What?
6. In the Care of S. Weir Mitchell
7. Return to Providence
8. To "The Yellow Wall-Paper"
9. "The Yellow Wall-Paper"
10. Beyond "The Yellow Wall-Paper"
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