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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, February 15th, 2009
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A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

by Elaine Showalter

Sometimes a Pen Is Just a Pen

A review by Jennifer Cognard-Black

Authors breed books. Like mothers, they grow and nurture their creations. Yet the word author is derived from the Latin auctor and actually means a male begetter, or father. As authors Sarah Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously claimed in their 1979 book Madwoman in the Attic, a study of Victorian women writers, a "pen is in some sense...a penis."

The presumption that authorship is fundamentally masculine has affected Anglo American women since the 17th century, when a writer such as Anne Bradstreet, the first woman to publish a book in the New World, needed the authorization of male patrons. Modern critics also have struggled to legitimate their interest in women writers. As Elaine Showalter detailed three decades ago in A Literature of Their Own -- her groundbreaking study of British women novelists -- "It has been difficult for critics to consider...women's literature theoretically because of their tendency to project and expand their own culture-bound stereotypes of femininity, and to see in women's writing an eternal opposition of biological and aesthetic creativity."

Now Showalter seeks to extend this earlier work to compile what she herself dubs "the first literary history of American women writers." A Jury of Her Peers participates in the tradition of recovering and reclaiming women writers omitted from histories, studies and anthologies of American literature. Drawing on past recovery projects, she provides a breathtaking overview of the intersections of gender and genre in American letters, including discussions of lesser-known writers such as Mary Rowlandson, who, after being abducted by Narragansett Indians, wrote the first "captivity narrative" of the Puritan era; Frances E. W. Harper, who published Iola Leroy, one of the the first novels by an African American woman; Ursula Le Guin, author of The Left Hand of Darkness and a pioneer of American science-fiction writing; and Gish Jen, a contemporary writer interested in portraying the hybrid identities of Asian American characters.

Yet Showalter's desire is to move beyond stockpiling the poetry, plays and fiction of American women to a place of thoughtful and active critique. Instead of simply asking, "Remember these writers?" she further queries, "And are these writers any good?" Showalter refuses to be either an unthinking cheerleader or an apolitical critic. Of past discomfort over Harriet Beecher Stowe's racial stereotypes and melodramatic style, she contends, "The critical neglect of Uncle Tom's Cabin has less to do with its alleged literary flaws [or] its racial politics...than with its awkward placement in...a period where the American literary canon was perceived as exceptionally narrow, strong and male."

With its frank assessments, impressive research and expansive scope, A Jury of Her Peers belongs on the shelf of any reader interested in the development of women's writing in America. Unlike the authors of other feminist literary histories, Showalter treats the pen as just a pen -- to be wielded well or badly, with ignorance or insight, regardless of the gender of the writer who holds it.

Jennifer Cognard-Black, a professor of English and coordinator of the women, gender and sexuality program at St. Mary's College of Maryland, is coeditor of Kindred Hands: Letters on Writing by British and American Women Authors, 1865–1935.


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