Showalter, Elaine. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

Virago, $65

The trial of Art V Life, for women writers, traditionally pits literary ambitions against domestic necessity. Homefront oppression is a theme shadowing many writers in A Jury of Her Peers, a literary history from the Puritans to the end of the 20th century.

It’s a vast task, creating the first American female literary canon, and Elaine Showalter’s up for it: Princeton professor emerita, prior Man Booker chair, key literary awards judge, founder of feminist literary criticism (in fact, she coined the word ‘gynocriticism’), she wrote ‘A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing’ in the 1970s.

Showalter’s research is exacting; her reportage of female American writers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries particularly gleams. Heavier in history than interpretation, thorough, and hyper-researched, this academic weight as a literary history is nonetheless leavened with occasional cheeky gossip: “I thought Mary Austin was about as conceited and swollen in the head as a writer could be, but Gertrude Stein goes her one better”. Showalter is unafraid of her own opinions, for example, describing Stein as “widely acknowledged to be unreadable, incomprehensible, self-indulgent, and excruciatingly boring.”

A Jury of Her Peers’ structure follows a chronological format, with chapters covering decades, or key periods. Consequently, women’s fiction, poetry, and playwriting are observed framed by history: the civil war, female emancipation, the flapper era, a post WW2 focus on domesticity, and so on.

Although it will excel as a text book, this should not be marginalised as mere literary reference. Nascent authors should delight in the novelists’ personal back-stories, and find encouragement for their own careers. Keen readers should surely meet titles to add to “to-read” lists.

And all readers can peek at hundreds of stories between To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Little Women.

 

2009

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