Study Guide

Carolyn Gold Heilbrun

Carolyn Gold Heilbrun Essay - Critical Essays

Heilbrun, Carolyn G(old)

Introduction

Carolyn G(old) Heilbrun 1926–

(Also writes under the pseudonym Amanda Cross) American novelist, critic, and biographer.

Heilbrun has a double identity as an author. She is a professor of English who examines feminist issues, often relating them to literature in her scholarly works and she is Amanda Cross, a creator of detective stories that also show her awareness of literary matters and sexual politics.

In her scholarly Towards a Recognition of Androgyny and Reinventing Womanhood, Heilbrun argues against sexual polarization, questions theories of criticism that she feels were influenced by cultural bias, and offers inspiration to women struggling for success in the modern world.

The action of her mystery novels is usually built around literature such as the seminar on Antigone featured in Theban Mysteries and the James Joyce correspondence of The James Joyce Murder. Kate Fansler, the amateur sleuth in these stories is a professor like Heilbrun herself.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)

Richard Hoggart

[The Garnett Family] has some respectable qualities: it is clearly written and commonsensically planned; it is almost entirely free from those intrusions of the author's personality which mar many social biographies; it is not wrested into a strange shape so as to body out a proud thesis. Miss Heilbrun has pursued her facts patiently and, so far as I can judge, scrupulously; her book can hardly help being very interesting.

For all that, it is a slight book and lacks the texture its subject demands. It is difficult to understand how anyone could have gathered so many interesting details without being driven to attempt wider, deeper and more intricate connections….

The individualist aesthetic, the intense personal responsibility, the sometimes arrogant anti-vulgarity, the reaction from bourgeois conventionalism—all are parts of that complex of attitudes which a book about the Garnetts should not fail to examine. Unfortunately, Miss Heilbrun does little more than make us realise that this is indeed what should be done.

Richard Hoggart, "Chosen Tasks," in New Statesman (© 1961 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXII, No. 1582, July 7, 1961, p. 22.

Melvin J. Friedman

Amanda Cross, a skilled detective story writer, has given us a lighter side of ["Joyceana"] in her The James Joyce Murder. She has kept pace with the Joyce "industry" and has given us a series of quite plausible events leading to a murder and its curious aftermath….

Each chapter is ingeniously titled after a story from Dubliners. Amanda Cross manages this with a minimum of awkwardness. She must stretch a bit to call a Berkshire town "Araby" and to arrange for a full-scale discussion of "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" to justify the titles of two chapters. Yet she is so at home with Joyce lore and scholarship that everything proceeds with great fluency and ease.

I suspect that Amanda Cross is intimately in touch with the latest developments in fiction, especially with the post-Joycean antics of the nouveau roman. The James Joyce Murder strikes me as being very close at times to certain procedures of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor. There is something gently mock-detective about it, in the best tradition of these French contemporaries and also of the Truman Capote of In Cold Blood, the William Styron of Set This House on Fire, and the Colin Wilson of Ritual in the Dark. Even though Amanda Cross' murderer is apprehended in the end, there are many false starts and stops, there are detectives who are more expert at literary criticism than solving crimes, and other mockingredients….

Amanda Cross has a fine ear for academic conversation. She does occasionally overdo it. There is too much "hash-joint-cum-bar," "buddy-cum-tutor," and "cleaning woman-cum-cook;" even academics do not talk this way. But generally the dialogue is convincing.

The James Joyce Murder is a very intriguing book. It is a superior mystery and at the same time manages to say interesting things about the literary mentality. It is, furthermore, a tribute to the importance of Joyce study in this country and deserves a position among a select list of Joyce criticism—despite its fictional nature.

Melvin J. Friedman, "Book Reviews: 'The James Joyce Murder'," in The Modern Language Journal, Vol. LI, No. 6, October, 1967, p. 373.

Newgate Callendar

Amanda Cross in recent years has been attracting attention with her Kate Fansler stories and the latest is "The Theban Mysteries."… Again the action is built around literature, in this case a seminar on "Antigone." There is something of the Elizabeth Daly quality about the literate, low-keyed, sophisticated writing. There is no great drama in this story of an expensive girls' school in New York. But we get a study of rebellious youth, and even a few insights into the relevance of Sophocles to our time.

As novels go, "The Theban Mysteries" is gentle. And it is thoughtful.

Newgate Callendar, "Criminals at Large: 'The Theban Mysteries'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 31, 1971, p. 30.

Joyce Carol Oates

To Carolyn Heilbrun … the very salvation of our species depends upon our "recognition of androgyny" as a conscious ideal; her book [Toward a Recognition of Androgyny] is a frank, passionate plea for us to move "away from sexual polarization and the prison of gender toward a world in which individual roles and modes of personal behavior can be freely chosen." Though she has constructed a critical-scholarly study to support her argument—she moves with dizzying rapidity from Homer to Joan Didion in 189 pages—the essence of her book is this imperative….

Heilbrun's is an interesting, lively, and valuable general introduction to a new way of perceiving our Western cultural tradition, with emphasis upon English literature from Clarissa Harlowe to Clarissa Dalloway. Fired by a passionate need to express her belief in the imminent doom of our species unless we move toward an androgynous ideal, she has done a fantastic amount of reading: She attempts a re-evaluation of the role of woman in practically everything ever written, Greek literature, the Bible, the epic, the romance, the plays of Shakespeare ("a genius as devoted to the androgynous ideal as anyone who has ever written"), and, of course, Richardson, Ibsen, James, Austen, Dickens, the Brontës, George Eliot, Lawrence.

It was a heroic undertaking and, having herself admitted that she was not entirely suited for the task, lacking much knowledge of history or language, she is certainly not to be blamed for having produced a sketchy book. The section on the Bloomsbury Group is most rewarding, because Heilbrun is convinced that...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

The Yale Review

[Toward a Recognition of Androgyny] has three parts: the first, "The Hidden River of Androgyny," catalogues random appearances of androgyny in literature from Homer onward; the second examines the emergence of female central characters in the novel; the third presents Bloomsbury as real-life exemplar of "an androgynous world." (p. viii)

Unfortunately, Heilbrun's book is so poorly researched that it may disgrace the subject in the eyes of serious scholars…. "The hidden river of androgyny" is a mistaken metaphor: there is no determining link between earlier and later literary appearances of the androgyne, not in the sense that one could, for example, rightly speak of a "hidden river" of astrological and alchemical lore passing from antiquity to the present. The history of the androgyne is instead one of continually rediscovered perceptions originating in the psyche.

From the work of Jane Harrison, Heilbrun selects that great scholar's one error: her belief in a primeval Mediterranean matriarchy…. [This] myth, for which there is not a shred of evidence, is fast becoming the new barbarism of the women's movement. Heilbrun therefore pointlessly belabors male-centered, nastily warmongering Western civilization for its departure from "the lost androgynous ideal" of a nonexistent matriarchal age.

Her definition of androgyny is so idiosyncratic as to be nearly useless. Indeed, her terminology shifts fuzzily from page to page: sometimes androgyny is "the equality of the...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Newgate Callendar

Amanda Cross writes mystery stories featuring a college professor (of English) named Kate Fansler. The dialogue in her books is supercivilized, in the drawing-room tradition, with long, resounding periods….

Amanda Cross knows her Wilde and Shaw, and fine models they are for any writer. But the trouble with "The Question of Max" is that it wears this kind of Beautiful Writing like a great purple badge. Most of the Cross characters tend to talk this way; and since the author, after all, is not up to Wildean or Shavian flights, the result can be interminably dull, not to say pretentious.

Like most of the Cross books, "The Question of Max" takes plenty of time in its presentation. It...

(The entire section is 202 words.)

Margo Jefferson

[Carolyn Heilbrun] is no different from any number of women who became feminists by joining private feelings to a set of political and philosophical principles that have been extant and evolving for—well, let us take Mary Wollstonecraft as a starting point—nearly two centuries. [The] unsettling practice of draping an oft-stated notion or simple observation in the garments of radical originality pervades ["Reinventing Womanhood"].

Mrs. Heilbrun … believes that few women imagine themselves powerful or independent; those who do (succeeding thereby in male-dominated professions) sacrifice their female identity…. [Mrs. Heilbrun writes: "Women must learn to appropriate for their own use the...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Sara Ruddick

[In Reinventing Womanhood] Heilbrun is angry at her colleagues' refusal to help those women who struggle to change male thought and institutions in a serious way. Recognizing their pain and anxiety, she nonetheless urges them to remain outsiders rather than scurrying for a safe place at the male center, to "bond with the powerless against those in power."… Yet angry as she is, Heilbrun respects the sheer fact of female achievement and studies the lives of distinguished women in order to identify the conditions of their success….

Heilbrun urges all women, whether or not they count themselves achievers, to admit their own and other women's pain. A woman-identified, raised consciousness is...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

J. M. Purcell

[There are a few] structural limitations or "faults" which amateurize the Cross books a little…. (p. 37)

To begin with her dialogue, which is more important in Cross than for another style of writer: Cross adopts the technical convention that each important speaker—as opposed to "character"—shares the same conversational style; by implication, the same background….

This dialogue convention is adopted unconsciously by very bad writers because of course bad writers are tone deaf, employ limited vocabularies, etc.: these are all weaknesses not applying to Amanda Cross. On the other hand, one reason bad writers, including bad mystery writers, are bad, is that they are...

(The entire section is 810 words.)

Jean M. White

Murder doesn't have to be a dreadful, dreary business, at least when it occurs in the pages of fiction. It can be told in a civilized, witty, and learned fashion with an observant eye on society's pretensions and pomposities. Ard no one has a sharper eye than Amanda Cross, whose delightful Kate Fansler, professor-cum-sleuth, returns to find Death in a Tenured Position….

One of Kate's former classmates has been appointed to the Harvard University faculty as its first woman English professor in a tenured post. Janet Mandelbaum, a dour, earnest scholar, has never been one of Kate's favorite people. But when Janet becomes the victim of a vicious prank linking her to radical lesbians, Kate goes...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

John Leonard

"Death in a Tenured Position" is set at Harvard. (p. 253)

Miss Cross, in the person of Kate, hates Harvard and quotes Henry James. She quotes Henry James because Kate always quotes somebody in every Amanda Cross mystery—as if she were trying to be Harriet Vale in a novel by Dorothy Sayers—and she hates Harvard because of sexism.

"Death in a Tenured Position" is a good mystery and a very angry book. The dead professor, Janet Mandelbaum, was not a feminist; otherwise, she would never have been offered her job. Kate, however, is a feminist, and since her husband, Reed, the assistant district attorney, has been exiled to Africa for the duration of this novel, she has the leisure to...

(The entire section is 369 words.)

Jeffrey Burke

Amanda Cross's Death in a Tenured Position features her recurring amateur detective and professor of English, Kate Fansler. She is witty, attractive, well-bred, and independent though married. These qualities make for excellent verbal fencing with the lesbians who need her help to remove suspicion from them…. Cross pokes a good deal of pointed fun at a crusty institution, and a little at feminist extremism. When she is not tied down by exposition, her prose is abundantly witty, but several times I found myself wishing that someone would just walk in, order a sandwich, eat it, pay for it, and leave. Still, she writes well, and though I found the solution disappointing, I thought the solving, which depends on...

(The entire section is 153 words.)

Patricia Craig

Readers of Amanda Cross's earlier books will know that Kate's own manner is thoroughly agreeable, her observations witty and her erudition lightly displayed. All the qualities that make her so engaging a heroine are still apparent—but somehow her detecting has become a little perfunctory [in A Death in the Faculty, published in the United States as Death in a Tenured Position]. "Not exactly a full roster of suspects, Kate sadly thought"; certainly this novel has neither the density of plot that distinguished The Question of Max … nor the scholarly ebullience that made, say, Poetic Justice … so entertaining. If, like Sayers's Gaudy Night,… A Death in the Faculty links...

(The entire section is 180 words.)

Katha Pollitt

What better locale for a feminist murder mystery than Harvard, where women make up a minuscule three percent of the tenured faculty and sexism-and-sherry in the senior common room is still an honored tradition?…

As it happens, I went to Harvard, and was prepared from page 1 [of Death in a Tenured Position] to cheer Cross' spirited dishing of my lamentably sexist alma mater. Said dishing is easily the book's best feature. This time out, Cross … is a better feminist than mystery novelist. A paucity of plausible suspects is one problem. Kate Fansler is another. Americans—even rich, WASP, elegant, tenured Americans—just don't say "beastly," call their nieces "my dear" and complain...

(The entire section is 165 words.)