Carolyn Heilbrun 1926-
(Full name Carolyn Gold Heilbrun; has also written under the pseudonym Amanda Cross) American novelist, critic, essayist, nonfiction writer, short story writer, and biographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Heilbrun's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 25.
Whether writing under her real name or under the pseudonym Amanda Cross, Heilbrun has earned widespread respect for her feminist theories, her frank perspective on academic life, and her series of highly literate murder mysteries. Once best known for her detective novels, Heilbrun has entered the canon of feminist scholarship with works such as Writing a Woman's Life (1988) and Hamlet's Mother and Other Women (1990). Critics have noted the interplay between Heilbrun's scholarly work and fiction, particularly her use of her mysteries to illustrate aspects of her critical theory.
Heilbrun was born on January 13, 1926, in East Orange, New Jersey, the only child of Archibald and Estelle Gold. In 1945 she married James Heilbrun, a professor of economics, with whom she has three children. She attended Wellesley College, graduating with a B.A. in 1947. Heilbrun then enrolled at Columbia University, earning an M.A. in 1951 and a Ph.D. in 1959. She taught at Brooklyn College for one year before returning to Columbia in 1960, where she taught for over three decades. Heilbrun became a full professor of English in 1972, later serving as the Avalon Foundation professor in the humanities from 1986 to 1992. She resigned from her Columbia professorship in 1992, citing sexual discrimination as her reason for leaving. She has since lectured and taught at several universities, including Swarthmore College and Yale University. In 1964 Heilbrun published her first mystery novel In the Last Analysis, written under the pseudonym Amanda Cross. Her Amanda Cross detective novels have received a number of awards such as the Mystery Writers of America Scroll in 1964 and the Nero Wolfe Award for Mystery Fiction in 1981. She served as a Guggenheim fellow in 1965, a Rockefeller fellow in 1976, and a Radcliffe Institute fellow in 1976. From 1982 to 1984 she was a member of the executive board of the Mystery Writers of America and, from 1976 to 1979 and 1982 to 1984, Heilbrun was a member of the executive council of the Modern Language Association of America, serving as the president in 1984. She has also contributed essays and articles to several publications including the New York Times Book Review, Shakespeare Quarterly, Saturday Review, and Texas Quarterly.
In 1957, in her first published essay “The Character of Hamlet's Mother,” Heilbrun signaled the themes she would refine and amplify throughout the next five decades, both in her fiction and nonfiction. “Hamlet's Mother” asserts that middle-aged and elderly women can still be sexual and vibrant individuals, criticizing literary scholars for misunderstanding and maligning the true nature of Queen Gertrude's lust in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Heilbrun later expanded on this thesis in the essay collection Hamlet's Mother and Other Women. Heilbrun continued her exploration of human sexuality in her first major work of literary criticism, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny: Aspects of Male and Female in Literature (1973), which posits that the condition of androgyny—defined as a refusal to accept sexually dictated gender roles—can free the individual from society's prescribed expectations of male and female identity. In Reinventing Womanhood (1979) Heilbrun gathers examples of female literary characters who, by their refusal to sacrifice independence for the conventional “happy ending,” serve as role models for contemporary women. In cooperation with Margaret R. Higgonet, Heilbrun coedited The Representation of Women in Fiction (1983), a collection of critical essays by female scholars such as Susan Gubar, Elizabeth Ermarth, and Nancy K. Miller that attempts to reexamine how women have been portrayed in literary texts. Writing a Woman's Life offers an examination of women's biographies and autobiographies, discussing a diverse range of works on notable women including George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Gertrude Stein, and Margaret Thatcher. In 1995 Heilbrun collaborated with Gloria Steinem to write the authorized biography The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem, combining a history of contemporary feminism with the life story of the high-profile feminist activist. The essays in The Last Gift of Time: Life beyond Sixty (1997) reflect on a desire that originated during Heilbrun's adolescence to commit suicide at the age of seventy, offering a candid and emotional look at the negative and positive aspects of the aging process. Heilbrun's When Men Were the Only Models We Had (2002) reflects on her admiration of such male critics as Clifton Fadiman, Lionel Trilling, and Jacques Barzun, while lamenting the rampant sexism she experienced in academia.
Writing under the name Amanda Cross, Heilbrun has published a series of mystery novels focusing on Professor Kate Fansler, an amateur sleuth and academic who teaches Victorian literature at a large uptown university. Fansler is portrayed as an independent and thoroughly modern heroine, with many of her adventures set against the backdrop of the intensely political world of university academia. In the Last Analysis revolves around Fansler helping a psychiatrist friend to clear himself of a murder charge after a patient is found dead in his office. The situation allows Fansler to deliver her strong opinions by way of witty literary allusions—her ability to quote appositely on every occasion becomes a hallmark of her style—while imaginatively reconstructing the murder scene. In The James Joyce Murder (1967) Fansler returns from doing research in the country to assist her young nephew who is accused of killing a neighbor. As Heilbrun further developed her feminist critical theory in works such as Reinventing Womanhood, several of the Amanda Cross mysteries began to take on a more political and socially conscious tone, particularly by focusing on the institutional sexism found in many American universities. A female graduate student is murdered in The Question of Max (1976) after she threatens her college's male literary-critical hegemony. In Death in a Tenured Position (1981) Fansler investigates the death of the first woman tenured in the women's studies program at Harvard University, with suspicion falling on the victim's faculty colleagues. An Imperfect Spy (1995) opens with the suspicious death of a woman faculty member at a conservative law school. In 1998 Heilbrun published The Puzzled Heart, in which Fansler's husband Reed is kidnapped by a group opposed to her feminist stance. The ensuing investigation forces Fansler into an extended examination of her personal and professional relationships. Fansler acts as an advisor to a new amateur detective, Estelle “Woody” Woodhaven, in Honest Doubt (2000). Both women investigate the murder of Charles Haycock, a disliked Alfred Tennyson scholar at a small New Jersey college. Throughout the novel, Fansler guides the exasperated Woody through the labyrinth of academic politics. Heilbrun has also published a collection of short stories, The Collected Stories of Amanda Cross (1997), which presents nine short mysteries most of which feature Kate Fansler as the protagonist.
For her works of critical theory, Heilbrun has been consistently lauded for her ability to take complex feminist concepts and translate them into accessible language. Reviewers have praised her emphasis on women's writing and the role of women in literature, describing her analysis as erudite, engaging, and insightful. Though some scholars have derided Heilbrun's unswerving feminist perspective, others have applauded her use of fictional and autobiographical examples to expound on her central arguments. Heilbrun's Amanda Cross mysteries have attracted considerable attention for their complex plotting and positive female role models, despite some critical debate about detective fiction's sustainability as a genre for feminists. Additionally, many critics have complimented Death in a Tenured Position and An Imperfect Spy for raising important questions about the treatment of women by academic and literary institutions. However, some reviewers have questioned the validity of Heilbrun's biography of Gloria Steinem, The Education of a Woman, arguing that her collaboration and friendship with the feminist activist caused Heilbrun to focus on the more positive aspects of Steinem's life and career.
The Garnett Family (nonfiction) 1961
In the Last Analysis [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1964
The James Joyce Murder [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1967
Christopher Isherwood (criticism) 1970
Poetic Justice [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1970
The Theban Mysteries [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1971
Toward a Recognition of Androgyny: Aspects of Male and Female in Literature (criticism) 1973
The Question of Max [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1976
Reinventing Womanhood (essays and criticism) 1979
Death in a Tenured Position [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1981
The Representation of Women in Fiction [editor; with Margaret R. Higgonet] (essays and criticism) 1983
Sweet Death, Kind Death [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1984
No Word from Winifred [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1986
Writing a Woman's Life (essays) 1988
A Trap for Fools [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1989
Hamlet's Mother and Other Women (essays and criticism) 1990
Players Come Again [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1990
The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem (biography) 1995
An Imperfect Spy [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1995
The Collected Stories of Amanda Cross [as Amanda Cross] (short stories) 1997
The Last Gift of Time: Life beyond Sixty (essays) 1997
The Puzzled Heart [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 1998
Women's Lives: The View from the Threshold (lectures) 1999
Honest Doubt [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 2000
Edge of Doom [as Amanda Cross] (novel) 2002
When Men Were the Only Models We Had: My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman, and Trilling (nonfiction) 2002
SOURCE: Hudson, Sara. Review of The Representation of Women in Fiction, edited by Carolyn Heilbrun and Margaret T. Higonnet. Southern Humanities Review 18, no. 2 (spring 1984): 185-88.
[In the following excerpt, Hudson considers the utility and readability of the critical essays collected in The Representation of Women in Fiction.]
The Representation of Women in Fiction is a collection of feminist criticism. In the first of a two-part Introduction, Carolyn Heilbrun celebrates the devotion of the 1981 meeting of the English Institute to a program on women in fiction which, she notes, marks a break in the traditional (marginal) role allotted to women on the...
(The entire section is 692 words.)
SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Two Women with the Kiss of Death.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 May 1984): 6.
[In the following excerpt, Champlin argues that the strength of Sweet Death, Kind Death is Heilbrun's portrayal of academic life.]
There are those who swear by another of the murderous angels, the academic who signs herself Amanda Cross. She is in the English tradition in a sense, recalling the work of other academics (like Michael Innes, who is in reality Prof. J. I. Stewart). The speech of characters is rich with epigram and literary allusions and reads as if it were being written rather than said.
Cross has the added appeal of...
(The entire section is 373 words.)
SOURCE: Reddy, Maureen T. “She Done It.” Women's Review of Books 4, no. 3 (December 1986): 8.
[In the following excerpt, Reddy delineates the role of contemporary feminism in Heilbrun's series of mystery novels, written under the pseudonym Amanda Cross.]
There seem to have been few feminist mysteries between 1935 and 1964, the year that Amanda Cross's first book, In the Last Analysis, appeared. Perhaps they passed rapidly out of print? Were written but not published? Since 1964, Cross has produced a total of eight mysteries, all featuring amateur detective Kate Fansler. Like her creator, who is actually Carolyn Heilbrun, the widely respected feminist...
(The entire section is 686 words.)
SOURCE: McCarthy, Abigail. “Women Who Step Forward: Fasting & the Politics of Carmel.” Commonweal 18, no. 21 (2 December 1988): 647-48.
[In the following review, McCarthy applies Heilbrun's ideas in Writing a Woman's Life to several case studies, including political activist Carol Fennelly's fasting campaign and the dispute at the Morristown Carmel convent.]
I recently reviewed Carolyn Heilbrun's Writing a Woman's Life (W. W. Norton) for another publication. It is a thought-provoking little book about the depiction of women in biography and autobiography. As is often the case with books with interesting theses, or with ideas which interact with my...
(The entire section is 1093 words.)
SOURCE: Sandmaier, Marian. “Outlaw Stories Empower & Inspire.” New Directions for Women 18, no. 1 (January 1989): 20.
[In the following review of Writing a Woman's Life, Sandmaier commends Heilbrun's contention that women need to chronicle the true stories of their lives as well as the female experience as a whole.]
In 1968, novelist and memoirist May Sarton published Plant Dreaming Deep, an exquisitely beautiful meditation on the experience of buying her own home and living alone. The reviews were approving; her readers rapturous. And then Sarton did something extraordinary: She rewrote the story of those bravely told years of aloneness and...
(The entire section is 821 words.)
SOURCE: Toth, Emily. “Questioning the Quest.” Women's Review of Books 6, no. 5 (February 1989): 11.
[In the following excerpt, Toth praises the eloquence, honesty, and wit of the essays in Writing a Woman's Life.]
And certain motives are still not seen as appropriate for women, Carolyn Heilbrun points out brilliantly in Writing a Woman's Life. The romance and marriage plot is still the accepted narrative for a woman's story; the quest narrative of ambition—like Lorin Jones' singleminded concentration on her art—is much harder to shape when the life at the center is a woman's. Polly's first impulse, once she learns that Lorin Jones didn't care about...
(The entire section is 1076 words.)
SOURCE: Simon, Linda. “Biography beyond Gender.” Christian Science Monitor 81, no. 53 (10 February 1989): 13.
[In the following review, Simon derides the lack of sympathy for men as well as the narrow focus of Heilbrun's thesis in Writing a Woman's Life.]
In her latest book, Writing a Woman's Life, feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun asserts that in telling the story of a woman's life, whether in autobiography or biography, that story must be shaped to fit a male narrative—a linear progression of experiences ending in worldly success. There are only a few narratives available to women—the marriage narrative, for example—and except for these, women are...
(The entire section is 774 words.)
SOURCE: Simon, Linda. “The Shape of Women's Lives.” Michigan Quarterly Review 29, no. 1 (winter 1990): 133-39.
[In the following review of Writing a Woman's Life, Simon examines Heilbrun's assertions about the problems and constraints of the genres of female biography and autobiography.]
Biography and autobiography present quite enough problems for critics and scholars even when we do not consider the gender of the subject. What, after all, happens in the process of distilling a life into the pages of a book? How do we perceive the theme and plot of an individual's life? What questions do biographers ask of sources to help them understand a life as it was...
(The entire section is 2986 words.)
SOURCE: Mintz, Lawrence E. “Review Essays.” Journal of Popular Culture 26, no. 1 (summer 1992): 165-71.
[In the following review of Writing a Woman's Life, Mintz compliments Heilbrun as an astute and provocative feminist scholar.]
In the 1960s and 1970s feminist scholars voiced a concerted objection to the patriarchal bias in western intellectual thought. Because scholarship has been dominated by male voices, telling all stories from a male point of view, they argued, women's experience has been ignored, devalued, or wrongly interpreted. Feminist scholars insisted that we listen to women as they tell their own stories, so that we would have a balanced view...
(The entire section is 801 words.)
SOURCE: Vallas, Stacey. Review of Hamlet's Mother and Other Women, by Carolyn Heilbrun. English Language Notes 30, no. 1 (September 1992): 72-3.
[In the following review, Vallas asserts that Hamlet's Mother and Other Women demonstrates Heilbrun's significant role in the progress of literary and gender studies.]
Carolyn Heilbrun begins her Writing a Woman's Life (1988): “There are four ways to write a woman's life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman's life in what is called a biography; or the woman may...
(The entire section is 737 words.)
SOURCE: Robinson, Lillian S. “Postmurderism.” Women's Review of Books 12, nos. 10-11 (July 1995): 32.
[In the following review, Robinson notes the dislocation of structure and content in An Imperfect Spy.]
The distinguished feminist critic Carolyn Heilbrun has been publishing mystery novels under the pseudonym Amanda Cross since 1964. So it was by design that, in 1991, the names of both Heilbrun and Cross appeared on the program of a Texas conference called “Feminist Practice: Representation of Women in Law and Literature.” (I was on the same panel as Cross.)
Ten years earlier, in Cross's Death in a Tenured Position, Professor Kate...
(The entire section is 636 words.)
SOURCE: Feldman, Gayle. “Heilbrun on Steinem, Steinem on Heilbrun.” Publishers Weekly 242, no. 37 (11 September 1995): 25-6, 30.
[In the following essay, Feldman explores the collaboration between Heilbrun and Gloria Steinem, which resulted in The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem.]
She's the woman who told the world, “This is what 40 looks like,” and made many yearn to look just like that.
She's been treated as an icon—and as a pinup. For years, her life has been picked over for public delectation.
There was the childhood spent alternately on the road or in a bathing suit at the lakeside resort her family...
(The entire section is 2378 words.)
SOURCE: Winik, Marion. “Heilbrun for the Defense.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 October 1995): 2, 7.
[In the following review, Winik contends that The Education of a Woman “reads like a biography written by the subject's feminist-academic-maiden-aunt—too careful, too dry and too doting.”]
When I heard that Carolyn Heilbrun had written a biography of Gloria Steinem [The Education of a Woman], I was excited. Heilbrun's book Writing a Woman's Life has been required reading in women's studies classes since its publication in 1988 as a pioneering framework for understanding the lives of “women who write their own scripts.” As Steinem...
(The entire section is 1338 words.)
SOURCE: Gornick, Vivian. “What Feminism Looks Like.” Nation 261, no. 15 (6 November 1995): 544-46.
[In the following review, Gornick maintains that one of the major thematic concerns of The Education of a Woman is the impact of Steinem's beauty and femininity on her life and career.]
The first woman astronaut went up into space and, standing on the ground, her mother cried, “God bless Gloria Steinem!”
The women's movement, in a moment of disarray, needed an enemy within, and it cried, “Gloria Steinem!”
Asked in a small city why she had never married, Steinem said for the television cameras, “I wanted women to see...
(The entire section is 1589 words.)
SOURCE: Breines, Wini. “Career Feminist.” Women's Review of Books 13, no. 3 (December 1995): 8-9.
[In the following review, Breines criticizes The Education of a Woman, arguing that the biography is “strangely transparent, an unmessy narrative of Steinem's admirable life with little attention to depth, complications, or contradictions.”]
Carolyn Heilbrun writes Gloria Steinem's life [in The Education of a Woman], as an uncomplicated story. Steinem was born into a white lower-middle-class family in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio. She spent many years parenting her seriously troubled mother, eventually went to Smith College, traveled in India and returned to...
(The entire section is 2224 words.)
SOURCE: King, Florence. “The Mud Turtle's Progress.” National Review 48, no. 1 (29 January 1996): 62-4.
[In the following review, King offers a negative assessment of The Education of a Woman, asserting that Heilbrun's inability to objectively portray her subject is “maddening.”]
The parable of the mud turtle comes at the end of this hagiographic book, but it so perfectly illustrates the feminist blind spot of both biographer and subject that I shall start with it.
Here is how Gloria Steinem claims she learned to respect the right to self-determination:
During a science field trip in college, she found a turtle beside...
(The entire section is 1235 words.)
SOURCE: Young, Cathy. “Pretty-Power.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4861 (31 May 1996): 11.
[In the following review of The Education of a Woman, Young argues that Heilbrun's biased view of her subject compromises the biography as a serious study of Steinem's life and work.]
If there is one person whose name has been a symbol of American feminism in the past twenty years, it is Gloria Steinem. As journalist, activist and bestselling writer, Steinem has been a charismatic and controversial figure. Many, from the movement veteran Betty Friedan in the 1970s to dissidents like Christina Hoff Sommers today, have criticized her for promoting a gender-war ideology...
(The entire section is 1167 words.)
SOURCE: Zilversmit, Annette. “Free at Last.” Women's Review of Books 15, no. 4 (January 1998): 10-11.
[In the following review, Zilversmit praises the essays in The Last Gift of Time as courageous and inspiring looks at the process of aging.]
“Not to change one's life is not to keep living,” wrote Virginia Woolf. To open with a quote from Woolf is appropriate for a review of Carolyn Heilbrun's moving memoir-reflection [The Last Gift of Time]. It is obviously appropriate for those who know this feminist's writing on Virginia Woolf, who shattered the “appropriate” for women with her life and art. It is appropriate because Heilbrun's direct but...
(The entire section is 1803 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Last Gift of Time, by Carolyn Heilbrun. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care 35, no. 2 (April-June 1999): 2, 36.
[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of The Last Gift of Time, praising the collection as entertaining and insightful.]
May Sarton's readers will remember Carolyn Heilbrun as Sarton's friend and critic. I also remember a scathing article Heilbrun once wrote in the New York Times Magazine about sexism in the English department at Columbia University. Heilbrun is a well-known feminist writer and biographer of Gloria Steinem.
As the title suggests [The Last Gift of...
(The entire section is 1200 words.)
SOURCE: Emsley, Sarah. Review of Women's Lives: The View from the Threshold, by Carolyn Heilbrun. Dalhousie Review 79, no. 3 (autumn 1999): 425-27.
[In the following review, Emsley compliments Heilbrun's portrayal of the challenges that women face in the modern world in Women's Lives, but concludes that the work's conclusion is incomplete and unsatisfying.]
Carolyn G. Heilbrun's Women's Lives is composed of the four Alexander lectures she delivered at the University of Toronto in 1997. The University of Toronto Press summary and introduction to Heilbrun's lectures (i-ii) lists her as part of “a line of distinguished scholarly work with such...
(The entire section is 1238 words.)
SOURCE: Dever, Carolyn. “The Feminist Abject: Death and the Constitution of Theory.” Studies in the Novel 32, no. 2 (summer 2000): 185-206.
[In the following essay, Dever comments on the state of feminism through an exploration of the relationship between academic and personal life in Marilyn French's The Women's Room and Heilbrun's Death in a Tenured Position.]
The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance.
—Julia Kristeva, The Powers of...
(The entire section is 10436 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Honest Doubt, by Amanda Cross. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 45 (6 November 2000): 74.
[In the following review, the critic asserts that the plot in Honest Doubt draws from many autobiographical elements of Heilbrun's own life.]
In her 13th Kate Fansler novel (after The Puzzled Heart), Cross lets her mask of pseudonymity slip [in Honest Doubt], building her plot and characters out of the myriad impressions of vicious, small-minded academic infighting she has amassed as the real-life Carolyn C. Heilbrun, Columbia University humanities prof and past president of the Modern Language Association. Introducing a new investigator,...
(The entire section is 295 words.)
SOURCE: Merkin, Daphne. “A Fantasy of Empowerment.” New Leader 84, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 43-5.
[In the following review of When Men Were the Only Models We Had, Merkin praises the work's scholarship, commenting that Heilbrun “affords us an inside look at the conflicted and not always straightforward route she took in carving out a piece of intellectual turf to call her own.”]
Since the beginning of post-Gutenbergian time, when the first young woman with a writerly gleam in her eye looked up from her loom and gazed pensively into space instead of attending to her weaving, it has been hard for both men and women to reconcile intellectual...
(The entire section is 2297 words.)
SOURCE: Hart, Jeffrey. “A Lost Lady.” New Criterion 20, no. 5 (January 2002): 65-8.
[In the following review of When Men Were the Only Models We Had, Hart provides a scathing indictment of Heilbrun's book, asserting that “we witness the melancholy sight of a mind in ideologically induced disintegration.”]
This is an extraordinary book [When Men Were the Only Models We Had], I am relieved to say. If Mr. Kurtz had kicked free of the earth, as Conrad wrote, the Columbia English professor Carolyn Heilbrun has kicked free at least from common sense and immensely shared human experience. The “woman's movement,” she tells us, struck her as an...
(The entire section is 2173 words.)