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
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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 past thirty-nine programs of the Institute. Three of the six essays in this collection were presented as Institute papers: “Fictional Consensus and Female Casualties,” by Elizabeth Ermarth; “The Birth of the Artist as Heroine: (Re)production, the Künstlerroman Tradition, and the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield,” by Susan Gubar; and “Writing (from) the Feminine: George Sand and the Novel of Female Pastoral,” by Nancy K. Miller. Of the remaining three essays, one was also presented as a paper, “Liberty, Sorority, Misogyny,” by Jane Marcus; the other two were written for this collection: “Herself Against Herself: The Clarification of Clara Middleton,” by J. Hillis Miller; and “Persuasion and the Promises of...
(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 writing as a vigorous feminist whose academic heroine, Kate Fansler, treats her husband as a minor adjunct of some limited usefulness in certain legal situations but who can trade citations (one of Martin Buber for two of Stevie Smith) in a way that makes life a perpetual High Table.
In her latest, Sweet Death, Kind Death (from a Stevie Smith poem), Cross sends Kate off to a small college where another academic woman has seemingly weighted herself with rocks and walked into the campus lake to drown. Unlikely.
It is a good enough puzzle, although as always in Cross' books, the strength is in the incidental music about academic life—the bitchery, the treacheries large and small born of ruthless...
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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 scholar, Kate is a professor of English at Columbia University with a fine appreciation of the absurd.
The most recent Cross mystery owes a great deal to Gaudy Night: concerned less with crime and punishment than with the ways in which character, particularly female character, is shaped, No Word from Winifred is an unusual mystery novel. Although the ostensible object of Kate's investigation is a missing woman named Winifred, the real subjects of the book are women's changing social position and women's relationships with each other; in some ways, this book is about the effect of twenty-odd years of contemporary feminism on women's lives. Cross places Kate on the cusp of two eras. In her forties, she now has a...
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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 own, I find it coloring my thought about events in the news.
Columbia professor Heilbrun holds that the truthful telling of a woman's life—even the self-telling (and even the authentic living of it)—has been impossible until very recently because of the age-old view of woman's role. “Anonymity, we have long believed, is the proper condition of women,” she says. To be a woman has meant “to put a man at the center of one's life and to allow to occur only what honors his prime position. Occasionally women have put God or Christ in the place of a man; the results are the same: one's own desires and quests are always secondary.” Women have not been allowed ambition, self-realization, or the acquisition of power...
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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 called it Journal of a Solitude: now a furious, pain-charged account of struggle and survival. The year was 1973. The mask was lifted; the pretense over.
The publication of Sarton's twice-told tale marks a genuine watershed in women's autobiography, contends Carolyn T. Heilbrun in her passionately argued, revelatory book, Writing a Woman's Life. It was, she says, the first deliberate attempt to set the record straight on a woman's own experience: to reject the blandly passive, culturally sanctioned stories women have been permitted to tell about themselves—or have told about them in biography—and to expose to the world one's anger, dreams of power and the unapologetic struggle to set the course of one's life....
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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 anything except her painting, is to portray her as spiteful, sly and selfish—the usual condemnations for a woman who puts her own dreams first.
Let's look at it another way, says Heilbrun in these eloquent essays. Why do women who are public achievers not present themselves as powerful? Women like Ida Tarbell and Jane Addams, she says, have written their autobiographies as if they were passive agents of destiny, as if their causes, like seducers, sought and courted them. But their letters show that the women were actually powerful and tireless fighters to change the world. Did Tarbell, Addams and their sisters see ambition as the dirtiest of female secrets? As Heilbrun notes, the ambitious and passionate George Sand was in...
(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 bereft of a story.
Like many other feminist critics, Heilbrun draws on a small population of women to support her views. Sylvia Plath, for one, and Virginia Woolf, Colette, and George Sand. Eudora Welty annoys Heilbrun because she is too sentimental and nostalgic. “I do not believe in the bittersweet quality” of Welty's memoir, One Writer's Beginnings, Heilbrun writes. “Nostalgia, particularly for childhood, is likely to be a mask for unrecognized anger.” Ida Tarbell's autobiography, All in the Day's Work, also fails to reveal anger, according to Heilbrun.
Women who do not reveal anger are, in Heilbrun's view, repressing the true quality of their lives. But men who reveal anger,...
(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 lived? What criteria should we apply when evaluating a biography or autobiography as a work of literature or history?
These problems are compounded when we decide to compare the biographies and autobiographies of women with those of men; and, inevitably, the lives of women with the lives of men. What is the difference—is there a difference—in the shape of women's and men's life stories?
It is this last question that complicates the whole enterprise of feminist literary criticism, whether focused on fiction, poetry, or such non-fiction as biography and autobiography. There are many reasons for differences in texts: cultural, historical, sociological, psychological reasons, that have nothing to do with...
(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 of human experience. It sounded reasonable enough, but for almost three decades, feminist scholars have been wrestling with an intellectual puzzle: if we accept the argument that western knowledge is flawed by a fundamental patriarchal bias, how can we find informants who will have resisted the patriarchal consciousness, informants who will have viewed their own experience with a female mind's eye? In short, how can a woman tell her own story if she has been indoctrinated with a male point of view?
The first answer was to look at women's experience “objectively,” and so in the first wave of feminist scholarship, social scientists frequently led the way. Like the cliometricians who described slavery by measuring calories...
(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 write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.” Hamlet's Mother and Other Women, a collection of Heilbrun's essays, reviews, and addresses spanning the years 1957 to 1988, also explores these modes of biography as well as the construction of female character by male artists and critics—in short, the multiplicitous means of “writing” women's lives. As the volume's title suggests, with its joining of a fictional female character with “other women,” both fictive and actual, and with its substitution of “women” for the expected “essays,” Heilbrun is interested in pursuing the connections between fiction and lived experience, between the models and narratives...
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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 Fansler, tired of teaching Middlemarch (“even Middlemarch”) at her Columbia-like university, took off for Harvard to untangle the events surrounding the appointment, mistreatment and death of the first tenured woman in that institution's English Department. Now, in 1995, Fansler is still tired of teaching Middlemarch—tireder, perhaps, since there's not even an “even,” this time. So, in An Imperfect Spy, she takes a busman's holiday to teach a seminar at a reactionary local law school. And what is the topic of this seminar? None other than “Women in Law and Literature.” Intertextuality being the name of the game in this novel (which relies on significant references to Tess of the d'Urbervilles,...
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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 struggled to run; the years from 10 through 17, after her parents' divorce, taking care of a mother whose mind wandered in and out of reality; the escape to Smith College and the life of the 1950s “good girl”; the sojourn in India, long before it became fashionable to do so; her discovery of journalism, and journalism's discovery in the '60s of a miniskirted “darling,” who was condescended to as a sexy career girl or treated seriously—as an honorary man; the early '70s feminist epiphany and founding of Ms.; and the past quarter-century living as gadfly extraordinaire for causes great and small. Not to mention two bestsellers along the way—Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Holt, 1983) and Revolution from...
(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 is undoubtedly one such woman, this seemed an inspired pairing of biographer and subject.
Indeed, the “serious” parts of Steinem's story are well-told: her difficult, poverty-stricken childhood with a mentally ill mother and a lovable but irresponsible father; the formation of her ideas during a post-college year spent in India; the evolution of her feminism in the '60s and '70s, and the trials and tribulations of Ms. magazine are presented cogently and insightfully, as are the personal changes she went through when she reached the age of 50. But Gloria Steinem is a feminist icon because of the colorful life she's led and the fun she's had, as well as what she has had to overcome. Heilbrun's careful telling of...
(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 that you could not marry, and still have an interesting life.” In the studio people applauded wildly.
A few years ago, watching her drift through a roomful of intellectual women—it was not her crowd, she could find no easy place to touch down—I heard a scientist ask, “What exactly is it that she does?” and a critic replied, “It's not what she does, it's what she arouses in others.”
Gloria Steinem belongs to a generation of feminists that includes Kate Millett, Ellen Willis, Betty Friedan and Susan Brownmiller, yet she alone became its enduring emblematic figure. She is to feminism what Yasir Arafat is to the Palestinians: an incarnation, a figure of powerful suggestiveness, a...
(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 US to become a journalist. She is independent, has had many lovers but never married or had children; as Heilbrun points out, she is an uncommon woman whose life has been determined only by herself. (Heilbrun argues that in this Steinem is more radical than many feminists who have chosen the security of marriage and children.) Steinem has always had sympathy for the underdog and has unselfishly committed herself to causes larger than herself. In 1969 she became, or understood that she was, a feminist, and has devoted her life to feminism ever since.
Steinem appears to have been unusually ambitious and energetic in the pursuit of power and celebrity, albeit for good causes, but Heilbrun never considers ambition as a...
(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 a road. Afraid that it would get run over, she picked it up and carried it back into the woods where it would be safe—only to be told by her professor that it had probably taken the turtle weeks to reach the muddy shoulder where she wanted to lay her eggs, but now, thanks to Miss Steinem's help, she would have to start all over again.
“It was a lesson Steinem never forgot,” writes Carolyn G. Heilbrun.
Really? Coulda fooled me. Miss Steinem has made a career of meddling in women's egg-laying habits and taking them where she thinks they ought to be. Now, in what is tactfully known as post-feminism, they are faced with the task of starting all over again.
Writing a biography [The...
(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 (though in the 1970s, some radicals also attacked her as too bourgeois). Others, more sympathetic to her politics, have been troubled by her recent plunge into New Age-flavoured pursuits such as inner healing and building self-esteem.
Now comes a lengthy, frankly partisan biography of Steinem whose author, the writer and academic Carolyn Heilbrun, is somewhat controversial in her own right (in 1992, announcing her voluntary retirement from Columbia University, she criticized the university as a male bastion where she felt beleaguered). Heilbrun chronicles Steinem's difficult childhood, plagued by poverty and her mother's mental illness; her entry into a more privileged world as a student at prestigious Smith College; her...
(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 supple prose is sp(l)iced with quotations from other authors, mostly women, offering what critic Laura Levitt has called “textual embraces.”
But this Woolfian aphorism is necessary as well as appropriate, because, in spite of what the book's title seems to suggest, this collection of essays is not the smooth continuing saga of the life and thought of a pioneer feminist mover during her seventh decade; it reflects the changing, the “re-imagining” once more of a woman's life that until 1992 looked like the fulfillment of Heilbrun's own directives as set down in her 1979 book Reinventing Womanhood.
By her 66th year, Heilbrun had been a professor for more than thirty years in Columbia...
(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 Time], this book is a collection of essays about life after 60. For those of us around this age, or working with patients around this age, it will strike many familiar chords. In the preface, Heilbrun cites several other recent books about women aging. These include Doris Grumbach's Coming into the End Zone as well as Sarton's last four journals: At Seventy: A Journal; Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth Year; Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year; and At Eighty Two: A Journal. Heilbrun sees her senior years as more blessed than those of Grumbach and Sarton. She credits her close friendship with women as an advantage over Grumbach, who lived in a world of male writers. As for Sarton, Heilbrun...
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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 previous lecturers as Walter Ong, Robertson Davies, and Northrop Frye,” but then goes on to suggest that “Heilbrun, within this distinguished genealogy, reworks the very notion of the line, creating a new pattern of writing and approaching literary culture.”
Heilbrun does challenge the notion of linearity as a model of successful literature, invoking in her second chapter, “The Evolution of the Female Memoir,” Susan Winnett's argument in an article on “Women, Men, Narrative, and the Principles of Pleasure,” which asks “Is there … always the same ‘master plot’ imitating linear male sexuality, or do some narratives reflect female sexual experience?” (Heilbrun 33). Heilbrun says that “Women may be said to...
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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 Horror1
When Ginny Babcock, the wealthy, white, Southern protagonist of Lisa Alther's Kinflicks (1976), moves from Cambridge to Vermont to live in a women's collective with her lesbian lover Eddie, she soon grows impatient with the pieties of her liberationist friends. That impatience swiftly yields poetic justice, however, as Ginny's irritants are hoisted, jointly and severally, by their own petards. First falls Laverne, best known for her close relationship with an enormous vibrator; Ginny writes, “Just then there was a scream and a sizzling sound from upstairs, and all the lights went out.”2 Putting out the electrical fire, Ginny and her friends find Laverne, charred and apparently dead,...
(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, heavy, mid-30ish, motorcycle riding PI Estelle “Woody” Woodhaven, Cross pulls Fansler onto the sidelines to serve as charming adviser in a murder case set at insular, fictitious Clifton College in New Jersey. When Charles Haycock, a reactionary Tennyson scholar, drops dead at a Christmas party, poisoned via an overdose of heart medicine placed in his private bottle of Greek retsina, Woody is hired by Clifton's English department to find the killer. Soon she turns to Fansler in despair at academicians' double-talk. In a gentle, courtly style that rubs off awkwardly on the much-younger Woody, college professor Fansler shares her rueful insights into the bias and petty tyrannical oldboying that has mired contemporary academia in irrelevance...
(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 aspirations with the demands of domesticity—not to mention the perceived imperatives of femininity. Yeats may have famously ruminated on the inherent conflict between ordinary preoccupations and the single-mindedness of an artistic calling in his poem “The Choice”—“The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work”—but until fairly recently this was presumed to afflict mainly those of the male persuasion. There can be little doubt that historical role models for socially well-adapted brainy women have ever been in short supply, as opposed to the many cautionary instances of lonely bluestocking or alcoholic poetess types.
I can remember as a graduate student in the English Department at...
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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 overwhelming and liberating development. She appears here to be interested in absolutely nothing except the situation of women as she sees it. I called this book extraordinary, not intending that as a celebration. If the emotions and ideas that inform it came to prevail generally, life would not be worth living.
When you know that she has written a book on androgyny, you understand that we are in serious trouble. In 1997 she published The Last Gift of Time: Life beyond Sixty. She reflected on turning sixty, not wearing clothes that are distinctively female, and gaining a lot of weight as if deliberately to destroy whatever attractiveness she might have had. The age sixty moment causes her to consider committing suicide,...
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Gerrard, Nicci. “Who Cares Whodunnit?” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 88 (16 February 1990): 38.
Gerrard praises A Trap for Fools, noting that the work “possesses amiability and zest.”
Grumman, Joan. Review of The Representation of Women in Fiction, edited by Carolyn Heilbrun and Margaret T. Higonnet. Modern Fiction Studies 30, no. 2 (summer 1984): 425-28.
Grumman argues that The Representation of Women in Fiction successfully illustrates the progress of women's literary studies.
Manos, Nikki Lee. “Heilbrun's Apologia.” Belles Lettres 6, no. 3 (spring 1991): 23.
Manos maintains that in Hamlet's Mother and Other Essays Heilbrun writes clearly and elegantly, which, she asserts, should prompt others to explore and celebrate women's writing.
McCarthy, Abigail. “Alternate Destinies and Imagined Identities.” Washington Post Book World 18, no. 45 (6 November 1988): 5-6.
McCarthy states that the primary aim of Writing a Woman's Life is to “help by examining women's lives anew and suggesting new ways they might be written.”
Mesic, Penelope. “Steinem's Lives: Exploring the Growth of a Celebrated Feminist.” Chicago Tribune Books (8 October 1995): 3, 5.
(The entire section is 287 words.)