Carolyn Heilbrun Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.