A Jury of Her Peers

The daunting nature of Elaine Showalter’s task in A Jury of Her Peers is made apparent by simply noting that the book is the first comprehensive history and assessment of American women writers ever to be published. Even though feminist literary criticism and history have produced an impressive body of work, including several anthologies meant to recover neglected masterpieces and other significant work out of print and forgotten, no scholar has essayed a book-length overview of the achievements of women writers in the United States. To do so invites controversyas Showalter acknowledges in observing that feminist critics have hesitated to make qualitative judgments, wishing to be inclusive of the many women writers who for centuries have not received their due. She believes, however, that the first phase of fully acknowledging women writersthe discovery period begun in the 1970’sis over and that it is time to write a selective history and assessment of those women writers who belong in the American literary canon.

If Showalter had been content only to produce a work of literary history, she could have avoided some of the judgments that reviewers of her book have made concerning her choices. Some reviewers have questioned, for example, the decision to write about Pearl Buck but not Eleanor Clark when they see the latter as manifestly the superior writer. The answer to this question is perhaps that, because Buck was the first woman writer to win the Nobel Prize and because her work has had such an impact on American culture, she deserves a place more than Clark, who appeals to a much smaller audience. This seems like a weak argument, howeverone that Showalter would not have to entertain if she had written a two-volume work. Such a work could have comprised one volume of more objective history followed by a second putting forward a more programmatic argument about which authors covered in the first volume ought to be included in the American literary canon.

The writers that Showalter does discussand there are over 250 of themare, for the most part, presented with considerable flair and concision. Especially noteworthy are Showalter’s discussions of Anne Bradstreet, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Annie Proulx. The examinations of these three authors stand out, in part, because they exemplify Showalter at her bestmelding historical context with literary achievement. Bradstreet, a dutiful Puritan daughter and wife, nevertheless faced the daunting prospect of life in a new world and was able to write poetry that remains profound and affecting. Stowe, in Showalter’s narrative, is a towering figure not only because of the pervasive influence of her great novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (serial, 1851-1852; book, 1852) but also because of Stowe’s literary experimentation, especially in Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), a work that deserves to be set against the finest achievements in the American novel. Proulx emerges as a true groundbreaker, a woman competing with male authors on their own territory by refashioning the view of the American West in stories such as “Brokeback Mountain” (1997, revised 1999).

For the most part, Showalter eschews sociological explanations as to why very few American women created great literature before the twentieth century, but she does offer the following explanations: Many women believed that their families came first; others had to put up with and were obstructed by husbands who resented their wives’ dedication to literary labors; and middle-class American women writers, unlike their British counterparts, did not usually have servants and were far more directly involved in the day-to-day details of housework and homemaking. The British class system, in other words, actually worked in favor of certain women writers who could assign menial tasks to their servants. Then, too, only a few of the men in charge of the literary establishment were disposed to publish work by women. In this context, those women who did become best-selling novelists seem all the more impressive for their initiative and determination....

(The entire section is 1689 words.)