A Jury of Her Peers

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1689

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.

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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 virtue of writing a combined work of literary history and literary criticism in one volume is that Showalter can reveal the conditions out of which great work is created. She notes, for example, that for every great poem Emily Dickinson wrote she had behind her another ten that were flawed. It is also suggestive, Showalter notes, that Dickinson was at her most productive during the Civil War, even though her poetry does not deal explicitly with that crucial event. Literature is not created in a vacuum, and it is to Showalter’s credit that she is able to write so cogently about the way writers interact with their environments.

If by the 1850’s women were capable of writing best sellers, that ability did not earn them the respect of the critical establishment, Showalter demonstrates. Indeed, male authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne complained about having to compete with popular female novelists. Other male writers suggested that women had no business trying to write great literature because they tended to write about domestic matters rather than taking on the important subjects of war and world events. Even the most successful women writerssuch as Willa Cather and Edith Whartonshared this male bias and scorned the literature produced by their sex. Those such as Amy Lowell who openly competed with male poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were rejected as merely ambitious interlopers. Other successful poets, such as Marianne Moore, were careful to avoid lyrical poetry that reflected their feelings, opting instead for “objective,” hard-edged poems about animals that cultivated an impersonal air.

Showalter takes her title from a story by Susan Glaspell, a playwright contemporary of Eugene O’Neill who worked with him at the Provincetown Playhouse. Glaspell’s story, which she also turned into a play retitled Trifles (pr. 1916, pb. 1917), makes the point that women have not been perceived as the peers of men and therefore their work has not been evaluated with the respect automatically given to that of male authors. The irony is that Glaspell herself and her story were largely forgotten until her peers, women, rediscovered her in the 1970’s. Until then, most journals, reference works, and other venues where American literature was assessed did not even include women on their editorial boards. Women writers were, in other words, virtually invisible. Thus, Showalter sees her work as building on a generation of feminist scholars who have brought back into literary consciousness the work of Glaspell and others such as Mary Hunter Austin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Tess Slesinger, Jean Stafford, Gwendolyn Brooks, Shirley Jackson, Diane Johnson, Marilynne Robinson, and Gish Jen.

Quite aside from the important writers Showalter does not discussfor example, Evelyn Scott, Caroline Gordon, Mary Lee Settle, and Dawn PowellShowalter sometimes seems curiously neglectful of her contemporaries. She barely mentions Susan Sontag, even though Sontag is a shining example of a woman who was able to compete successfully among New York intellectuals and become a cultural figure in ways they could not. Similarly, Showalter’s treatment of Lillian Hellman is perfunctory: There is no mention of the way she triumphed as a feminist icon in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Moreover, Hellman’s plays are barely acknowledged. Showalter’s comment that The Children’s Hour (pr., pb. 1934) is dated because it deals with lesbianism is perplexing. Certainly, the play no longer has the shock value of its first production, but the work is hardly just about lesbianism. Showalter might as well dismiss William Shakespeare because Americans are no longer monarchists. Her take on Hellman is certainly acceptable, if debatable, in academia, but theater professionals and American audiences do not share this disparaging view and have made Hellman’s plays a part of the canon irrespective of academic judgments.

Even more disturbing is Showalter’s failure to discuss the strides feminists have made in American biography, beginning with Nancy Milford’s landmark biography of Zelda Fitzgerald and continuing with the work of Elinor Langer, Deirdre Bair, Marion Meade, Stacy Schiff, and many other women writers who have taken on biographical subjects that were once almost the exclusive privilege of male biographers or have identified female subjects that male biographers have overlooked or discounted. Apparently, Showalter accepts the academic bias against biographythat the genre is not itself to be classified as literaturebut the consequence of this attitude is to obscure the way women biographers have reshaped the American literary canon and American history through their treatment of both male and female figures. It is as if the academic world and its ideas of what constitute literature are the only arbiter in A Jury of Her Peers.

The irony is that Showalter relies in many cases on biography in order to construct her narrative. Her notes cite the relevant biographies on which she has drawn, yet she seems not to realize that those very biographies are not only part of the history and the assessments she is intent on pursuing but also make possible the very history she has written. Thus, she does not discuss the reasons why is biography as a genre made its appeal to women writers beginning in the 1970’s. Nor does she adequately explore how these women writers became the jury of peers that she showcases. Omitting American women biographers harms Showalter’s assessment of women writers, as well as her understanding of how literary history is made.

Even with its gaps and questionable judgments, however, A Jury of Her Peers is an astonishing tour de force and a courageous effort to advance women’s studies beyond the stage of celebrating its writers and deploring the reactionary male critical establishment. Showalter suggests that the literary playing field for women is now on a par with that for men. As creative writers and critics, women have achieved their goal: to be judged by their peers, men and women no longer held back by prejudices against the very idea that women can create great literature. In the long run, A Jury of Her Peers is bound to have a positive impact, encouraging new generations of scholars to exercise their judgment by holding women and men to the same standard of literary excellence.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 66

America 200, no. 17 (May 25, 2009): 23-24.

Booklist 105, no. 9/10 (January 1, 2009): 35.

Commentary 127, no. 6 (June, 2009): 74-76.

Commonweal 136, no. 17 (October 9, 2009): 22-23.

The Economist 390, no. 8619 (February 21, 2009): 83-84.

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The New York Times Book Review, March 8, 2009, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 1 (January 5, 2009): 40-41.

The Times Literary Supplement, May 8, 2009, pp. 11-12.

Weekly Standard 14, no. 42 (July 27, 2009): 32-34.

Women’s Review of Books 26, no. 4 (July/August, 2009): 5-7.

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