Nina Joan Auerbach (OW-ur-bahk) emerged as one of the twentieth century’s most important feminist critics. With thorough research and a graceful prose style, Auerbach made many significant contributions to the growth and development of feminist literary criticism. She was also often described as one of the most inventive and imaginative critics of literature.
She was born on May 24, 1943, in New York City, to writer Arnold Malcolm Auerbach and Justine Rubin Auerbach. Her parents assumed important nurturing roles in her writing career. Auerbach publicly thanked her parents for their constant support, and their names appear on the acknowledgment pages of such works as Romantic Imprisonment.
After graduating from high school, Auerbach earned a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1964 and then continued her higher education at Columbia University. She completed her M.A. (with honors) in 1967 and her Ph.D. (with distinction) in 1970. While a graduate student, Auerbach began researching and writing about women in Victorian literature, an area she consistently continued to mine throughout her career. The result of one of her first journeys into this territory was an essay written while she was a graduate student, about Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853). For the next several decades, Victorian literary studies continued to yield good returns for Auerbach. Her works on the subject include Communities of Women, Woman and the Demon, and Romantic Imprisonment.
Auerbach’s first work, Communities of Women, is a comparative study which traces the evolution of the image of female communities throughout two centuries of British and American novels. Several critics called the work innovative. Woman and the Demon received high praise for its daring feminist interpretations of such classics as Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), William Makepeace Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond (1852), and Bronte’s Villette. This work, Auerbach’s second full-length study, probes deeply into Victorian society in order to expose how the myths and taboos of the culture oppressed and repressed women of this era. Relying on various sources, including, but not limited to, works of literature, Auerbach works like an archaeologist to demonstrate how fragments of popular artifacts can be put together to reveal a Victorian society that has often been ignored or dismissed. Auerbach’s efforts resulted in a work of feminist scholarship that is comparable in scope and quality to the landmark feminist studies A Literature of Their Own (1977), by Elaine Showalter, and The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
Auerbach influenced the trends of feminist literary scholarship, but she had role models of her own. According to Auerbach, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Ellen Moers’s Literary Women (1976) made deep, lasting impressions on her and her work. In 1970, when Auerbach was just beginning her scholarly career, Millett sparked a desire in her to write feminist literary criticism. With Literary Women, Moers provided “a local habitation and a creed” for Auerbach’s persistent interest in women’s literature.
Auerbach’s critical stance, however, did not remain fixed. The focus of her work altered, and the feminist literary theory that informed her work no longer dominated. With Romantic Imprisonment, a collection of essays written throughout her career, she illustrated how her own critical perceptions had evolved. For Auerbach, good criticism has always been that which has an autobiographical origin, and as the essays of this collection reveal, Auerbach’s critical vision is one that is flexible enough to accommodate changes in attitude and personal circumstances. In Forbidden Journeys, she devotes her energies to the examination and explanation of the importance of myths in literature. Our Vampires, Ourselves is an exploration of...
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