Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Susan Gubar 1944-

(Full name Susan David Gubar) American editor and literary critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Gubar's career through 2000.

A distinguished professor of English at Indiana University, Gubar is a leading feminist literary critic who has principally and frequently collaborated with Sandra Gilbert, another esteemed critic and professor, to produce innovative works of criticism revealing the characteristics of a distinctly female literary tradition and style. The pair co-edited The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), which literary scholars worldwide have acknowledged as a seminal work of American feminist studies. With accessible prose and intelligent argumentation, this groundbreaking work challenges the authority of the Western literary canon on the basis of its nearly complete exclusion of women writers, introducing as well the idea of “anxiety of authorship” as a fundamental condition of women writers, particularly those of the nineteenth century. Gubar and Gilbert have also jointly edited the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985), which is the first collection to gather a varied range of women's writings in English from the fourteenth century to the present. Besides co-authoring other feminist studies and an original satirical piece with Gilbert, Gubar has produced literary criticism with other scholars and has also published two studies as an individual author, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (1997) and Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century (2000). While critics have generally hailed The Madwoman in the Attic as a landmark work of both feminist studies and literary scholarship, the study has also provoked hostility from some scholars who have denounced its middle-class, white, heterosexual perspective. Such critical responses to this and subsequent works by Gubar and Gilbert have promoted the growth of an increasingly diversified body of scholarship on women's literary experiences.

Biographical Information

Born in 1944, Gubar attended Queens College of the City University of New York, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1965. She received a master's degree from the University of Michigan in 1968 and a doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1972. The following year Gubar joined the English faculty at Indiana University, where she met and quickly befriended Gilbert. Together, they launched their successful collaborative venture in feminist studies with the publication of Shakespeare's Sisters (1979), a collection of critical essays on women poets written from a decidedly feminist viewpoint. That same year, Gubar and Gilbert published the critically acclaimed work that catapulted them to national prominence, The Madwoman in the Attic, which received a nomination for the National Book Critics Award for outstanding book criticism in 1979. As critical debate about their ideas escalated during the early 1980s, academic publishers W. W. Norton & Company approached Gubar and Gilbert with a project idea that resulted in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, for which Gubar was named Woman of the Year in 1986 by Ms. magazine. Gubar next collaborated with Gilbert on the ambitious three-volume study No Man's Land (1988, 1989, 1994), which defines literary modernism in terms of gender warfare for possession of literary authority. Meanwhile, Gubar co-edited with other scholars the essay collections For Adult Users Only (1989) and English Inside and Out (1992), which deal with violence in pornography and the place of women literary critics within the largely male-dominated discipline, respectively. In 1995, Gubar and Gilbert published Masterpiece Theatre, a satire on university life, and Mothersongs, a collection of poetry written by, for, and about mothers and motherhood. Since then, Gubar has authored two books on her own, Racechanges, a critical examination of cross-racial and transsexual imagery in various media, and Critical Condition, a collection of essays evaluating the status of feminist studies at the turn of twentieth century. Gubar has continued to teach English at Indiana University and to lecture extensively, frequently accompanied by Gilbert.

Major Works

A study of women writers in the nineteenth century, The Madwoman in the Attic describes several key developments in the history of women's writing. Through close biographical and textual readings of the works of female novelists—ranging from Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and Mary Shelley to George Eliot and Emily Dickinson—this work traces the evolution of a distinctly feminine narrative style that developed in reaction to the male-dominated literary discourse that prevailed at the time in which these authors wrote. According to the study's thesis, because nineteenth-century women writers were forced to write within limits dictated by a patriarchal literary tradition that equated the pen with the penis, women writers were largely viewed as trespassers in a male domain and either condemned as unfeminine or ridiculed as “lady novelists” and “female poetasters.” Gubar and Gilbert argue that women writers grew both afraid that they lacked the ability to express themselves artistically and angry that pervasive patriarchal attitudes toward women trapped them in such a position. In short, The Madwoman in the Attic demonstrates that by channeling those emotions and experiences into language, nineteenth-century women writers developed not only a uniquely feminine style, but also a language that subverts patriarchal ideology. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (Gubar and Gilbert's next work) is an encyclopedic collection of writings by women in English, chronologically arranged from the fourteenth century to the mid-1980s, including selections by minority, working-class, commonwealth, and lesbian women. The introduction to this volume reiterates the existence of a female literary tradition, while the selected works detail the evolution of female styles and subjects within that tradition. No Man's Land, a three-volume collaborative effort with Gilbert, posits that the radical departures that characterize modernism originate not only from social, political, and economic factors but also from gender or sexual conflicts. This work thematically outlines the further evolution of women's literature from the late Victorian period through contemporary times by arguing that the tenets of literary modernism were designed to advance patriarchal attitudes in reaction to increasing numbers of published female authors in the early part of the twentieth century. Comprised of volumes titled The War of the Words (1988), Sexchanges (1989), and Letters from the Front (1994), this series addresses such themes as the violence against women's efforts to subvert patriarchal culture, the influence of imperialism, the suffrage movement, and the significance of the shift in feminist literary techniques between the 1930s and 1990s. Racechanges, Gubar's first book-length solo work, examines the importance of cross-cultural identification between whites and blacks in matters of authorship and creativity, adapting techniques that explore the influence of gender in literary arts to racial dimensions of writing. A reflection of as much as an assessment of the contemporary status of feminist literary thought, the essays collected in Critical Conditions concern a range of conflicts and divisions spawned by the academic discipline of feminist studies itself, from its infancy in the early 1980s through the next generation.

Critical Reception

When The Madwoman in the Attic appeared in 1979, the field of feminist studies as an academic discipline was yet to be recognized in the American university curriculum. Many critics concede that Gubar and Gilbert's pioneering work of literary criticism has not only contributed to that discipline but has also spurred the establishment of and defined the parameters for feminist scholarship as a viable academic pursuit in the United States. Hailed as a breakthrough in literary studies, The Madwoman in the Attic is widely regarded as a touchstone in the study of the female literary imagination. Some critics, however, have qualified their praise for The Madwoman in the Attic. A few have objected to many of its assertions, claiming that they are premised upon reductive, distorted, anachronistic, or ideologically-driven readings of certain texts; others have detected a specifically white, middle-class, heterosexual bias throughout the work. Similarly, some critics have faulted Gubar and Gilbert's work in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women for a perceptible preference for modern and contemporary writers. Others have suggested that the pair bent their scholarship to political ends and that they chose works fitting their theories rather than the best works representing particular authors. Although minority groups are well represented in the volume, some critics complained that the collection's scarcity of pre-eighteenth-century writers tends to emphasize the accomplishments of professional authors at the expense of other forms of female literary expression, such as letters and diaries. However, most scholars have applauded Gubar and Gilbert's efforts in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, widely referring to the collection as a gauge for evaluating women writers's literary achievements within a written tradition, but also citing it as evidence of an earlier literary feminism. A majority of literary scholars have agreed that Gubar and Gilbert's body of criticism has cast a new light on literature by showing thematic and stylistic affinities between the works of female writers from similar and dissimilar cultures and eras. Likewise, many feminist critics have credited the pair with inspiring the proliferation of feminist scholarship—both pro and con—during the closing decades of the twentieth century, particularly owing to Gubar and Gilbert's insistence that women's writings constitute a distinct tradition that traces a matrilineal evolution of language at odds with a dominant patriarchal culture. Since the publication of The War of Words, however, critics have become more and more stringent in their assessments of Gubar's collaborations with Gilbert.