Susan David Gubar (GEW-bar) was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1944. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in English literature from City University of New York in 1965. In 1968 she completed her M.A. at the University of Michigan and in 1972 received her Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. Following a year of teaching at the University of Chicago, Gubar joined the faculty at Indiana University in 1973, where she became a distinguished professor of English and women’s studies.
Gubar’s distinctive approach to feminist literary analysis has been classified by many scholars as woman-centered. Other feminist scholars whose works are considered in this category include Sandra Gilbert, Luce Irigaray, Kate Millett, Adrienne Rich, and Elaine Showalter. The term “woman-centered” refers to critical approaches that focus on women’s lives, suggesting that though often neglected in literature and academics, their experiences merit publication, readership, and serious study. The impact of gender on the literary form is central to woman-centered studies, often focusing on the need for authentic forms of expression for women’s voices and the quest for a woman’s language.
In 1979 Susan Gubar and her colleague Sandra Gilbert saw the publication of the first of their many jointly written works of literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic. Recognized as a landmark work of feminist literary theory, their work was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Their study focused on texts written by nineteenth century British and American women novelists and poets, including Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson. The book grew out of a women’s literature course the two friends team-taught at Indiana University in the early 1970’s. Their hope was to recover and delineate a female literary tradition and aesthetic. What they found instead were concerns about the representation of women in fiction and the precarious role of women writers. Women, they concluded, have been either falsely voiced or silenced in fiction written by men about women, and, furthermore, women have, at times, been misrepresented in fiction composed by women (who, in a sense, collaborate with the men, their literary models when no women models are available). The double bind for women writers in the nineteenth century, Gubar and Gilbert contended, is that they inherited the male model of writing with its inherent rules of patriarchy, including prescribed places and roles for women, even as they wrote to escape its boundaries.
Gubar and Gilbert’s trilogy, No Man’s Land, is a feminist reassessment of a century of literary history in which the main struggles have been primarily played out between the sexes. No Man’s Land provides a follow-up to The Madwoman in the Attic and extends their earlier focus on women writers to include more diversity in terms of race and ethnicity. The team also coedited a collection of poems that pay tribute to mothers (with Diana O’Hehir in 1995), titled Mothersongs, and wrote a satiric exposé of the melding of critical and popular cultures: Masterpiece Theatre: An Academic Melodrama.
As coeditors of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, Gubar and Gilbert were the first women to compile in one volume significant works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and drama written exclusively by women. A required text in women’s literature courses at numerous universities throughout the country, the groundbreaking anthology is not without its feminist critics. They wonder if the same prejudicial criteria once used to exclude women from literary anthologies populated overwhelmingly by male authors were not being recreated (albeit in the service of women writers). For some, the very notion of a canon is linked to patriarchal ideals of hierarchy. A more laudatory appraisal was extolled by Ms. magazine, which named both Gilbert and Gubar Ms. Woman of the Year in 1985 for their anthology.
Gubar has composed two significant solo scholarly works, Racechanges and Critical Condition. Racechanges is an examination of cross-racial art that seeks to illuminate the issues that still divide people along the color line. Gubar assesses artistic performances and social situations in which one race masquerades as another. These may occur on stage (as in the donning of blackface by white performers) or in fiction (when an author writes from the perspective of another race). Mimicry, Gubar admits, can be a form of racial mockery but one that might also mask a certain envy. Critical Condition assesses the state of feminist scholarship on the cusp of the twenty-first century. In response to critical intimations that feminism is passé, the author calls for its reinvention. Gubar has received awards from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation in support and recognition of her work. As a Laurence S. Rockefeller Fellow, she spent a year at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values researching and writing Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew, which was published in 2003.
Auerbach, Nina. Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Auerbach’s study of women in nineteenth century literature is similar in scope and perspective to Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic. Representations of women in fiction are viewed as reflections of their place in the patriarchal social order.
Cain, William E., ed. Making Feminist History: The Literary Scholarship of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New York: Garland, 1994.
Eagleton, Mary, ed. Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1996. A number of essays included in Eagleton’s anthology examine The Madwoman in the Attic in the context of matriarchal reading and writing. Other essays substantiate the groundbreaking importance of their work in both literary and women’s studies and support Gilbert and Gubar’s position as theorists of note in an expanding matrix of feminist critics.
Jacobus, Mary. Review of The Madwoman in the Attic, by Susan D. Gubar and Sandra Gilbert. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 6, no. 3 (1981). Rejects the idea that women authors are, by their very gender, more able to authentically portray the experiences of women in fiction than are their male counterparts. Jacobus contends that nineteenth century women writers would have been heavily influenced by the patriarchal order of their time and that their fictional portrayals of women would reinforce, rather than subvert, such an order.
Moi, Torrill. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1985. Praises The Madwoman in the Attic for being a work of theoretically relevant feminist criticism but questions whether female characters and their authors should be identified as each other’s doubles.