Thursday, March 5, 2009

Female Scribblers

Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers, according to one review, points out that 19th century Great Britain produced several literary titans with two X chromosomes--Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and then Virginia Woolf later on--while the United States during the same period produced, well, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Why? Apparently Showalter suggests that even poor British women had servants, while their American counterparts kept house. But it would seem that children above all may have barred the way to literary greatness.

The Library of America series may serve as a rough guide to canonical status, and only seven women have volumes devoted to them: Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O'Connor (who is the subject of a new and reportedly excellent biography), and Katherine Anne Porter. With the exception of Stowe, who amazingly bore seven children, none of these women ever answered to "Mommy." (Emily Dickinson, who obviously warrants a volume but doesn't have one yet--some copyright issue I guess--obviously wasn't a mother either).

Uncle Tom's Cabin is among my sheepishly as yet unread classics. Stein I have never yet been able to stomach (the emperor's clothes problem for me). Cather, Wharton, and Porter I find very good indeed, but probably only O'Connor would I consider absolutely essential, if only because she is sui generis.

Jewett (1849-1909) I had never read until recently, and given her general obscurity since her death a century ago one wonders whether her Library of America status may be owing to a bit of feminist affirmative action. The daughter of a successful country doctor, and granted independence by family wealth, she was much acclaimed in her lifetime and traveled widely in literary circles. In an interesting parallel with O'Connor's lupus, she struggled with rheumatoid arthritis for much of her life.

The text of Jewett's striking story "A White Heron" is here, and I also read her short novel The Country of the Pointed Firs, a local color affair based on the Maine coast and featuring eccentric but tough farm women and old salt-of-the-earth sailors. Not much happens, but the characters, relationships, and above all the sense of place are conveyed quietly but powerfully--perhaps a kind of premodern Virginia Woolf.


Anonymous said...

Emily Dickinson doesn't rate a mention? Admittedly she was a poet and not a novelist but she was still a literary titan in her own right.

Retriever said...

How about Anne Bradstreet. She had at least a dozen kids, adored her husband, was a devout Christian, and was a better poet than most....Of course it helps with the chores to have those older ones watching the littler ones while one writes. But poignant observations as she writes in the middle of the night (when most moms who aren't rich write anyway). Can't find links, back to work.

Novalis said...

Emily I mentioned of course (like I said, not sure why she hasn't rated a LOA volume).

I should read Anne Bradstreet, although after Shakespeare and Milton my enjoyment of 17th century poetry drops off sharply (probably sexist I know).

I didn't mention Plath, whose two kids were infamously sleeping upstairs I think at the time of her sad demise, but that tale may support the theory of a definite tension at least between motherhood and women writing.

Then there is the little known country of men writing and fending off the kids while Mom is off at work...

Retriever said...

Poor Plath. Love her. But feel sorry for her kids. Not her husband. Have to write about this in my own backyard tonight, but thinking now about Zelda F.,writers married to writers and the symbiosis between them (Sartre, De Beauvoir, tho unmarried, an e.g. of an intellectually fruitful rel). Also my mom (mad but published to modest acclaim) and themes of the good mommy vs the bad mommy (Plath a bad one for killing herself while responsible for kids) and the preponderance of good female writers who never become mommies at all. Also the dreadful dilettantish mommy who fancies herself a writer and uses it as the excuse to avoid getting a paying job (common where I live--I head for the hills when introduced to a mommy who airily announces that she is writing an erotic ovel. GaAAAH). Think of your poor kids, woman, how will they ever get thru high school with wits reading aloud to cackles from your mama's turgid prose.

Anonymous said...

The choice between art and children is an indelicate choice that cuts deeply. Some women make a hash of both; others make an art of both. But for some, to not choose is to internally bleed to death.

A female artist once said that if she had to choose between her art (not writing, painting) and her children she'd sacrifice her children. By implication, does that mean children are replaceable/disposable and art isn't? Or that art is akin to progeny, and is therefore the more economical choice in terms of creative energy use? - killing 2 birds with one stone? Or the necessary dichotomy of creative drives is unfairly weighted and not an issue of contention in some female brains, but a predetermined compulsion?