Elaine Showalter, professor emeritus of English at Princeton University, is a pioneer of women’s studies and feminist literary criticism. Her new book is A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf; $30). Focusing on published works, not diaries or private letters, it’s the first literary history of American female authors. –Christine Smallwood
What were the biggest surprises you found while researching?
The most important thing for me, and this was a motive for the book, is how good the writing is. I found so much amazing material. This is not about special pleading or making a case for women writers as culturally significant. This is great writing! The second thing was various historical moments that emerged as very significant for women’s writing. The Revolutionary War was a tremendous impetus. It’s quite astonishing how many books by American women have scenes on July 4, what a key moment it is for them in terms of self-definition.
Were there particular periods of note?
The 1850s, which has always been seen as the moment when American literature comes into its own, but in male terms–the decade of Hawthorne, Whitman, Emerson and Melville. It’s a decade in which women writers emerge in every genre; you see African-American women writers appearing. Specific dates within the 1850s are important–the trial and the execution of John Brown, the founding of The Atlantic Monthly in 1857, which established a division between popular and elite literature. It wasn’t that women weren’t published in The Atlantic Monthly–they were. But it was the beginning of a quite prolonged period in which elite publications were controlled by male editors and women were struggling to be accepted by them, and very much internalizing and even fantasizing about their standards. And when you get to the twentieth century, there’s a long period where it’s Partisan Review for intellectuals and then, of course, The New Yorker, which continues to occupy that place. And it’s funny because you read in women’s private diaries, they have dreams about these magazines. Sylvia Plath had a dream one night that she was in bed with Partisan Review. But that division between elite and popular literature was very damaging for women in terms of their reputation and their place in American literary history.
This is a long book. Do you expect people to read it from beginning to end, or to dip in and out?
People can decide for themselves. I hope that some people will use it as a reference book and that they’ll take off from it, but there is a story here, a beginning and a middle and an end. The lives of the women themselves are so fascinating, like Julia Ward Howe. She wrote "Battle Hymn of the Republic"; that’s what everyone knows. But she was an amazing poet. She published her first book of poems in 1853, anonymously. It was called Passion-Flowers, and a lot of it was about her marriage, which was not happy. When the book came out it was a huge success–Hawthorne said he esteemed Howe above all other women poets. Everybody knew who she was because it was a pretty small scene. It was a huge scandal, and then her husband found out–she had not shown it to him–and he threatened to divorce her and take custody of their children if she ever wrote anything like that again. She did write a lot, but she never wrote poems like that again. She also was writing a novel, which she never even tried to publish, which was about a hermaphrodite named Larry.
What’s the state of academic feminist literary criticism?
The achievements have been formidable internationally, and one of the effects was, in comparison to the research that I did on British women writers back in the 1970s, doing the research on American women writers was a lot easier. So much more is in print. So much is catalogued. So much has been edited. And there is the miracle of the Internet. Astonishing quantities of literature have been digitized, and I was able to do so much of my research sitting at my desk. On the other hand, ideologically, I think we have really come to a kind of impasse. Things had become so fragmented and so politicized in terms of the need to represent every element–the diversity was really the dominant value, rather than quality. I think diversity and quality can coexist. I said, OK, this is my view, these are my judgments; here they are, you can argue with them. But I think it’s important to start from a place where you can argue. Literature isn’t about complacency and agreement. What keeps a writer readable is being open to these kinds of debates about their value as well as their content.
You’re a popular critic too. Any thoughts about book reviewing?
I’m very, very sad about the closing of the Washington Post Book World and the redistribution of it, should we say, online. I spend almost half the year in London, where this hasn’t happened to such a degree. All the daily newspapers have book reviews several times a week. And on Saturday there’s the Guardian Review, which I think is the greatest stand-alone book review in the world. There’s the TLS, the London Review of Books, magazines, radio programs, even TV programs where books are still so much at the center of culture and so much a part of people’s conversation. I don’t understand why we can’t do that in the United States. It’s partly, obviously, an economic problem. I also think that book reviewing in London is more entrepreneurial and creative than it’s been here. The inventiveness and humor and wit of something like the Guardian Review could really make a difference to book reviewing here, which is still a pretty serious–let’s abandon all jokes, ye who enter here–straightforward and kind of elitist occupation. British reviewing: there are so many reviews of any given book that no one cares if the reviewer knows the person, is a former lover, a former enemy. Literary culture feeds literature. The disappearance of reviewing here is a very ominous note about what’s going to happen in the culture.